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.