UNOFFICIAL VISIT: ESCUELA NACIONAL CUBANA DE BALLET
Approaching midnight. In the darkness, right of the Museo de la Revolucion, lights flicker in a series of elegant windows as trees sway in the breeze. This is the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet.
Upon presenting myself at the door, I am given a tour. The guard lights an inner staircase with his phone. We climb. He is tense, emphasizing the need to be quiet, the need for speed. This visit is off the books. The amount requested for this privilege is low: six CUC. Six dollars. I am unnerved that six dollars alone might change his life enough to balance the risk of us being found. This is one face of survival in Havana in a post-Fidel Castro, post-Obama temporary US rapprochement with Cuba, and while he doesn’t speak to me about this challenge, other Cubans do. They leave jobs as doctors or accountants to work car and bicycle taxis because with tourists they earn in a day what they made before in a month. And the people shut out of the tourist economy can be fatalistic, sometimes bitter, waiting for the changes that will come from outside to sweep them out of their current lives. A worker-artist living on the Malecón says the government has abandoned them; he wants to know how to get inside the new economy. The ballet-school guard has found his answer to that question, taking hesitant, stressful first steps toward enterprise.
Quietly we go room by room. Classrooms with desks, classrooms with barres, the cafeteria, the makeup loge. The presentation is egalitarian; every space is worthy of a foreigner’s photo. Che and Fidel smile from walls and instructional bulletin boards. The guard proudly announces the names of the dancers as we pass photos in the corridor. One frame, oddly, is propped against the wall in a classroom corner, obscured by a table. The picture is of Carlos Acosta as a child dancer, his port de bras taunt, his gaze internal. He studied at the school before leaving Cuba for an international career, and now he rests on the floor. Is there any connection between the two?
Seeking out metaphors comes too easily, perhaps because the Cuban reality is so hard to pierce for an American. The reasons go beyond cultural and ideological divides. I wouldn’t have even been granted the tour had I admitted to being American. The guard posed the question confrontationally: Are you American? In answering, I dubiously took refuge in being an artist, so a shapeshifter, a cultural storyteller; I donned the nationality of my French traveling companion. Non. His question, like his stare, challenged. An American would not be welcome to wander the halls. And who could blame him? The Trump administration demonstrates American capriciousness: we hold out a hand one minute, then pull back just as intimacy and commerce hit the beat. But fortunately there is ballet, and it has its own form of rapprochement. In an unexpected pas de deux, the guard and I exchange glances and then a smile over a dimly lit photograph. We exchange one word. Giselle. Through the power of dance, love and the beloved live on, lovers separated but united.