Cuban city of Camaguey offers culture, passion and beauty

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A report by Kim Honey for Toronto’s Star.

The island’s third-largest city is home to a spectacular ballet theatre, an eclectic music scene and multiple UNESCO world heritage sites.

The dancers are covered in a sheen of sweat as commands fly from the balcony of the storied Teatro Principal. “Maria, you have to keep your arm lower,” barks Aurora Bosch, a former prima ballerina with the Cuban National Ballet. “Baja, baja, baja.”

The members of the Camaguey Ballet tremble from the exertion of holding poses as the guest critic makes minute adjustments to tilted heads, fluttering arms, and elongated feet in handmade pointe shoes. It is at least 30 C outside the three-storey, neoclassical-style theatre, and it is not much cooler inside.

Bosch has been invited to critique rehearsals of the ballet’s 50th anniversary program, which includes this dance choreographed to “Cabalgando con Fidel” (Riding by Horse with Fidel), a song released upon Castro’s death in 2016 at the age of 90. As the two principal dancers leave the stage, the ballerina cracks open a fan and waves it furiously at her face.

The building and the ballet are two of Camaguey’s most treasured cultural institutions, although the city has spawned both art and architectural wonders since it was one of seven villages founded by Spanish colonists in 1514. Indeed, its historic centre of labyrinthine streets and narrow alleys linked to small and large squares was recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2008.

The original wooden Teatro Principal opened in 1850, was converted to barracks to house Spanish soldiers during the wars of independence in the late 1800s, and rebuilt in 1926 after a fire. For years, it was used as a cinema, where the first talking movie was screened. post-Revolution, it was reclaimed for dance, theatre, and opera as part of the government’s commitment to develop Cuban culture.

Camaguey native Norma Barreras Abreu was 8 when she was cast as the black swan in a ballet school production of Swan Lake. Though Barreras, now 73, says she didn’t have a ballerina’s long legs, she had grace, which she conveys with a graceful sweep of her arm.

Camaguey artist Joel Jover's Christopher Columbus Returns features an Indigenous person offering a watermelon painted red, white and blue, the colours of the Cuban flag.
Camaguey artist Joel Jover’s Christopher Columbus Returns features an Indigenous person offering a watermelon painted red, white and blue, the colours of the Cuban flag.  

 

She recalls the year after Castro’s 26th of July Movement toppled the government of president Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and moneyed Cubans fled. The ballet school closed and she was the only pupil left in Camaguey. Without a piano, her teacher kept time by tapping a yardstick on the floor. Barreras went on to dance with the Cuban National Ballet in Havana, while her teacher, Vicentina de la Torre, founded the Camaguey Ballet in 1967.

Barerras, who was invited to Camaguey to watch rehearsals and attend the opening night, is a witness to the rise of Cuban ballet, a distinctive style of dance developed by U.S.-trained dancers Alicia and Fernando Alonso that has been described as Russian technique imbued with Latin feeling.

“Russian people are stronger and more serious. We are more passionate,” Barreras says in an interview. “The Americans are more playful. (Cuban ballet) is a mix.”

The Camaguey Ballet made its debut at the Teatro Principal in 1967 with a program that included Les SylphidesLa Fille Mal Gardée, and the pas de trois of the first act of Swan Lake, all of which were performed at the December anniversary.

Visitors to this historic city, the third largest in Cuba, can stop by the theatre, and if they’re lucky, catch a rehearsal or a show, although the ballet travels much of the year and performs in Camaguey just one weekend a month.

While the strains of classical music often spill out from the theatre, a more contemporary beat permeates the city, whether it is the poetic ballads of a trova house, the big, brassy sound of son Cubano music, the energetic drums that characterize the Santerian wemilere bands or, at Bar Yesterday, a Beatles tribute band that often takes the stage in the back garden.

