Gail Scott on Cuba
Of all the stories I have covered on radio,
TV and print over almost three decades, my stories on Cuba got the
most reaction. Not a week goes by since my first trip to Havana
with the Washington Ballet that someone doesn't call or stop me
at an embassy event to ask me about Cuba.
My Cuban trips still give me great joy and great
Traveling to Cuba
If you have not yet traveled to Cuba, I strongly
encourage you to do so. Unfortunately, if you are an American, you
have only until the end of this year. The Bush Administration has
decided to stop granting visas for Americans traveling on "cultural
trips" to Cuba, the only legal door currently open, as of December
31st, 2003. There are many groups nationwide who will be making
trips before this deadline. Two Washington groups are listed below.
For more information please contact them directly.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art Trip to Cuba November
For more information, please visit their website
or call 202-639-1772
Cultural Educational Tour to Cuba
James Early, Director
Cultural Heritage Policy Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
For more information, please contact:
" Ballet is the star in Cuba: Washington
dancers join Ballet Nacional for rousing program during final gala
at international festival held in Havana"
by Gail Scott
published November 4, 2000 in
The Washington Times.
Both young men want to dance more than anything
else; young ballet stars who already get rave reviews and make audiences
swoon. One is American, 23-year old Iowa-bred Jason Hartley. The
other is Cuban, 19-year old Rolando Sarabia. And last week, in Havana’s
spectacular baroque Gran Teatro, they danced their hearts out on
the same stage during Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s standing-room
only final gala for the 17th International Ballet Festival—the
first time an American classical ballet troupe has set
foot on that huge stage in more than four decades.
Jason was one of 130 in The Washington Ballet’s
entourage of dancers, choreographers, teachers, students, theatre
directors and arts patrons who flew to the controversial Caribbean
isle of Fidel Castro by invitation of Alicia Alonso, the grand dame
and cultural icon of the world famous Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The
weeklong trip, allowed by the State Department’s People-to-People
program for cultural exchange, was a dream come true for Washington
Ballet’s Artistic Director Septime Webre whose mother is Cuban.
Mary Day, the beloved founder of The Washington Ballet, was there
to see and hear the Cuban jump up and yell for her American dancers.
Back in 1956, she got to know Alicia Alonso when famed Cuban ballerina
toured with The Washington Ballet in the Dominican Republic with
a final performance here at Carter Baron Ampitheatre.
For more than half a century, ballet has been
Cuba’s national passion. Ballet stars are super heroes, recognized
and hugged on the street. For those who can’t jam
inside to sit in the isles or lean on the curved walls of the red-carpeted,
multi-tiered hall, the performances are broadcast live
over state TV. Your taxi driver talks about the performance the
next day; your waiter knows that The Washington Ballet got seven
curtain calls. No one relegates ballet as just for sissies.
Here, in this machismo society, men fight to
get ballet tickets that cost fifty cents or less—a major expense
to a physician who only makes $26 dollars. Husbands proudly bring
their wives and children to The Gran Teatro. Men jump to their feet
and yell as if they were at the Super Bowl. They know the dancers,
the music, and the steps so well that they applaud for their favorites
as the music begins, even before the curtain goes up.
Compactly built Jason Hartley who could easily pass for a gymnast
or a college wrestler thinks American audiences could learn a lesson.
“Cubans are very serious about art and eat it up and love
it,” says this Midwesterner, “Cuban ballet dancers are
trained to be royalty, the public expects it. American artists are
treated like dirt, it’s our roots.”
Long ago, Jason, who married his sweetheart
from The North Carolina School for the Arts, figured out how to
deal with the common American attitude about male ballet dancers.
“You only have to beat up one kid to take care of that,”
says Jason who “settled the score back in sixth grade”
and hasn’t worried about it since. “But Americans are
closed minded,” Jason adds, “And, Iowa is the land of
conservatism…where there is no funding, no support for ballet.”
This son of a quilter and janitorial service manager adds to his
argument, “These Cuban dancers are strong as oxes.”
