Jordan Levin

Forging a new path to cultural exchanges with Cuba

Elizabeth Cerejido created Dialogues in Cuban Art to bring together Cuban-American and Cuban artists
Elizabeth Cerejido created Dialogues in Cuban Art to bring together Cuban-American and Cuban artists

Negotiations between the United States and Cuba to reopen diplomatic relations may be proceeding in fits and starts. But the rapprochement between the two countries is turning what was a small stream of artistic exchanges into a powerful river.

From classical orchestras to choreographers, hip-hop producers to jazz musicians, visual artist meet-ups to new plays, the flow of artists and creative projects joining Cuba and the United States — and Cuba and Miami — reflects an energy and eagerness that are rushing past political boundaries.

“Culture is the glue that binds us together,” says New York-based Latin jazz composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill (son of renowned Cuban musician Chico O’Farrill) who has been doing music projects in Havana since 2002. “There’s a lot of catching up to do and people are hungry for it.”

For many behind these exchanges, the political changes have eased and vindicated work they have been doing for years.

“The broader changes that took place on a government-to-government level in December are really the official reflection of a cross-cultural flow that was already happening on the ground very intensely for the last couple of years,” says Miami curator Elizabeth Cerejido. She brought seven Miami-raised Cuban-American artists to the just-concluded Havana Biennial for a series of intensive encounters with their Cuban peers for a project called Dialogues in Cuban Art.

While the Obama administration encouraged the “people to people” cultural exchanges that almost entirely disappeared under the Bush presidency, the bureaucracy facing U.S.-Cuba artistic exchanges could still be daunting. The State Department could frequently deny visas to Cuban artists, who needed a special letter of invitation to come, putting their visits under a cloud of uncertainty. Americans traveling to the island for cultural projects had to do so with organizations able to go through the laborious process of getting a special license from the U.S. government. Political and bureaucratic barriers in Cuba also made it difficult for its artists to travel abroad.

The process has opened up significantly, as the United States began giving Cubans tourist visas that allowed them to come and go for five years, and Cuba made it easier for its citizens to go abroad. Both measures smoothed the way for Cuban artists to come to the United States. As of December, Americans no longer need a State Department license to go to Cuba for artistic projects.

“The roadblocks are being removed for our efforts to make artistic exchange,” says Beth Boone, artistic and executive director of the Miami Light Project, which has been working with Cuban artists since the late ’90s. “We were doing the work before, but it was like the camel going through the eye of the needle. Now it’s relatively normal.”

That normalization represents the Obama administration’s view that artistic interaction is one of the best ways to create better relations with Cuba, says Christina Tribble, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana — a new position there.

“When Obama came to office there was a concerted effort to increase connections between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States,” Tribble says. “The best way to do that is through cultural exchange, educational exchange. … It’s where you see the most hope, the most openheartedness, and the most willingness to reach for what’s good. ”

Earlier this year, Tribble met with Miami presenters who work with Cuban artists. In April, the State Department sponsored Company E, a modern dance troupe from Washington, to participate in a Havana street dance festival, and the interest section hosted the group in a reception and outdoor performance.

Artistic encounters can spread into politics, Tribble says. “Once those people know and trust each other, they’re inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt, they’re inclined to work with each other. That spills over into all other areas of society.”

Cuba has attracted famous names such as Questlove, the frontman for hip-hop group The Roots, who went to Havana in April, stopping at EGREM recording studios and DJing at the Fabrica De Arte Cubano, a music and creative venue run by rocker X Alfonso. (A short film documenting the visit was co-directed by Jauretsi Saizabitoria, whose parents presented exile singer Albita at their Little Havana club in the ’90s, an important chapter in Miami’s Cuban music history.) In May the Minnesota Orchestra visited Havana, with a packed schedule that included master classes at the National School of Music, jam sessions and a concert at the National Theater.

A Spanish language production of the musical Rent (directed by Florida International University graduate Andy Señor Jr.) played to sellout crowds in Havana for months this winter. And in January, Debbie Ohanian, who made headlines presenting Cuban band Los Van Van in Miami in 1999, premiered a dance and music revue, Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, with Cuban salsa musician Isaac Delgado (who has returned to Havana after a stint in exile in Miami) as her creative director.

But an increasing number of artists and presenters are creating more in-depth projects. They strive to bring artists from both countries together to collaborate, to foster long-term relationships, to seek new inspiration and common cultural ground. Their motivations include an admiration for Cuban artistry, a desire to bring U.S. resources and ideas to a country with limited access to the world and curiosity about a long forbidden culture.

Many are Cuban Americans eager to explore their roots and their relationship to a country that is part of who they are, even as it has been mostly off limits.

Arturo O’Farrill was drawn to the island through his father, an influential and much-admired Cuban jazz composer and arranger who died in 2001 after more than half a century in exile. O’Farrill recorded his last album, The Conversation Continued, in December in Havana with Cuban musicians and members of his own Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. He has composed scores for the Cuban dance troupe MalPaso, which performed in Miami last summer. Now he’s working to set up an exchange between Havana and New York music conservatories.

“It was such an incredible journey for me to be able to finish the journey my father was never able to finish,” O’Farrill said.

He identifies with the creative urgency he has found in the island’s musicians, a quality that also drove his father.

“What really turns [Cuban musicians] on is the lineage of aesthetics,” O’Farrill says. “We’re relentlessly dissatisfied with the musical status quo. It’s a real earmark of the Cuban mentality.

