Theaters of Havana, Cuba

Theaters of Havana, Cuba

“Adventures don’t come calling like unexpected cousins calling from out of town. You have to go looking for them.” — unknown

After a beautiful morning on the beach in Varadero,  we drive to Havana. It is two hours away. We see a lot of cars from the fifties, older Russian models, motorbikes and beat up buses filled with people.  Now we are in a business hotel complete with towels, private rooms and toilet paper. I put the toilet paper in my purse and ask for more. I know we will need it later.  One doesn’t come to Cuba for the food (not when Cuba is paying) or the toilets. (one of my favorite songs – Chan Chan from Buena Vista Social Club -if you don’t watch the video listen to the music while you read)

The concert tonight turns out to be at a small theatre in a very poor neighborhood. There is no place to change and the kids change on the bus. We can see into the sparse apartments around us and smell the garbage.. We are surrounded by hordes of kids and give them almost all the candy , pencils and gum we have brought. They are an amazing audience. What they lack in material possessions, they make up in the love and enthusiasm they have for dance.

At the market in the Plaza Del Armas the next day,  I found out that  the Kennedy Kids were the hottest ticket in the festival and it had been sold out way in advance. They were the first American children in twenty years to be in this important dance festival. They represented hope. We were inexplicably famous. They were on the TV and radio news every day. There was a lot of translating to do  so even  with my bad Spanish, I am interpreting for the press.  It was a reality check to see how few people spoke English.   The Cubans loved seeing the American kids walking around and  people asked for their autographs.

One of the many odd things that happened was how surprised the Cubans were to see  “ninos blancos y negros”   (Direct translation black and white children) playing together at the hotels. Apparently performing was one thing. Their  information about the United States,( like their cars) was from the fifties. They didn’t know that things had changed. They were always asking me if they were allowed to be friends.

The Plaza del Armas  (literally weapons plaza)  is in Old Havana. It is a main square surrounded by crumbling buildings. Horse and carriages (in need of repairs) wait to take you around the old city. El Floridita (made famous by Hemingway) is there.  In the cathedral square is a market selling crafts, books and paintings.  I am there every day.

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We spend a few days  in Havana. Fidel gets his money’s worth. If the kids  are  not performing, they are watching other  children perform. In the daytime, they performed at hospitals, orphanages, schools and the Young Pioneer Headquarters.

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The mission of the Pioneers  in every Communist country is to indoctrinate the young in Communist ideology. At first it felt creepy being at those headquarters seeing only what we were supposed to see. After a day with young pioneer children and teachers, they made us honorary pioneers  by tying the scarves around our necks. We were happy to join our new friends. Our group picture is probably among their photos. ( It was the year before Elian Gonzales. We saw the photos of all the Young Pioneers on the news with our neckscarves waving their fists and wondered if we knew them) (the American Pioneers)

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We go to see Giselle performed by Alessandro Ferry of ABT and the Cuban Ballet Company at the National Theatre of Cuba . It is a huge modern building, decorated with works by Cuban artists. The kids are exhausted and are all asleep when the lights go on at intermission.

It was a beautiful ballet performance – again everyone is talking about it at the Plaza de Armas the next day.  It is amazing  to be in a country that loves ballet.  Many of the wood carvings in the market are dancers.  The others are cars and cigar related things.

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The American Ambassador (yes there is one) finds out that American children are in Cuba and prepares a dinner party. There is a lot of security. They take our purses and cameras in the afternoon.  He rounds up the Americans in Cuba. The Alvin Ailey Company, some documentary filmmakers, any Americans working in Havana ( there are some) , Alicia Alonso and some of the Cuban Ballet Dancers. The ambassador turns out to be from Pasadena, California. We are also  traveling with Fayard Nicholas ( of the  famous tapping Nicholas brothers) He is there telling stories of dancing in Cuba in fifties. It is a wonderful night with good food. (Alicia Alonso -Director of the Cuban Ballet Company and Arlene Kennedy, Fayard Nicholas and Alvin Ailey Dancers, Kennedy Dancers)

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The girls take a ballet class  at the Cuban Ballet School (an old Havana mansion) with members of the Cuban ballet. The school, run by Alicia Alonso has turned out some of the best ballet dancers in the world.  They combine Cuban sensuality with classical training.  The many dancers  who defect to the west  is a very painful thing for them.  The company stars who were there when we were, now dance in the US. The school dates back to the Ballet School of the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical de La Habana, founded in 1931, where Prima Bailerina Allicia Alonso received her earliest ballet classes. In 1962, the National School of Ballet was created as part of the National School of Art . Like all the Cuban educational systems, the  ballet training in this country is free.

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We saw other ballet performances at  the Gran Teatro de Habana.  Someone performs a dance to the Internationale – the communist anthem. The solidarity clap begins. The audience stands and many people have tears in their eyes. (The Internationale)

This prominent theater is located on the site of the former Teatro Tacón in the Paseo de Martí (Prado), in a neo baroque building known as the Palacio del Centro Gallego. It is beautiful and crumbling.(as is much of Cuba). The García Lorca auditorium provides a magnificent stage for the Cuban National Ballet Company, as well as other dance and musical performances.

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The Kennedy Tap Kids and the Alvin Ailey  company perform the next night at  a modern theatre in Havana – the Mella Theatre. It is named after revolutionary hero and dissident Julio Antonio Mella, assassinated in Mexico in 1929 under orders of then Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. This is a modern building with a conventional stage and seating for 1475 attendees. It hosts a variety of shows, from cabaret to recitals as well as theatre performances.

