Revolution Tango

Georgia Popplewell on Dancing the Revolution, by Alma Guillermoprieto


Issue No. 0 – May 2004

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by Alma Guillermoprieto, trans. Esther Allen (Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-37542093-2, 290 pp)

In 1970, 20-year old Alma Guillermoprieto took up an offer to teach modern dance at Cuba’s Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (ENA). As she notes in the prologue to Dancing with Cuba, her account of those six months in Havana, the experience “unravelled” her life; it also offered her a deeply formative, first-hand glimpse at the grand socialist experiment 11 years after Castro’s revolution.

Guillermoprieto and Cuba were not a natural fit. A Mexico City native who had lived for some years in the United States, she felt oppressed by the tropical heat, and missed the relative luxury of the life she’d left behind in New York, where she’d been taking classes with three of the most important members of the modern dance pantheon: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp. And she was an emotional wreck: inexperienced, generally uncomfortable in her own skin. Cuba would add to her repertoire deep feelings of inadequacy at her inability to engage the revolutionary cause.

Guillermoprieto had also taken to Havana a set of assumptions about Cuba lifted from the New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 70s, and the Mexican intellectual tradition. Dancing with Cuba is as much a chronicle of the “unravelling” of a sensibility as it is a snapshot of Cuba at a certain time. The book blends the best qualities of the personalised, “insider” style of journalism which Guillermoprieto has employed with such skill in her essays on Latin America for The New Yorker — and, notably, in Samba, her brilliant book on Brazil — with a first-person narrative that at times veers deliberately towards the solipsistic. (It may also be worth noting here that Guillermoprieto, who is perfectly bilingual and a writer of the most lucid and elegant English, felt compelled to write this book in Spanish. She worked closely with the translator, who must nonetheless be lauded for rendering the text into utterly graceful English). To juxtapose opinionated capsule histories of key moments in Cuban revolutionary history with an almost absurdist account of one’s attempts at suicide would have been perceived by Guillermoprieto’s colleagues at the ENA as some sort of contamination, which is exactly one of the central themes of this book: what is the place of art, the artist, and personal expression in the context of a society like Cuba’s?

The country in which Guillermoprieto lands in May 1970 is supremely indifferent to art and artists. Dancing with Cuba is only marginally about dance, and of course the “dance” of the title is also meant to signify Guillermoprieto’s shifting relationship with Cuba and its ideals. But dance, especially modern dance, is also the perfect metaphor for art as the revolutionary government perceives it. It is the most feminised of the arts, the only one where female practitioners overshadow men, and therefore uniquely positioned for marginalisation; especially — and notwithstanding the country’s reverence for Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet — in the context of a nation whose founding myth features bearded rebels roughing it in the Sierra Maestra and storming barracks. This indifference is manifested in the neglected art school — which Guillermoprieto calls “a poisoned, almost radioactive complex that the Revolution had declared contaminated from its origins” — the ill-prepared, if eager students, the absence of a dance repertoire, and the general lack of direction of the school itself.

Even politically engaged intellectuals like the Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton, whom Guillermoprieto befriends, find themselves having to justify their role in the revolution. Guillermoprieto reproduces an excerpt from a Casa de las Americas colloquium chaired by Dalton, adding: “for the truth is that at the very moment when Roque Dalton and his colleagues were debating the question of whether spilling their blood or sacrificing their calling was the best way of contributing to the Revolution, that same Revolution had already managed to dispense with them almost entirely.”

Cuba, in 1970, did — and still does — have bigger fish to fry. This was the year of the Ten Million Ton Harvest, the effects of whose dramatic failure Guillermoprieto experiences first-hand, primarily in the deepening hunger she feels as food becomes scarce. But she is thoroughly seduced by Fidel Castro and his ability to admit publicly to failure and mobilise the nation to further efforts. Among the other joys she experiences in Cuba are the friendships of a group of gay men, of a few of her colleagues, and of her bright-eyed students, all of them struggling to be true to a country which was failing them in so many ways.

Yet Guillermoprieto did leave Cuba with her inchoate leftist feelings transformed into “a new vocabulary”. She stopped dancing altogether, and “dedicated long hours of work to Latin America’s struggles for liberation,” adding that “in all the rest of my life no other activity would ever be even remotely as difficult, exhausting or demanding, or grant me as much joy.” It is in Cuba, one thinks, that this fine writer — who has made a successful career helping US readers navigate the complexities of Latin America as the region slouches towards modernity — began to develop the constitution necessary for the job: one which can bear deep and whole-hearted contradiction. This book is by no means an apologia for the failures of the Cuban government, but neither is it an anti-Cuban diatribe. What it works out to be is a complex, important, and artfully rendered memoir of a person, a time, and a place.

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