Performers and choreographers proudly ballyhoo the notion that dance is a universal language. It’s true that a dancer can walk into a ballet class anywhere in the Western world (and in many places beyond ) and feel at home. Modern dance and traditional forms, however, have their own individual and regional languages, and cultural nuances as to how dance is taught and what dance may mean in a particular society vary dramatically.
Alma Guillermoprieto’s recent Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution and More Than Just a Footnote: Dancing From Connecticut to Revolutionary Cuba, self-published by Lorna Burdsall in 2001 (but only came into my hands last year), make fascinating comparative reading. Burdsall arrived in Cuba in April 1955 and is still performing and choreographing there; Guillermoprieto went in May 1970, planned to stay a year, left after six mind-blowing months, stopped dancing, and became a reporter and then a writer of consequence (her article on a political scandal in Mexico appeared in The New York Review of Books August 12). Burdsall lived through Castro’s revolution—very close, in fact, to its epicenter; Guillermoprieto, puzzled and fascinated, underwent a personal revolution while trying to fathom the complex links between those brave days in Cuba’s past and the Cuba she encountered.
A career wasn’t what brought Burdsall to Cuba. She’d studied modern dance during summers at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College and at Juilliard with Doris Humphrey and Louis Horst, and had taken classes at the studios of Martha Graham and José Limón, but she was in love and flying blind when she left New York for Cuba to join her new husband, Manuel Pineiro. Then just 25, she couldn’t have divined that the 20-year-old charmer whose mambo caught her eye at an International House party—the socially conscious guy who was studying business administration at Columbia University preparatory to joining his brothers in the family business in Matanzas—would instead join Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and later become his chief of intelligence.
In 1970, the 21-year-old Guillermoprieto accepted an invitation to teach at the Escuela Nacional de Danza (where Burdsall had been on the faculty for three years) because nothing she really wanted to do in dance was working out. Mexican-born, she’d studied in New York with Graham, but moved on to Merce Cunningham’s studio, where “all of us saw him as a flame flickering in a dark chapel. We spoke his name as if it were written entirely in capital letters, and we laid siege to him with our eyes. In return, he almost never said a word to any of us.” Some of the few words he addressed to Alma were news of two teaching jobs—one in Caracas, one in Havana; she took his remarks as a rejection of her as company material. Twyla Tharp, in whose Medley Guillermoprieto performed in Central Park, told her that she might as well take one of the jobs: “You’re not going to get anything hanging around here.”
Both travelers arrived in Cuba burdened not just with baggage (a customs inspector threw in the towel over Guillermoprieto’s mountain of supplies), but with considerable ignorance of the country. Burdsall, however, writes as if the life she fell into were a difficult, quite entertaining game to be mastered. As the years went by, the girlish naïveté that marked her letters (quoted in full) to her parents in Connecticut never quite left her prose, but neither did her pluck and down-to-earth good sense.
Before long, she was helping her husband and his friends deliver incendiary pamphlets to workers and peasants (the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista got wind of this and shelled Matanzas). After Castro landed in Cuba and holed up in the Sierra Maestra, she took an evening stroll with her husband in a touristy section of Havana carrying a small bomb hidden in her handbag; the plan was to set if off in a hotel garden to alert visitors that a revolution was in progress (the attempt was temporarily foiled and she was sent home). When she was pregnant and three weeks away from delivering her son Kahlil, Pineiro took off to join Fidel in the mountains, leaving her with a closet full of ammunition wrapped like gifts from a baby shower. After Castro’s forces triumphed and Batista fled, Burdsall adjusted to living in Havana with Raul Castro and his wife in Batista’s former mansion, her now bushy-bearded husband, their son, a couple of nannies, and numerous former rebels coming and going for meetings. When she went back to dancing as a member of the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna, headed by Ramiro Guerra (for whom she subsequently took over), she not only performed in Guerra’s works and staged Doris Humphrey’s Water Study and Life of the Bee (starring herself as the Old Queen), but began to create dances in the spirit of revolution.
Burdsall has very little to say about the experience of teaching at the Escuela Nacional de Danza, although she lists faculty and prominent graduates. Guillermo has plenty to say about this wing of the ambitious Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. Built on the grounds of a former country club where sugar barons once played, it had apparently fallen on hard times by the time she arrived—not just because of the privations caused by the U.S. embargo, but due to bureaucratic ineptness, the primacy of Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Castro’s wavering mistrust of artists in general. There were no mirrors in the studios, no accompanist, and terrible food in the cafeteria. She had to control tears when, as a special dispensation for visiting faculty, a lunchroom attendant poured over her rice half a ladle of cooking oil in which he’d been boiling eggs. She disliked Elfriede Mahler, the school’s director, sensing a perpetual pent-up rage. Burdsall, she writes, was kind to her and used her political clout to get her better accommodations and other perks; but, while admitting to snobbery, Guillermoprieto dismisses her colleague’s talent: “I generally found very little merit in dance people who did not know how to dance.”
The difference between the two memoirs is not just a matter of writerly skill (Burdsall is more than competent, but certainly not in Guillermoprieto’s class), but of who the women are and what they choose to say or leave out. Burdsall occasionally speaks of being angry or grief-stricken, but emotion rarely colors her prose. After she accidentally, and with amazing naïveté, betrayed some revolutionaries to men who turned out to be Batista’s agents, she was given the code message that “the party was a rough one and everybody ended up drunk,” meaning they’d been “tortured and imprisoned, but fortunately not killed.” She felt “very stupid and disgusted with myself,” but relieved that she and her husband were okay and didn’t portray herself as plunged into guilt over images of beatings and fingernails torn out.