By then we are pros. We sit in the first row and start the standing ovation and  the solidarity clap. American dance moms know how to get a crowd going. !!!!

Adios and Fly Safe


Going To Cuba With God (Part 1)

Going To Cuba With God  (Part 1)

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley

My daughter’s tap company was invited to perform at a reception for the Cuban Ballet in Los Angeles.  The director of the company, Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso is blind. When she listened to the kids dance, her face lit up.  She liked what she heard and invited the Kennedy Tap Kids ( fifteen children ages 10-15) to perform at the world renowned Cuban Ballet Festival. They were the first American children to perform at this Festival in twenty years.

This was fourteen years ago.  Getting a visa for  Cuba at that time was very difficult.  We applied and while we we waited, we raised the money for the airfare. The Cuban government would pay for everything in Cuba. As Americans, you were not allowed to spend money in Cuba.  You could not use a credit card . There was no cell phone service, internet or atms. We didn’t get any information about lodging, meals, performance schedule or our itinerary beforehand.  We did know to bring every medical supply we could think of.   The visas  did not arrive until the day before.  It was very stressful.  I had a lot of anxiety about going.

My mother was legally blind and loved ballet , opera and theatre.  I was raised hearing stories of Alicia Alonso, the blind ballerina. I had seen her dance when I was young  and  my daughter had  done a  book report on her the year before.  I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to go if hadn’t been for her.   I had grown up with her story.

In case I wasn’t nervous enough, Hurricane Mitch ( the deadliest hurricane  since 1780) was in Cancun at the time we were leaving. We had decided to fly into Cancun because they didn’t want the kids to go past the picket signs in Miami. For the last few days, the news would show empty Cancun airport and a city ravaged by the storm.  We were still going. I  was preparing, convinced we would be staying in a storm shelter if we even made it to Cancun. I packed lanterns, flashlights , my earthquake blankets and water.  The night before I was having a panic attack.

I called one of the moms.  What are you doing  about the storm Valerie?  What are you bringing?. Her response was “I’m praying.” “You’re praying?” I try to keep the hysterical edge out of my voice.  “ Yes”, she replied. I could see that she wasn’t going to be any help.

I was so nervous that I didn’t sleep.  I was  still deciding whether or not we should go at the airport in the morning. When we arrived at the airport , the teachers and students were in a  circle praying for the safety of the journey . Really? In the middle of the airport? This was a devout group.  They practically pushed me on the plane.  The plane was empty .  The media had done an excellent  job.   We can each have our own row in coach.

The flight is relatively smooth. We land in the empty Cancun airport.  It is sunny. Valerie looks at me. I don’t say anything.  Fifty skycaps  come running toward us ( the only people around)  with their carts. Sorry, we  are just changing planes.. We take pictures near the broken glass and blown out windows .

We move on to my next fear.  It is the very small plane that is taking us to Havana.  I have a fear of small and very small planes. I sit with Arlene Kennedy on the plane.  Arlene and Paul Kennedy ran the Kennedy Dance School and Tap Company. Many famous tap dancers have come out of this school.  Arlene Kennedy had danced around the world and  had seen it all . She  dealt with all the chaos at the Kennedy  School with a quiet strength.  On the plane, she acted like we were sitting in the Chinese restaurant next door to the school having a chat.  It was exactly what I needed.

I didn’t have to worry. When the turbulence started, the Mormon missionaries sitting behind us started to sing and pray.    We finally landed.

Landing in a  Communist or Military oppressed country always feels different .  There is a lot of security and people with guns around.  (It was pre 9/11). It is quieter.  The air smelled thick with smoke. It was about three o clock in the morning for us. We waited on line for a while . They didn’t stamp our passports, but stamped a separate piece of paper. At that time it was better not to have a Cuba stamp on your passport.  There were no stores in the airport.  We were taken to a bus and driven away in the dark.

We were going to our first destination, Varedero, a beautiful resort city about a two hour drive  from Havana.  We were told that we would be in a five star hotel.  It didn’t look like a hotel – it looked like a camp.  It smelled like a tropical island.  It was very dark and there were dim or no street lights so we couldn’t see where we were.  The kids were brought into the dining room.  All they wanted to do was go to sleep. They were exhausted.  Someone brought out vanilla ice cream for everyone.  They didn’t want it. They were American kids. They could have ice cream any time they wanted. ( for dessert only)  I had to tell each one of them quietly that they had to eat the ice cream .  It was a special treat that they had prepared for us. (when was the last time you forced a kid to eat ice cream?) At the end of our trip in Santa Clara,  we saw a line that stretched out over many blocks. We looked to see what they were lined up for. It was an ice cream cart. They understood.

We were then taken to another building. We had to climb two flights of stairs with our suitcases.  I don’t travel lightly.  In addition to my regular packing, there were  costumes, dance shoes, extra food, medical and storm supplies. Thank you Tony Nicholas for carrying my suitcase up the stairs that night.  Our room has a big hole in the screen ( the size of my head). My daughter is allergic to mosquitos and I read that they were there.  ( I never saw them).  We moved into a big dorm room with all  the kids.  My daughter and I shared a twin bed . Luckily I  brought a pillow as there weren’t any.   The kids were now hopped up on sugar from the ice cream and jet lag. There was a woman I didn’t know in the bed next to us.  My daughter did not look happy. I tried not to cry.  Things were not off to a good start.

Viaje Con Cuidado,