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April 2011

Scene4 Magaine - "Hope and Mystery in Havana" | Catherine Conway Honig | April 2011

by Catherine Conway Honig

Life in Havana is hard. The buildings and streets are crumbling, the economy is always on the verge of collapsing, and the island's future is a mystery. In fact, mysteries abound in Cuban life and culture. Who is really in charge of this gifted and troubled nation? What will the next big government policy be and will it be just another in a long list of failed strategies to save the nation from economic ruin? How are people supposed to live on the meager hand-outs offered by the government? Will change come after Fidel's death? After his brother, Raoul's? What kind of change? What are the real reasons for the strained relationship between the United States and Cuba after so many years of shifting strategies and rationale? Will the revolutionary spirit that is igniting so many other countries around the world take hold in Cuba? Beyond these questions which inspire never-ending speculation and debate there are also important discussions around race in this supposedly egalitarian society. Faith, ritual and the role of religion are also particularly fascinating topics to ponder when contemplating Cuba's unique culture.   

The weight and gravity of these and infinitely more questions could paralyze yet Cubans do their best to thrive amidst the struggles and the mysteries. Perhaps it is their ability to accept the unknown that contributes to the seemingly indomitable creative spirit that inspires artists throughout the hectic Caribbean-kissed city of Havana.

Art is not just central among the defining characteristics of Cuban culture; it is inseparable from daily life. Anyone visiting Havana will immediately hear music everywhere. On any street music escapes through windows and doors as unseen musicians are driven by the infectious clavé rhythm that lies behind and unifies the layers of drums and percussion. Without such easy distractions as radio and television channels and the Internet, music and dance are woven throughout daily life whether in spontaneous parties or structured performances.  


Dance performances in formal venues such as the famed opera house, Gran Teatro de La Habana which was built in 1837, offer performances to residences for pennies. Cubans who attend the ballet regularly know the choreography, and often the individual dancers, so well that watching a performance is a participatory activity. One does not hear the passive polite applause endemic to American and European performance halls, instead the Cubans shout and holler approval for entrances, exits and beloved and anticipated movement sequences.  

While artists speak of the deteriorating quality of Cuban schools, the challenges of obtaining health care, the hypocrisy of the leaders, and the high price of food, they are also quick to laugh about their contradictions. They speak with genuine affection for their culture and for the opportunities it affords them. Participation in the various sectors of the economy and larger society, including the arts, is a complex and not always transparent subject that inspires far-reaching speculation. The path to becoming an artist, such as a musician or a dancer, however, is ordained early in life.   


On a recent visit to Havana, my fourth in the past fifteen years, I visited three of the national music and dance schools where young students demonstrated astonishing mastery at their crafts. Escuela Provincial de Ballet y Danza "Alejo Carpentier" is located in the once majestic neighborhood of Vedado. Set back off the corner in a nondescript building painted an uninspired institutional green, the exterior tells nothing about the magic found within.

Open to students as young as age seven by audition only, those selected spend a typical day studying ballet and modern dance technique, character dancing, music appreciation, and French along with a regular curriculum of academic subjects. After five years they audition for the next level of study at the secondary school on the beautiful boulevard, El Prado.  Those students selected to continue their studies as teenagers hope to and dream of eventually entering one of the national ballet companies that perform at Gran Teatro as well as internationally.  


The director of the Alejo Carpentier school, Sílvía María Rodríguez Pérez, invited us to sit in two long rows of folding chairs crammed together at one end of their largest studio which was cooled by open shutters on the dingy windows. The students entered in an orderly single-file line but as soon as they gracefully lowered themselves down to the smooth wood floor, they fussed and giggled with each other just like children in any classroom. Each student wore a uniform indicating their level. The older girls wore black chiffon skirts with ribbons wrapped around their tight chignons and the boys wore black unitards. They clapped and yelled encouragement to each other especially as a chosen few performed solos. The recorded music strained and crackled as it was pumped out of a feeble car stereo connected to a boom box.   

On the day we visited the advanced students, ages twelve and thirteen, performed several works they were rehearsing for a competition in April. Their mastery of technique as well as their passion and musicality spoke of a dedication and hunger far beyond their years. These lovely students, both the girls and the boys, spoke wordlessly of the devotion to their art and their desire to excel.  


Physical appearance, carriage and athletic ability are among the criteria necessary for acceptance into the school, so their grace and beauty should not have been a surprise. Still to be surrounded by preteens who possessed such poise and ability was tremendously moving. The trademark Cuban ballet style was already clear and evident in their fully body coordination: a uniquely Cuban ability to ignite and energize the entire body by rotating the head, shoulders and hips around an invisible vertical axis. Though all well-trained dancers learn to open their chests, drop their shoulders and lengthen their necks, the Cuban style is something far beyond mere posing. They turn, spin and swirl with such coordination that arms and legs move like leaves and limbs blowing in a gentle breeze. This organic sense of balance is not about integration because it is not about individual body parts. The skin, the bones, everything from the nose to the toes spirals in harmonic coordination.   


Their musculature is already so well trained that, though they are mostly quite thin and tiny, their technical execution is seamless. Though the soloists made occasional small missteps, these mistakes were usually caused by pushing themselves against their limits. The school had not skimped on rehearsing them or training them in explicit detail. The girls floated through complicated combinations requiring strength and flexibility and featuring their beautiful leaps and precise footwork. The boys attacked their jumps with typical Cuban bravado, their thighs already thoroughly developed for the deep plié necessary to ensure breathtaking air time. They did not skim across the floor but instead they used it as a counterbalance to make them soar.    


At a similarly impressive national music school, the Manual Samuel Conservatory, for young students, we were treated to performances of compositions by Franz Schubert as well as greatly loved Cuban composers Leo Brouwer and José White Lafitte. Just as with the dance school, students are auditioned for aptitude and ability before entering this prestigious academy. All students receive extensive training in piano, string instruments, woodwinds and percussion as well as a full complement of academic subjects. After completing their studies at one of five similar elementary schools in Havana, the students compete for coveted placement in one of three high schools. Though the director of the school, Maria Iglesias, referred to the competition for placement at the high schools as "friendly competition," this is a high stakes process for the students. The life of an artist is a far cry from the life of a factory or government worker, especially in the dysfunctional sectors that predominate in Cuba.  


On a visit to the shared home and studios of several generations of successful visual artists, we were treated to a viewing of a video collage created by Reinier Leyva Novo, aka "El Chino." This video layered footage from another of Cuban people's favorite pastimes: baseball. In sections entitled "Safe," "Out" and "Home Run," Leyva Novo spliced together exciting clips showing Cuban players' explosive athletic abilities. Beyond the captivating visuals and the engaging soundscape, the artist successfully portrayed these three sports concepts as metaphors for the Cubans' lack of freedom to travel. In spite of a general travel ban, some artists are given permission to travel when invited to participate in festivals or other important international venues. The words safe, out and home run took on special resonance in the context of opportunities to travel and decisions about whether to return to the island or defect.   

Under current Cuban law citizens may not travel outside the country without undergoing enormous bureaucratic scrutiny to obtain a visa. Due to the long history of defections by artists, invitations for international travel are monitored with special attention. However, at least artists do have opportunities to travel. Invitations to Central and South America, Europe and North America are beyond the dreams of average Cubans.  

Is it a mystery why children work so hard to become artists?

Photos - Anne Rosen


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©2011 Catherine Conway Honig
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Writer for Scene4.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives



Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

April 2011

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