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Gringa Culture Vulture Finally Gets to Cuba

Gringa Culture Vulture Finally Gets to Cuba

For over ten years I had been intrigued by the possibility of visiting Cuba—for me a reference point for leftist politics, socialist ideals and excellence in the arts, among other things. However, as a U.S. citizen I could not do so legally because of the over fifty year-old U.S. blockade against Cuba, and I was not interested in getting involved in theatrics with my home government by entering through Mexico or Canada. So when a “Dance and Music Professional Research Trip” to Cuba was announced, I realized this just might be my chance to apply. The trip was being provided by Marazul.

I first learned about the trip through Metamovements, a local dance company in Boston (my current city of residence). With U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba more relaxed in comparison to what they were in the Bush era, Marazul has teamed up with Metamovements to provide these custom-tailored research programs several times a year. As a provider of “themed” research travel to Cuba, the Marazul Dance & Music Research package appears to be the most affordable. My travel companions were a lively potpourri of about twenty professionals who use dance and/or music as an integral part of their work (as performing artists, educators, mental health professionals, etc.). For more information, you can visit: http://www.marazul.com and http://ros.metamovements.com.

Perhaps like you, I must confess I am wary of packaged group trips—in fact it’s one of my general rules of thumb to stay as far away as possible. But I realized after Day One in Cuba that little of what I had experienced during the previous twenty-four hours would have been possible had I not signed up for this trip. Just because I’m conversant in Spanish and well-acquainted with how things work in ‘the developing world’ didn’t mean that I would be able to open the doors that were opened for me by Marazul (and our Cuban hosts, Amistur). So, suffice it to say, that I thought this trip was worth every expensive penny and being herded around on a fume-spitting tour bus. Otherwise I would never have had access to the diversity and extent of experiences that together formed an incredibly rich portrait of Cuba.

Among the highlights of these experiences was time spent with the stunning Danza Contemporanea de Cuba (The Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba): www.dccuba.com/. I had the good fortune to see Danza Contemporanea when they performed in Boston this past summer as part of their U.S. debut tour. That only served to whet my appetite for more. While in Havana, I was able to observe the men’s company class and a company rehearsal. It was explained to me that Cuban contemporary technique is a mix of the pillars of Modern dance (Graham, Limon, Cunningham, etc.) combined with Afro-Cuban forms and even tai-chi. As those who have tried “Cuban Contemporary” can attest, trying to keep all of this in mind while doing the simplest of movements is both a cerebral and physical workout. And it’s for this reason that Cuban contemporary is one of the hardest techniques for outsiders to really get inside of and become fluent in. The company dancers in Danza Contemporanea have trained in this technique from a very young age, and it shows. They move with the apparent greatest simplicity—like water or breath—but to dissect the physicality and even spirituality of what they’re doing is to enter a very complex world.

Like any good dance training, there was an extreme sense of warming and heating the body at the beginning of the men’s class through highly articulated and complicated phrases of movement that the dancers had clearly already internalized and could therefore physicalize through a deep, almost Zen-like practice. The studio itself was warm but I watched bodies go from being covered in dry dancewear to being derobed to only the essentials and covered in a visible film of perspiration within the first thirty minutes of class. Click here for a video of the men’s class.

Another unforgettable experience that this trip provided that would have never been otherwise accessible to me was a private residency and rehearsal session with the Grammy-nominated group, Los Munequitos de Matanzas. Our group traveled to Matanzas, the dusty commercial town which is an important focal point for Afro-Cuban culture, and especially rumba. The exchange took place at the group’s local rehearsal space, an otherwise abandoned room above a dilapidated storefront with the occasional rumba graffiti and a modest shrine honoring ancestors and ‘rumberos’ of the past. After welcoming our group and giving us some of the band’s history (including the fact that Los Munequitos consists of family members spanning three generations), they treated us to a full concert which seemed like a gift dropped in our laps by the most benevolent Orisha. Rumba is at its best as a live art form—it’s the interaction between the musicians and the dancers, and the hypnotic frenzy that ensues and transports that needs to be appreciated en vivo. And from the moment the incense on the offering table was lit (and I witnessed what appeared to be a perfectly drawn arc of smoke encircle one of my fellow travelers), our group drank up every last drop.

The time with Los Munequitos and Danza Contemporanea were priceless access points and the overall group itinerary could not have been more packed to the brim. That said, I was pleased that after the daily program, I had the foresight to spend some time enjoying Old Havana at my own pace, strolling the Malecon and sweating out my own research agenda. If I had left Cuba without doing this, I would not have felt entirely satisfied, needing to put my own stamp of personalization on the experience. The fact that Cuba is virtually cut off from the rest of the world with the worst rate of internet access in the Western Hemisphere certainly does not give an independent tourist much recourse when trying to plan a cultural panorama. But apparently in Cuba I just needed to open my heart and my eyes, and many unexpected treasures turned up on my path. Hours before it began, I saw a flyer for a “nueva trova” concert with Luis Alberto Barberia, one of Cuba’s leading trovistas kicking off his national tour in collaboration with some Flamenco dancers in from Spain. This was a part of Cuba that I wanted to see for myself—a public event with people hanging from the rafters because they love the arts and because admission is free and open to all who can manage to squeeze in. I couldn’t help myself in snapping this image of the matching mother and child afro donned by two concert spectators.

With limited time, I was able to spend some of it between Old Havana, Vedado and Centro Habana. Cultural institutions are a dime a dozen in the center city, with the faded glory of Teatro Nacional still evident amidst its ongoing restoration. Once the home of Alicia Alonso’s legendary Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Teatro Nacional has now opened its doors to Havana’s leading Flamenco School. And being that the Ballet moved its headquarters only a few blocks away, I was able to snap this timeless image of two young aspiring ballerinas sharing a secret outside their studio. Thankfully the arts are an area that has received limited censorship in revolutionary Cuba, making it possible to see the full spectrum in almost every art form within one day, i.e. pinks tights and tightly pinned up hair to impossibly high feather headresses of cabaret dancers and accompanying attire (or lack thereof).

And so I finally got to see Cuba—in my case through the lens of arts and culture. It was admittedly much too short of a trip and primarily revolved around Havana—which like every capital, locals say you must leave to know the “real Cuba.” But with the high octane injection of the Marazul Dance & Music Program, complemented by my own wanderings, musings, and personal research time, I got a feel for an island that might as well have been half way around the world due to its inaccessibility to me as a U.S. citizen. And I left with a sensation of being incredibly full—after having only a small taste of the impossible amount of culture and arts bursting from one small country.

January 2012

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