CLEVELAND, Ohio – The cultural causeway between Cleveland and Cuba is about to get significantly wider.
Inspired by its recent hosting of Cuban choreographer Laura Alonso, Cleveland’s Verb Ballets Sunday announced plans to visit the island nation next March and perform with local company ProDanza under the name Cleveland Havana Ballet.
That’s not all. In an effort to solidify the relationship, Verb’s directors have made arrangements for members of the public to travel to Cuba for the performances on a trip organized by the Cleveland-based group To Cuba Now.
“It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Margaret Carlson, artistic director of Verb Ballets. “Right now, it’s something that’s possible, so we’re going to do it.”
The focus of the combined company’s efforts will be “Yarini,” a new ballet by Ivan Alonso, son of Laura Alonso and grandson of Alicia Alonso, founder of the world-renowned Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Performances of that work, a ballet about Cuban folk here Alberto Yarini, will take place March 16-18 at Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana.
Verb will also have a chance to showcase its own work. While in Cuba, ahead of “Yarini,” the company also will share a bill with ProDanza in concerts at Havana’s Teatro Miramar featuring each troupe’s current repertoire.
“We see this as a long-term relationship, and this as part two,” Carlson explained.Part one was a visit to Verb last March by Laura Alonso, on a trip organized by the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition project.
For several weeks, Alonso, a member of a dance dynasty revered in Cuba, remained in residence at Verb, instilling in the troupe what Carlson described as a purer version of classical ballet engendered by Cuba’s isolation and commitment to the arts. In that time with Alonso, Verb’s dancers grew “immeasurably,” Carlson said.
In Cuba, Carlson said, “The art of ballet has been completely dissected and put back together. They have preserved what it means to be classical.”It’s hard to find that in America anywhere other than in the really big schools. There’s a lot of fusion going on, and to find those pockets of pure training is more exceptional now.”
Out of that experience grew a desire by Verb to return the favor, to visit Alonso’s homeland and share its art with Cuba. Only such a thing was almost unheard-of, and U.S.-Cuban relations were chilling. Wait too long, and the opportunity might pass completely. Someday, Carlson said, she’d like to see ProDanza come to Cleveland and join Verb in performances of “Yarini” here.
Enter To Cuba Now, a cultural travel agency co-founded by Cleveland lawyer Nicholas York. A specialist in travel to Cuba, York got on the stick and organized what he called a first, a trip during which Americans would be performing for and alongside Cubans.
That Verb pressed ahead with the idea, and the Cleveland Foundation supported it, is a testament to both institutions, he said, especially now, when the need for cultural exchange is greater than it’s been in some time.”I think what Verb has done is exactly what it [the Creative Fusion project] was designed to do,” York said. “They’re doing the hard work of building relationships and continuing to engage.”
Getting an American dance company to Cuba is no easy matter. Many of the most basic elements of life and travel taken for granted by U.S. citizens simply do not exist or are not possible in Cuba.
Cubans today enjoy greater exposure to the outside world than ever, but Americans traveling there still cannot use credit cards, exchange U.S. dollars for Cuban Pesos, or rely on the Internet.
“Cuba is like no other place,” Carlson said. “It’s like stepping back into Spain or Portugal 400 or 500 years ago. There’s a real dichotomy of greatness amidst scarcity.”
“All things considered, I think we’ve put together a pretty smooth program,” York added. “Everyone who has gone to Cuba despite the challenges has come back with a greater appreciation for the people and the culture.”
One thing Verb Ballets can count on in Cuba, York said: a warm reception.
In Cuba, more than perhaps anywhere else, the arts are highly respected, and dance in particular is held in especially high esteem. Cleveland Havana Ballet may prove to be a fleeting thing, never to re-form, but the impact it makes is almost certain to last a long, long time.
“I think they’ll be received with open arms,” York said. “Art, it transcends. It connects people with people.”