This article by Joan Acocella appeared in The New Yorker.
What effect will Obama’s easing of trade and travel between the United States and Cuba have on the island’s most important artistic exports, music and dance? Plenty, no doubt, and soon. After the 1959 Revolution, Cuban dance, like other Cuban arts, got fed into a Soviet-style propaganda machine. The dance anthropologist Yvonne Daniel, in her 1995 book “Rumba,” describes what happened to rumba, for example. Before the Revolution, this social dance, often cheerfully dirty, was something that poorer people did in the street on Saturday night. But once Castro came to power, rumba was made the property of designated “folkloric” troupes, where it was supplied with fixed choreography and set to new lyrics, frequently of a patriotic cast. Daniels quotes one sample: “I love Cuba and I die for my flag…. Havana is the leader as the blessed Capital. There you can find everything you need, from a fine, hot flirtatious babe who can turn you on, to the highest authority in the country.”
Furthermore, the dance party got moved from the evening to the afternoon, before anyone could get properly drunk. Rumba thereby lost much of its popularity with Cubans, especially the poor and the dark-skinned (highly overlapping groups), to whom the government’s choice of rumba as the national dance was supposed to pay tribute. Those people stayed home and played cards, or whatever. The spectators at the government’s “Rumba Saturdays” were mainly white tourists, together with bureaucrats who had to attend for some official season but snuck away as soon as they could. Such Potemkin-village folk dances are likely to be casualties of any cultural opening-out, or even just of time and TV. In the words of Eduardo Vilaro, the Cuban-born artistic director of New York’s Ballet Hispanico, “The younger Cubans are removing themselves from all that. They’re saying there’s something else out there.”
Among the things out there is a larger dance repertory. Repertory is a special problem for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, an organization that was founded by the celebrated ballerina Alicia Alonso and her first husband, Fernando, in 1948, and was then declared the state ballet company, generously funded, by Fidel Castro when Alonso lent her support to his revolution. Thereafter, ballet became immensely popular in Cuba. This seems strange on the face of it. What could “Swan Lake” have in common with Che Guevara? But as the Soviet Union had shown, classical dance, if pumped up with a lot of emotionalism and high lifts, could be a good servant of socialism. So it was in Cuba. The U.S.S.R. sent teachers to Havana. People often say that the Cuban company is a fusion of Russian technique, Spanish soul, and Afro-Caribbean pizzazz.
Meanwhile, though, the repertory remained steadfastly conservative, because Alicia Alonso remained the artistic director. Not only is she now ninety-four years old, with the tastes of a person that age, but she is blind—her sight was failing already when she was in her twenties—so that even if she had cared to take an interest in modern ballet she couldn’t have. She couldn’t see it. The last time the Ballet Nacional came to New York, in 2011, it presented one program, a “highlights” show consisting almost entirely of excerpts from nineteenth-century ballets: “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” and “Don Quixote.”
Faced with the prospect of doing this type of thing for the rest of their performing lives, a number of Cuban dancers have left their country. To a few, Alonso has given her blessing. José Manuel Carreño, a virtuoso and a great hunk of male beauty, went off to become a principal dancer at English National Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and finally American Ballet Theatre. More important historically is Carlos Acosta. “I’m the only black guy at this level,” he has said. That is true, and it means that there is now one real international superstar who can serve as a role model for black children who would like to go to ballet school. Acosta, too, became a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet.
Such favors did not go unreturned, however. (In 2005, Erika Kinetz, in the Times, reported that Acosta gave the Ballet Nacional a portion of his earnings, returned regularly to perform in Cuba, and sent videos of his non-Cuban performances to be broadcast on Cuban TV.) They were also very rare. A number of young stars coming up in the past ten or fifteen years have been denied permission to accept contracts elsewhere. The Cuban government’s reasoning, presumably, is that it gave these people their education for free and is owed something in return—a common argument in totalitarian countries, and one that you can sort of understand. The problem is that the government then has to erect a very high wall to prevent its beneficiaries from finding out that there are many attractive things to be had beyond its borders. A ballet company, in order to become and remain top-rank, must tour, and on tour the dancers are likely to see Prada handbags and William Forsythe ballets. But you didn’t have to be a ballet dancer, or a star, in order to defect. In 2004, forty-three members of a show called “Havana Night Club,” arriving to perform in Las Vegas, requested asylum en masse. Alicia Alonso sometimes expresses regret over the attrition rate at the Ballet Nacional. “What other company can give them more art, more beauty, more love?” as she put it once. But at other times she apparently doesn’t want to talk about it. Once, when an interviewer raised the subject, she answered, memorably, “Okay. Thank you. I think I have a phone call.”