“I’d like to provide a new generation of students from Cuba and the U.S. the chance to go and study each other’s musical culture. Maybe we’ll stop mythologizing and exoticizing Cuban musicians and maybe Cuban musicians will stop putting jazz on a pedestal. We have so much to learn from each other.”

Dancer and choreographer Pedro Ruiz, now 51, left Cuba at 18 and danced for 21 years with New York’s Ballet Hispanico. In 2011, he returned to choreograph a work for Danza Contemporanea, the island’s first modern dance troupe, and was struck by their talent — and isolation.

“When I got there I realized the importance of giving back to a new generation of Cubans,” Ruiz says. “You see so much talent, and many of them need information, an opportunity to dance in a different way, to see life in a different way. When I taught my first master class they were like sponges. They stole my heart.”

This spring he became associate artistic director of Endedans, a contemporary ballet company in Camaguey. Endedans performed one of Ruiz’s dances at a festival in Camaguey in March, and premiered another work at the Havana Biennial last month. Soon Ruiz hopes to bring the company to New York.

Ever Chavez, a theater producer and presenter who came to Miami in 2000, has long presented Cuban artists here through his group Fundarte. He travels regularly to the island, building experience and connections that enable him to do more elaborate projects and to partner with other U.S. organizations. In March, Chavez worked with the Kennedy Center in Washington, which presented three Cuban jazz pianists he brought to Miami for Global Cuba Fest, an annual music festival he co-presents with Miami Light Project. He is developing an original theater piece with Miami theater artists and Cuba’s Teatro El Publico, his former troupe in Havana, which he has presented several times in Miami. Fundarte will present their play, with actors from both cities, at the Havana International Theater Festival in October and in Miami in November.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his long experience, Chavez takes a cautious view of the recent rapprochement.

“In Cuba some people are very hopeful that everything is going to change,” he says. “But many people are very skeptical. I think it’s going to take years. But it was so static — at least now something is changing.”

Boone, another veteran Cuban presenter, plans to position Miami Light as a bridge between the island and the United States, and a center for collaboration for artists from both countries. She has taken a number of Miami artists on trips to Cuba, including choreographer Rosie Herrera and Spam Allstars leader Andrew Yeomanson. Miami Light is currently sponsoring Edgar, a Havana electronic musician creating a sound installation at The Light Box, their Wynwood space; and producer and DJ Toto Gonzalez, known as Mr Pauer, who will teach workshops in Havana in the fall. This month B-Joyce, a young Cuban DJ, will spend three weeks working with Gonzalez and other musicians at The Light Box.

“Logistically and symbolically Miami is the first port of entry,” Boone says. “I see the Light Box as a crossroads for Cuban artists coming to the United States. We want for them to see it just like the artists in our community do, as a place to make work and show it to a really excited community and audience.”

Interaction is at the heart of the Cuba projects at Copperbridge Foundation, a new Miami group headed by Geo Darder. He has organized multiyear collaborations between Cuban groups and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and Chicago’s Hedwig Dance troupe. Copperbridge hosted a series of events and exhibits at the Havana Biennial; some of the Cuban artists featured will come to Miami for the group’s second Copperfest.

“What I love is the intimate settings,” says Darder. “People meet Cubans here and want to go see Cuba there.”

Cerejido, the Miami curator, hopes that her Dialogues project will inspire not just new art but new ways of thinking about Cuba and Miami. She was inspired by a visit to the island for an exchange program in 2002, where she discovered a connection with young Cubans there, and to a place her parents had fled, that was “life-changing … intense and cathartic.”

“Going back was a culture shock,” she says. “The discourse here was so driven by exile politics. I went to Cuba and found this whole other reality.”

To her surprise, she received a $60,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the Dialogues project, and it was matched by Cuban-American developer and collector Jorge Perez. The project, sponsored by FIU’s Cuban Research Institute, and by the Casa de las Americas in Cuba, brought seven Miami-raised Cuban-American artists to Havana last week. Early next year their counterparts will come to Miami, and both groups will eventually create a collaborative exhibit for both cities.

One of Cerejido’s goals is to question what it means to be a Cuban artist. She notes that Miami artist Glexis Novoa recently established a studio in Havana, where his mother lives, and added a Cuban address to his profile; meanwhile, Havana artist Sandra Ramos has created a base in Miami. As more artists from both countries travel back and forth more frequently, claiming Cuban roots and U.S. connections, what does it mean to be Cuban or Cuban American?

“The aim of this project is to ask new questions,” Cerejido says. “This is not about the standard definitions of Cuban and Cuban American, but challenging those definitions. These are questions that are going to continually destabilize things in terms of Cuban vs. Cuban American. This is rapidly becoming less about two things than about something that is plural and complementary.”

There are still obstacles to the growing artistic relationship. For instance, U.S. law still does not permit American presenters to pay Cuban artists, who can only receive travel expenses. Artists can still suffer political repression in Cuba, the most prominent recent example being Havana’s Tania Bruguera, who has been arrested and harassed for her outspoken performance pieces on free speech — treatment that shadowed the recent Biennial.

Still, for many Cuban artists, this is a thrilling time. MalPaso, the Cuban dance troupe that Copperbridge brought to Miami last summer on the heels of their enthusiastically received New York debut, has had dates at several major U.S. venues. This summer they’ll perform at Jacob’s Pillow, a famous Massachusetts dance festival, dancing a new piece by well-known U.S. ballet choreographer Trey McIntyre.

“All of a sudden it’s perfect times for us,” MalPaso director Fernando Saez said in March, as the group stopped in Miami on its way home from a U.S. tour. “Everyone wants to have this love affair with Cuba. And here we are.”

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