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Isabel Bustos: Up Close & personal

Isabel Bustos: Up Close & personal

At Las Carolinas theater, in the heart of Old Havana, we are welcomed by a woman with a tender Andean gaze that however betrays Andalusian passions and an indomitable Araucanian spirit. Born in Chile, Isabel Bustos came to Cuba as a child where she grew up against the background of revolutionary Cuba in the early decades. She studied ballet at the National Art School and choreography at the Sorbonne in Paris. After going “here and there around the world,” she decided to settle down on this island where she has lived and worked since 1987. In January of that year, she founded Retazos, the dance theatre company directed by her and in which she has conducted the greater and most important part of her artistic work.

Her troupe is about to begin rehearsing and we have the singular chance to witness the calm and steady manner in which she guides her dancers, supervises the use of lights, makes adjustments to the costumes. She creates a demanding yet relaxed climate. The “old” dancers, as those who have been with the company longer are called (although they are all very young) coach the newcomers to the Retazos technique, which they define as a form of dance created by Isabel to achieve her personal artistic goals. Everyone speaks of this technique in different ways, perhaps because it still lacks theoretical consolidation (which Isabel announces will have soon) or perhaps because its essence lies precisely in change, constant search. Everyone agrees on one thing, though, and that is that the most difficult thing upon joining Retazos is to unlearn what they have been taught previously in dance academies. This is why the members with no prior training make progress more quickly as they are free of pre-established academic manners.

Isabel tells us that her intention is to form a new kind of dancer who will not only display technical virtuosity or be an instrument in the hands of an almighty choreographer, but a thinking and feeling artist constantly learning and expanding, not only physically and technically but intellectually and emotionally. “We must always seek honesty in a dancer,” says Isabel. She tells us that Retazo’s particular way of dancing was born out of the need to create organic artists. Technique serves the artist so that they can work better with their bodies and express themselves freely. When we asked one of the “old” dancers at what moment he considered that a dancer has fully mastered the technique of Retazos, he replied, “Never. It’s a matter of learning every day.” This also explains the way the shows are staged–through a collective working approach based on improvisations suggested by the choreographer and executed by the dancers. The role of the director then is agglutinating; she is a sort of “editor” who gives coherence and harmony to the dancers’ proposals.
Isabel Bustos is an artist who is concerned with all things human and finds inspiration in the things around her. “I am interested in everything,” she says, and immediately begins to talk about her love for poetry; of Lorca’s passion, so close to our Latin sensitivity; of Lezama Lima and Silvio Rodriguez. We take a look at the company’s most current repertoire and find that her concerns also include the poetry of Spanish Miguel Hernández and the sensual Cuban popular world. Grace and sensitive eroticism are radiated by the dancers during the rehearsal we are lucky enough to witness. The new choreography revolves around an unpublished piece by Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer.

“We need to question always the meaning of what we do, what we are, and what we can put forward. I believe that this is a constant feature in Retazos. And we move from the particular to the universal. And that does not change. Our productions are different, but in the end, the questioning remains,” reveals Isabel.

Every moment of our conversation with Isabel Bustos discloses a way of thinking that has slowly and calmly matured since the time when she was a member of national dance companies in Ecuador and Cuba, from her student days at the Higher School of Choreography in Mexico and from the time of her scholarship in Paris. She has crystallized her philosophy and attitude in life in her daily work with Retazos, an experience that has given Isabel the key to intensely dramatic performances (Isabel confesses that she is as dramatic as a tango), which never cease to evolve. Every production by Retazos grows and changes over time like a living organism. And the result is only one: unquestionable and sustained success endorsed by both Cuban and international audiences (not long ago, in the city of Trento, Italy, the applause for one of her performances went on for ten solid minutes).