This can’t last. With the reduction in foreign subsidies and the increase in actual trade, Cuba is going to change. As that happens, along with a few other things (Alonso cannot go on forever; when I last saw her, four years ago, she could not walk unaided and repeatedly lost track of what she was talking about), Cuban dance is going to become something different. It is likely that things will start stirring not at the most privileged level, ballet, or at the humblest, such as Rumba Saturdays, but in the middle, in modern dance. Cuba has one fairly old, fairly large modern-dance company, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, founded in 1959, the year of the Revolution, and numbering thirty-odd dancers. Though state-supported, it has always been a kind of stepchild. Modernism was apparently not to Castro’s taste any more than it was to Stalin’s. The company did succeed in producing some contemporary-looking dance works and also in importing some work from up-to-date Europeans, but it did not generate much excitement or even much real modernism, in the sense of serious tinkering with classical conventions.
The field is expanding, however. As part of Raúl Castro’s economic reforms, more Cubans are now allowed to own small businesses, such as taxi coöperatives, street-food stands—and dance companies. Modest-sized troupes—with ten dancers, say—are proliferating. New Yorkers saw one last week at the Joyce: Malpaso, three years old, with two former members of Danza Contemporánea, Osnel Delgado and Daile Carranza, as its artistic directors. Alas, the sight was a little depressing. There was one strong piece, “Under Fire,” but it was by an American, Trey McIntyre. The other offering, the Cuban one, “Despedida” (“Farewell”), was enlivened by Arturo O’Farrill’s eight-member Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, but even O’Farrill’s bongos and brass could not prevent you from noticing that this piece epitomized the old idea of modern dance as energized anguish. There were nine dancers, on the floor much of the time. When they got up, they moved in and out, often as couples into which the lead dancer, Osnel Delgado (he was also the choreographer), tried in vain to insert himself. After about twenty minutes of this, he ended up back on the floor, alone and very unhappy, and you felt like running out to see somebody do the cha-cha.
In fact, New Yorkers did get to see a good cha-cha, shortly before, when another independent Cuban company, Ballet Rakatan, came to City Center for a week. Their show, “Havana Rakatan,” like many other productions based on popular dance (tango evenings, Moiseyev) is essentially a revue. It charts the development of Cuban dance from the encounter of the Spanish islanders with the African slaves (woman in ruffled gown meets man with bongos) down to today’s salsa, with, in between, mambo, bolero, rumba, cha-cha, and a lot more. Nilda Guerra, the company’s founder, director, and choreographer, has said that when she started out she made abstract modern dance. But then representatives of the government came to her and asked her to do something more Cuban, less “contemporary”—that way, they told her, she could get more touring dates—and she said to herself, “Okay. I can do that.”
This, by rights, should be a sad story: bold young experimentalist caves in to government demands for nationalist art. Guerra says that she wanted to avoid clichés, but her pieces, like almost all popular Cuban dance, have to do with either combat, celebration, or, above all, seduction, and are set to the justly famous but also standard rhythms of Cuban dance music. Are these clichés? If so, bring them on! Likewise the tone, which is one of unforced happiness. Touchingly, Guerra told Laura Barnett, of the Guardian, that her show was about what Cubans really are: “It reflects the way that, however little we have, we have always managed to enjoy ourselves.”
Probably the most important cause and result of the happiness is the company’s sheer skill. Rarely will you see such dancers—the speed, the phrasing, the pelvic freedom, the sexiness without luridness. And, oh, the rhythmic certainty, as if they had been born doing these steps. A lot of them think they were—that Cubans have dance in their DNA. Guerra agrees: “You can find anyone in the street here in Havana who can dance as well as most professionals,” she told the Guardian. That may or may not be true. (It should be noted that Cubans actively recruit children for their national dance school. They go to orphanages, to soccer games.) In Malpaso and the Ballet Nacional, especially within the men’s ranks, the performance level is likewise staggeringly high. That in itself must be a form of happiness. Even if Osnel Delgado never gets a girlfriend, and even if Cuban dance never gets a modernism, the people manage to enjoy themselves.
For the original report go to http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/growing-pains-in-cuban-dance