Dark, curly headed Rolando is the heart-throb
of young American and Cuban ballerinas alike. He’s danced
with Les Jeunes Ballet de France in Paris “where my girlfriend
is” and dreams of coming to America to dance with “your
ABT” (American Ballet Theatre). “I dismiss it if people
turn their mouths down when I tell them I’m a ballet dancer.
It’s never a problem.” Both Rolando and his 15-year
old brother whom he coaches on ballet technique take great pride
that their father was also a ballet dancer with Ballet Nacional.
When I ask Rolando if he likes being
recognized everywhere he goes on this large island, he arches his
dark eyebrow and shrugs his shoulder just ever so flirtatiously,
“Yea, I love it.”
Audiences and fame aren’t the only difference
between these two male ballet stars. Rolando has security, unlike
any American performing artist. Although he still lives at home
with his parents and brother, he makes more money (about $55 a month)
than a Cuban doctor, lawyer or engineer--only less than the flamboyant
stars of the legendary Tropicana nightclub. “I give everything
to my mother,” says Rolando, who had “help” from
the Ministry of Culture for his new yellow car and is expecting
to move his family to a bigger house in coveted Old Havana now that
he has become a romantic lead.
Down-to-earth Jason knows he will have to keep
dancing and planning for his future, without any state support.
“Someday I want to be a choreographer, teach dance and build
a stage.” Will he return to Iowa. “No, I want to go
someplace tropical.” Would he want his children to dance?
“They will have to grow up and decide for themselves.”
Brought to the Washington company by artistic
director Septime Webre, Jason is very matter-of-fact about being
one of Webre’s favorites. “He’s my paycheck. He
has given me opportunities and I am taking them all. But I don’t
let that bother my relationship with the rest of the company,”
says the former American Repertory Ballet dancer.
According to Fernando Alonso, the Ballet Nacional’s
founding partner and Alicia’s former husband of forty years,
admits this positive Cuban attitude about male ballet dancers was
“It wasn’t always like this,”
says the fit gray-haired dancer who still works out every day even
though he is in his nineties. “When I started dancing myself,
I had lots of fights, even punching noses. Here in Cuba, they thought
dancing was queer or you turned queer. But we worked with the Cubans
in two ways: first we had to teach the dancers, then we had to teach
the audiences. It helped when the government took over (in 1959
when the Cuban Revolutionary Government came to power with Castro)
and gave the male dancers a sense of decency.
“I remember going to an orphanage and
picking out 15 young children—half boys and half girls. We
taught the young boys to be very manly on stage. We worked with
them as an example. We taught our audiences to like and to know
what was good and they began to yell for more. Now you can see the
“Mary Day, also over ninety and The Washington
Ballet’s founder compares “this first” to the
Washington troupe’s news making trips to China in 1985 and
1988 when, “crowds were everywhere we went…just mobs.
But there they looked at us as if we were…from outer space.
We had tall boys and girls with blond hair and red hair.”
From this trip, “everyone came away feeling
that the Cubans have tremendous respect for the art of ballet and
the name of Alicia Alonso. In classes, even the little children
show deep respect for the ballet, it permeates the whole society.
Everyone loves dance.”
“The paradox of Cuba,” said American
Ballet Theatre’s Amanda McKerrow who danced as a Washington
Ballet principal guest artist in Cuba with her husband John Gardner,
“is that the people are so poor is so many ways but so rich
in others—dance, music, their culture.”
“I make a good living as a dancer so I
can’t complain,” says the former Washington ballet star
who at 17 traveled with Ms. Day in 1981 to the Soviet Union and
became the first American to win the Gold Medal at the Moscow International
“I am at the top of my field but by comparison to American
football, baseball or even women’s sports figures, I am not
considered important by many people. I have no endorsement opportunities;
in America, art is not rewarded as much.”
“Our duty as dancers is to education but
dance isn‘t even in our school systems,” says the 36-year
old. In Miami on the way home, relaxing on the floor between planes
she vows, “John’s the strongest person I know. Anyone
who knows anything about ballet would never for a second think it
is sissy to dance.”
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications,
Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.
Visit our web site at http://www.washingtontimes.com
Gail Scott 2003. All Rights Reserved.
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