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The Dancer’s Guide to Cuba
The state of dance in an evolving country
The state-funded Danza Contemporánea de Cuba is increasingly inviting foreign dancemakers. All photos by Quinn Wharton.
Dance is central to the cultural life of Cuba, a country of balletomanes and social dancers, innovators and classicists. For two decades, I’ve been one of very few choreographers from the United States to work with Cuban companies, including the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. But at this exciting moment in U.S.–Cuba relations, it’s getting easier—though not easy—to travel between the two countries. Dance is exploding across the island and more dancers and choreographers are embracing international collaborations. While I was there this spring, I witnessed a huge upswing in international students, and an electric energy charging the arts. What can you expect if you make the trip?
Most of Cuba’s major arts academies—including the National School of Art, the university-level Superior Institute of Art, ProDanza Ballet Academy and the famous National Ballet School (Escuela Nacional de Ballet de Cuba)—offer intensive workshops for foreigners. As travel restrictions ease, more American dancers are able to take advantage of these opportunities.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba
Havana’s Gran Teatro was recently renamed the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso after BNC’s indomitable founder. However, Señora Alonso’s celebrated, state-subsidized company is in need of strong leadership to go forward with a vision as grand as that of the prima ballerina (now 94) who is still at its head. Home of exquisite classicists and technical wonders, such as the incomparable Viengsay Valdés, BNC has recently lost several excellent dancers to Carlos Acosta’s new company.
Carlos Acosta’s fledgling project, Acosta Danza, is housed in a well-appointed Havana storefront where avid fans watch rehearsals from the street. He has hired both former BNC and Danza Contemporánea artists to create a company of more than 20 exquisite Cuban dancers, performing a mix of contemporary and classical ballets. So far, the repertoire includes Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun, contemporary Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero’s Alrededor No Hay Nada, Acosta’s own Carmen, as well as excerpts from ballets like Swan Lake and La Sylphide.
Major Contemporary Collaborations
The state-subsidized Danza Contemporánea de Cuba is widening its repertoire by inviting foreign dancemakers like Israeli Itzik Galili, Colombian-Belgian Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela, while also nurturing homegrown choreographers. Meanwhile, Ronald K. Brown has championed Osnel Delgado’s Malpaso, which now regularly tours the U.S. featuring works by Delgado, Brown and Trey McIntyre.
Osnel Delgado (right) collaborating with American dancer Jordan Reinwald
Some Havana Hotspots
Centro de Danza de la Habana: This dilapidated building is home to several prominent companies, including the theatrical Danza Combinatoria and the ever avant-garde DanzAbierta, currently directed by Spaniard Susana Pous.
Although Cuba still struggles with economic challenges, it remains rich in dance.
Danza-Teatro Retazos: Isabel Bustos’ renowned contemporary troupe enlivens Old Havana with dances spilling out into the street.
Compañía de la Danza Narciso Medina: Located in the crumbling Favorito Theater (next to a cigar factory), this company and
school are planning to transition into a center for choreographic development.
Escuela Nacional de Ballet de Cuba: Freshly painted and bursting with young talent, the school needs new windows, pianos and musical equipment. But that is no deterrent to thousands of children who audition every year, or to the few eager foreigners allowed to join their rarefied ranks.
Cubans have recently been celebrating their Spanish roots by presenting more flamenco. Rhythmic intensity drives the powerful unison work of Lizt Alfonso, the fusion styles of Eduardo Veitía and Irene Rodríguez Compañía, and the flamenco puro of Compañía Flamenca ECOS. Enrique Iglesias’ 2014 hit video “Bailando” features flamenco dancers from Lizt Alfonso.
Myriad smaller groups across the island fill all 15 provinces with dance. For example, Camagüey in central Cuba, the longtime home of the esteemed Ballet de Camagüey, also houses the adventurous Ballet Contemporáneo Endedans. In a move symbolic of the loosening of diplomatic restrictions, Cuban-American choreographer Pedro Ruiz was named associate artistic director of Endedans in 2015. Professional flamenco, salsa, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop dancers also grace the stages of this midsized metropolis.
On the eastern end of the island, Santiago de Cuba boasts a rich tradition of mixing African, Cuban, Spanish, French Haitian, carnival, cabaret, social and theatrical dance forms. In a country of dancers, Santiago holds special pride of place for its intricate Afro-Cuban dance culture.
Danza Contemporánea de Cuba
Ongoing festivals showcase Cuba’s commitment to innovation in dance. Havana boasts the Días de la Danza, Habana Vieja: Ciudad en Movimiento, and International Ballet Festivals, all of which include foreign dance artists. Cuba’s city by the bay, Matanzas, hosts a biannual duet festival called Danzandos, highlighting the confident creativity of Cuba’s well-trained and passionate dancemakers—Esteban Aguilar, from the dance-centric city of Guantánamo, swept the last Danzandos festival, winning performance and choreographic awards with his witty brand of daring physical theater.
Suki John, associate professor of dance at Texas Christian University, is the founder of CubanArtsMatch.com and choreographer of Havana Love Letters.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.