Xin Ying on Speaking the Universal Language of Graham in Cuba

November 6, 2016

Last week, the Martha Graham Dance Company—along with a handful of other American and international companies—traveled to Havana, Cuba, to perform at the 25th Havana International Ballet Festival. Two Martha Graham Dance Company members—soloist Charlotte Landreau and principal Xin Ying—documented their experiences for
Dance Magazine. Read Ying’s blog below, and Landreau’s blog here.

Ying in Havana. Photo by Eric Politzer.


When we received the news that the Martha Graham Dance Company would travel to Havana for the 25th annual International Ballet Festival, everyone was beyond excited. Not just because most dancers have never been to Cuba. But because the company hadn’t returned to Cuba since Graham made her debut there nearly 75 years ago.

For most people, Cuba is like a treasure box from the deep sea. There’s a split second, just after you open it, when you can almost smell the past in the air. We arrived in Havana in that split second. Havana is still frozen in time. Like you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a movie set. Colorful vintage cars. Faded, pastel buildings with incredible architectural details that tell stories of its rich history. Silky clouds gently cover the sun like a shining pearl hanging over the ocean. As the first modern dance company invited by the American embassy, we arrived in Cuba to exchange our culture and talents. In addition to performances, we held open rehearsals, taught master classes to our Cuban peers and visited a local university.

Ying with Malpaso Dance Company

I had the honor to teach a master class for the amazing Malpaso Dance Company. I started my dance career as a teacher in China but I’ve never taught a class to Spanish speakers, so I was bit nervous about the language barrier. Each of the dancers in my class was remarkably strong and beautiful. They had all experienced Graham before and were familiar with the technique. Like many places around the world, the technique has been brought to the country by previous generations of Graham dancers. Martha has had a big influence on the modern and contemporary dance scene in Cuba. They’ve combined Graham and other modern techniques with Cuban and African influences to create their own unique style. It’s mind opening to see how dance emerges so organically, uninhibited by cultural differences. (I highly recommend checking out one of Malpaso Dance Company’s U.S. tour dates in spring 2017.)

Although I never met Martha in person, I felt so proud to be a small part of her legacy on that day. After the class, a few of the dancers told me how much Martha Graham meant to them. My initial worries about the language barrier were for nothing. That day, we all spoke Graham. Internet access is still limited in Cuba and the chance to unplug was a gift to us all. After work, we were able to put our phones down and fully enjoy each other’s company in the warm breeze with few cold mojitos to fuel our conversation.

Old Havana

One thing we all agreed on is that the people of Cuba have a great appreciation for dance. After each performance, we received a full-house standing ovation and countless bouquets of beautiful flowers. Photos of dancers adorn the walls of the local bars and restaurants. The local artists sell paintings of dancers in the markets. Dance is everywhere. It is in their blood. It is a source of national pride.

At the end of our trip, we visited The University of Arts of Cuba, a prestigious art school which boasts an amazing campus – considered to be one of the most outstanding architectural achievements of the Cuban Revolution. During the visit, we sat in on one of the dance school’s repertory classes. When the Cuban style music came on, the students lit up—turning, jumping and swinging with passion. I could tell the next generation of rising stars was among them. One day I hope to see them shining on stage, so I can give them the same standing ovation the audiences in Havana gave us.

What an unforgettable trip. I hope this is just the beginning.

Get more
Dance Magazine.