She accepts the adversities that arose as post-revolutionary Cuba struggled to define itself and its mandates. She reveals anger but not outrage at being fired from the dance company because she didn’t bother, while on a tour in France, to hide the affair she was having with one of the musicians, even though she and her important, not-very-faithful husband had amicably agreed to a divorce. She tolerated resourcefully the shortages of water, electricity, and iffy telephone connections. She learned to make oatmeal cookies without flour or butter. The plastic barrels she bought for hauling water to her apartment prodded her creativity, and, using flashlights held by dancers in the semi-translucent barrels, she created a work for the little company of her ex students, Así Somos (That’s the Way We Are), that she founded in 1981.
Guillermoprieto, on the other hand, is a sensualist and a dramatist in prose. Of Haydée Santamaría, one of the heroines of the revolution, Burdsall says only that Santamaría, learning of the birth of her child, reassured her that the revolutionary Movimiento 26 de Julio would pay the hospital costs. Guillermoprieto tells us that, in the wake of the tragically botched 1953 raid by Castro’s guerrillas, Batista’s soldiers brought Santamaría her brother’s eyes and told her she could expect shortly to see her lover’s genitals.
Dancing With Cuba seethes with confusion, passion, and anger. It’s as much a novel in the first person as a memoir. To protect the students’ privacy, she gives them pseudonyms, and the book includes a great many passages of pungent dialogue, which, she acknowledges, could hardly be rendered verbatim after over 30 years, even though Dancing With Cuba was written in Spanish (excellently translated by Esther Allen), the better to transport the author back to those fevered months in 1970. She makes us see the fifth-year students she was assigned to teach—Graham technique three days a week, Cunningham technique two. We feel her appreciation of their beauty and sweetness (and her submerged lust for one of them), and her despair over the sorry state of their technique and the limitations of her teaching. (Her knowledge of Graham may not have been very deep: Had she known that the floor exercise she calls “pleatings” are actually named “pleadings,” she might have been able to get the quality she wanted out of her pupils more quickly.)
She received her first lessons about the revolution from offbeat sources. A group of men she palled around with (who had apparently limitless supplies of good humor and affection for their clueless new friend) were gay in a society that frowns on homosexuality, yet they believed in Castro—in his vision for Cuba and in what he had been able to accomplish despite all odds. They were even cheerful about a 1965 campaign that sent them and other “antisocial elements” to be healed by labor in an “agricultural center.” It wasn’t “that bad,” they tell her; the program only lasted two years, “and we all came out tanned and with physiques to die for.” They weren’t happy about the lot of artists in Cuba, yet they stayed, says one, “because if I were to abandon this process, then for the rest of my life I’d have to live with the consciousness of being nothing but a comemierde, a shit-eater. This Revolution is the only thing that has given my life any meaning.”
Guillermoprieto didn’t want to be a comemierde. While laboring to help her students not to see the Cunningham classwork as dry and arbitrary, and trying to endure the heat and the discomforts, she devoured books and articles about Cuba’s political history. Many pages are devoted to the “10 Million Ton Harvest”. A heroic, foolhardy venture that occurred during her stay, it mobilized almost the entire population in a futile effort to reap and process more sugarcane than ever before in order to pay off Cuba’s massive debt to the Soviet Union and free the country from its dependence on Russia.
However, while she admires Castro as a charismatic romantic and a visionary with a fine command of statistics, and applauds what he has accomplished, some things happening in Latin America in the name of revolution disturb her deeply. She’s moved and impressed by Che Guevara’s diary (which Burdsall helped to translate), but she knows herself better than she thinks she does. “I feel that if I were to transform into a revolutionary like Che, I would cease completely to be myself, and I can’t help being scared of that,” she wrote to her friend in Mexico.
Disapproving of the way the school is run, she fomented a little revolution there. Her ideas stimulated the students’ restlessness. They knew they weren’t getting trained as well as they should have been. They wished they had better choreography to perform. They gathered the courage to protest to the bureaucrat in charge of the institution, and they gained some concessions; they wished Guillermoprieto would take over for Elfriede Mahler. But eventually Guillermoprieto began to see everything through a fog of lethargy and lay in the studio unable to choreograph, planning ways she might commit suicide. None were practical; a friend put his arms around her and laughed her out of the idea. She left Cuba.
Lorna Burdsall, now a grandmother, contentedly continues her career there, having long ago, as she says, become Cubanized, “aplatanada” (full of bananas). She found happiness creating and sponsoring small-scale dances with the members of Así Somos—dances often performed in her apartment for audiences of 20 or 30. Judging from photos and her descriptions, many of them are less overtly political—in terms of narrative, anyway—than her earlier work. Some of her images of the human body disguised by fabric and light call to mind the work of Alwin Nikolais (Elfriede Mahler had danced with Nikolais’s company, but neither Burdsall nor Guillermoprieto describe Mahler’s own choreography.) At the end of More Than Just a Footnote, however, Burdsall becomes passionate about the sorry state of the world in general and the demonization of Cuba by America in particular. “When we leave hearth and home,” she writes, “we become caught up in the territory of the streets where our mental blinders try to shield us from these never ending territorial games: the slicing up of other peoples’ bodies, property, land, cultures, beliefs, and souls.”
Both these writers struggled to define dance for themselves in a strange culture. Burdsall’s work is inevitably tied to both her roots in American modern dance and her adopted Cuban identity. Guillermoprieto found that dance was not only not an international language, but one that she no longer cared to speak.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 14, 2004