“Retazos was born in my living room, Isabel confides, “which at the time measured 4×4 meters and the first performance was held there.” Seeing the beautiful venue that the company has today–where Isabel reigns like an Inca princess–it is hard to picture that first show staged in such a small space with students from the National Art School (ENA) plus people with no training at all.
After several years of working in one of the rooms of the Casa Guayasamín art gallery, which did not meet the needs of the company, and as the Street Dancing Festival and the work of the company grew in importance and recognition among the institutions and the population of Old Havana, Isabel was given the opportunity to choose a site for Retazos. The place chosen included a building in poor condition and a vacant lot, which had previously been a parking lot and a run-down public park. Architect Aileen Robaina was commissioned to remodel the battered building and her work is today’s beautiful and functional Las Carolinas Theatre, who owes its name to the three trees from Carolina that grace its garden.

Retazos work goes beyond the production of shows. The company has embraced ??the idea of Eusebio Leal, Havana’s Historian, of “integral restoration,” revivifying Old Havana’s cultural life with the active integration of the community through its institutions. It is within this context that Isabel Bustos’s pedagogical vocation has had a chance to flourish.

A former professor at the National School of Modern Dance and the University of the Arts in Cuba, Isabel describes her company as a school in which artists are trained and children and adolescents are sensitized through dance and visual arts workshops, which are conducted by the dancers and by artist José Eduardo Yánez, respectively. The children’s workshops have been favorably received by the people of Old Havana. Parents are more than happy to send their children to a beautiful and safe place where they can give free rein to their imagination and creativity, and where, on top of dancing or painting, they learn to express themselves and relate to others, to get to know themselves better both physically and emotionally. Based on one experience with an autistic child who after joining
the workshops has shown remarkable progress in his psychosocial development, other children with similar disorders have joined the dance and visual arts workshops.

But Isabel’s work doesn’t end here. Retazos organizes three festivals: The International DVDance Havana Festival “Motion and City,” which promotes video dance; “Impulsos,” a meeting that supports the work of young choreographers, in close relationship with the University of the Arts, giving them the opportunity to present and discuss their works; and the: Old Havana, City in Motion.

Every April, the historic center of the city becomes a gigantic stage that is invaded by dancers from Cuba and abroad. Old Havana, City in Motion, which since 1998 forms part of the International City Dance Network established in Barcelona, began as Isabel describes, with “five or six people who ran from house to house, from balcony to balcony, from courtyard to courtyard, from garden to garden, two dancers here, two there.” Today, Old Havana’s plazas and streets fill with over 1,500 participants that include dancers, choreographers, musicians and painters. The premise behind the International Dance Festival in Urban Landscapes is to draw inspiration from the city’s architecture, to awaken the imagination and promote new creative environments.

Isabel seems to have an inexhaustible source of creativity hidden inside of her. In her “spare” time, she paints. Although she confesses that she never thought of painting before in her life, at one point in time she began to draw sketches for her stage settings and costumes. This led her to discover a new and unexploited form of expression within her: “The first thing I painted was something like a woman in her bedroom…It was a series of seven or eight paintings viewed from different angles. Well, this person came and said, ‘I want them all.’” And I said to myself, ‘Great. This helps the company and helps me, so I’ll keep along this path.’ A short time later, I met José Eduardo and we’ve been working together ever since.”

A side corridor that opens into a courtyard that leads yet to another room both display Isabel Bustos and José Eduardo Yánez’s paintings, a work that was born out of the professional and personal relationship between the two. The serigrapher and painter provides Isabel with backgrounds and patches of color on which she works. Maternity, virgins, dreams, city are some of the themes covered by this exhibition, which also displays works by Pilar Bustos, a prominent artist and Isabel’s sister.

Much to our regret, our visit with Isabel Bustos is almost over. At the door of her sanctuary she invites us to return and reminds us that life is not a uniform whole and that “we are made of bits and pieces of emotions, feelings, experiences.” We gladly accept the invitation of this woman whose philosophy of search, experimentation and uninterrupted and fruitful work have earned her the 2012 National Dance Award for her unique work in the area of dance theater and community arts.

For 25 years, the charisma and drive of this intelligent and graceful woman, a “Chilean-Ecuadorian-Cuban” as she describes herself, has enriched the lives of the many people who have come into contact with her. Octuber 2012

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