King on Cuba
By Sheron Wray
Jane King has been a Dance Critic for over thirty years writing principally for the Morning Star and a regular contributor for the Dancing Times. Having had early experiences of learning dance, her wider appreciation of it developed in her adult years. Beginning with watching Ballet in the Gallery in Covent Garden she grew to favour the more humanist approaches emerging in Contemporary idiom as in the vision of Ballet Rambert and later London Contemporary Dance Theatre. However it was in 1983 when Jane was invited for the first time to visit Cuba that she experienced her dance renaissance.
The invitation came from Alicia Alonso the Principal Ballerina and resolute Director of Cuba’s National Ballet Company. She noted,
“Their technique was very strong and the men were very impressive, they were all shades of pink and brown. Principle characters could be black or white, it didn’t matter, they were integrated”. By this time of course the reality of black dancers in ballet was not anything new as Arthur Mitchell had changed the course of his isolation with the establishment of Dance Theatre of Harlem, however it is important to note that National ballet companies worldwide had not yet shown individuals of colour at principal level of either gender.
The vital aspect of what she had experienced was groundbreaking, King experienced a truly unique phenomenon she witnessed “vitality amongst a mingling of races in such an astonishing way, I never thought of ballet as a vehicle for black dancers, there’s tremendous enthusiasm for ballet amongst black and white audiences”. This biannual event is regularly attended by an array of Dance critics from all over the globe, a testament to the consistent level of excellence demonstrated by the dancers, ballet teachers and the infrastructure to which afforded them their inclusiveness and diversity.
Before the Cuban Revolution (1959) the type of formal dance class most widely available was Spanish, which had to be paid for, afforded only by those in higher social classes. Hence before the revolution the black and poor had no access to formal dance practice. However embedded into the Cuban way of life is music and dance which comes from both African retained religious and localised social practices which through centuries developed into a specifically Cuban synthesised way of life. It is this ‘natural’ dance and music, which was later given formal institutions from which to grow which became as endemic as revolution itself, which has led onto the development of their national identity - through the Arts.
This initially manifests itself through formal primary education; in their schools there is “splendid dance for children at an early age. Its so different because you don’t have different kinds of children segregated into different types of schools.” This makes for stark contrast King states, “The children; for the most part working class here in the UK don’t get exposure to dance, dance in this country for boys is generally treated with suspicion. In Cuba dance has been a tradition over centuries.”
This very accessible route to dance was the means through which Carlos Acosta; the first staffed Principal of the Royal Ballet began his early training. King speaks of how his father took him along to local dance classes as decisive alternative to him being involved in mischief on the streets. Carlos Acosta has gone on to dance with the worlds most illustrious companies in the US, Russia and the UK.
King admits that on her first trip she was completely enthralled by what she saw and felt “there’s kind of spontaneity about it- a lot of influences all very strong. We have nothing on that scale, but we’ve never had the heat, they dance with such veracity versus our restrained, passive – in the cold – approach, we’ve lost our folk dance traditions.”
During this time she met with many dance teachers and choreographers among them was the late Elfrida Mahler who was an American citizen who left the US to join the revolution in the 1950’s. There are several other such notable artists who have contributed significantly to the infrastructure and artistic way of life in Cuba; others include Estella Bravo, filmmaker, Lorna Burdsall, teacher, choreographer and writer. The instrumental Cuban pioneer of the Contemporary dance landscape is Eliseo Diego, referring to him as “the grand old man of contemporary dance”, he returned from New York in the 1950’s to join the Cuban revolution after studying with Martha Graham among others.
The institutions of dance at the heart of Cuba are the National School of Contemporary Dance and Folklore, the National Ballet School and the University of Havana. “These institutions were created for the elevation of dance for which you had a special education”. In several other cities such as Santiago there are also a major dance academies. The national Contemporary company, Folkloric company and Ballet company make up the central magnet of representation. Beyond this there are a plethora of smaller but no less significant dance companies that the world has a thirst for among them Danza Abierta, directed by Marianella Boan and Danza Libre now directed by Alfredo Velázquez. Both these companies have been assisted in the progress to gain international notice through Jane King’s support and perseverance.
More and more individuals are travelling to Cuba for their own personal development many guided by Jane’s recommendations, “Everybody who has been there on my advice has come back very excited, they came back enchanted and excited by the different artistic milleu”. It is undoubtedly a very rich territory for the arts in general and significantly dance seems not to fall on the last rung of the ladder in terms of its influence and stature within their society, as King says dance is a “national pastime.”
What is it that we can essentially learn from Cuba? Access to good dance instruction for all from a young age seems to be a key factor in determining the quality and commitment that their industry has. A recent company to emerge is Companies Voluminoso they are a collection of obese dancers who love to dance and perform, they have successfully found enthusiastic audiences with their brand of dance/storytelling. Fortunately Eliseo Diego has mentored them; he temporarily came out of retirement to help them along their way.
As Cuba currently stands it is an environment which is keen to share its hybrid creations and as King says “In Cuba, I have never felt anything like the friendship, encouragement, support, acceptance, help. They don’t have to accept us, from a cold dark reactionary country. They have so little (financially) but they want to give to you.”