Beloved in Cuba, where you are often serenaded by instrumental versions of the band’s greatest hits, the Beatles are also referenced in Joel Jover’s studio on San Juan de Dios square. There, the contemporary painter and poet manoeuvres between canvases stacked against the walls, which are covered with his musings. “Every man has his Yoko,” says one, and underneath it his wife has scrawled, “and I have a Yoko with four paws,” a joke referring to Jover’s dog.

But it is the American vocal group The Platters that has inspired many of Jover’s works, specifically the song “The Great Pretender,” which spoke to him about the duplicitous nature of the world.

In Jover’s hands, the great pretender is a stylized profile of a face, often with a jagged, red arrow coming out of its mouth. It is painted into cityscapes of London, Venice, and even Toronto, and in a canvas called Hamlet, a figure “has no face, only (two) masks, where he is thinking about one thing and saying another,” he explains. “That’s why Cuba is on one side and the U.S. is on the other, and the man is balanced on a tightrope.”

Working in oil, oil pastels and using collage techniques, Jover has paintings in galleries In New York, Vienna, and Spain, and a representative in California. He spent five years in Palma, Mallorca, but Jover, 64, says Cuba “is where I feel I can paint.”

The Caribbean island is also the muse for another important Camagueyan artist, Martha Jimenez, whose studio and workshop is a 10-minute walk away in Plaza del Carmen. Just outside the door is a bronze statue of a man pushing a cart piled with tinajons, the distinctive red clay jars that are the calling card of Camaguey. The inscription, roughly translated from Spanish, reads: “If you drink water from a tinajon, Camaguey stays with you.”

The vessels, once ubiquitous in this town, are a thing of the past, although Jimenez keeps one relic in the back garden of the workshop next to some caged birds.

The square is also home to several other bronzes, including a man on a bench reading a newspaper, and three women seated in chairs, deep in gossip. This grouping of sculptures has been recognized by UNESCO for its contribution to Cuban national culture.

The woman’s role in a macho society is a constant theme in Jimenez’s work. She is at work on a series she calls The Woman with the House on her back, explaining that though a man who is a tailor is a professional who gets paid for his sewing, a woman doing similar work at home is an unsung labourer. The same goes for an artist of her stature.

“We can have everything,” says the 64-year-old Camagueyan. “Women can be on top of their art, but they also have the house on the back.”

Jimenez stops short of saying she is making a feminist statement, although she concedes she is making the same point over and over again. “Insisting and insisting is the more important way to obtain something,” she says with a smile, as a group of tourists jockey for the best position to snap a portrait of the artist as an older, stronger, wiser woman.

 

Norma Barreras Abreu, 73, a ballet dancer who trained in Camaguey, spent most of her career with the National Ballet in Havana where she danced roles like Giselle's mother (in cap and apron).
Norma Barreras Abreu, 73, a ballet dancer who trained in Camaguey, spent most of her career with the National Ballet in Havana where she danced roles like Giselle’s mother (in cap and apron).   (NORMA BARRERAS ABREU)  

 

Get there: I flew Sunwing direct from Toronto to Cayo Coco, and drove three hours to Camaguey, though Camaguey’s international airport is closest. WestJet, Air Canada, and Cubana de Aviacion airlines all fly to various airports in Cuba.

Get around: You can buy tours with your vacation company on the plane or most hotels, which include a driver and English-speaking guide. There are many taxis for hire, including lovingly maintained big American cars from the ’50s and ’60s, and renting a car is possible, though some rural roads are in rough shape, and highways nears towns and cities are clogged with horses and carts, bicycles, and motorcycles.

Stay: I stayed at the no frills but comfortable (and air-conditioned) Hotel Santa Maria in Camaguey, the Melia Santiago de Cuba (with pool), and the super deluxe premium section of the Playa Pesquero resort near Holguin, which came with an outdoor shower and a butler.

Know: You can only buy Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) in Cuba. Get them at the airport and foreign exchange shops. Wi-Fi is limited to public squares and some hotel lobbies. Buy a 60-minute Wi-Fi card for 2 CUC (about $2.75 Canadian) at the airport or your hotel. North American plugs don’t work in all hotels, so bring an adapter for the European 220-volt system.

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