Havana is an incredibly intoxicating city but like Cuba itself, highly contradictory. The quality of the country’s education system and healthcare services may be exemplary, but the wages of the average citizen are shockingly low. Partly this is due to the complications of the dual-currency system and the ramifications of the ongoing trade embargo imposed by the United States. Chalk it up to the price of politics. No matter how entangled the circumstances of their lives are, for most Cubans the bottom line is that much of what many democratised societies take for granted – from basic supplies to freedom of speech – is still out of reach under the Castro regime.
This is where human resilience kicks in but also – at the risk of courting cliché – what could be deemed an innately Cuban sense of rhythm. The racial mix of this island nation has produced a culture rich in music and movement. Perhaps the obvious question is how does a country so small manage to churn out so many gifted artists, especially in dance? Alicia Alonso, the legendary ballerina who co-founded Ballet Nacional de Cuba more than sixty years ago, believes it’s partly attributable to a climate guaranteed to keep dancers’ muscles warm, plus the exceptional training they receive. ‘Cuban rhythms go very well with the body,’ she adds. ‘It gets deep inside you. This is something we have by nature. We’re very expressive people. We speak with our hands, our eyes.’
I’m reminded of Alonso’s words as I watch several dozen members of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba take class at company headquarters in Havana’s Teatro Nacional. It’s early December, and ideal weather for t-shirts and sandals. As someone sagely remarked to me, ‘To understand Cuban dance you have to understand heat.’ There are no mirrors in the modest studio, nor is there any ballet barre. Many of the windows on either side of the room are open, admitting gusts of warm air. Just outside thick palm trees grow impressively tall, as if the company existed in some sort of tropical version of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The company works hard and, in doing so, exerts a kind of sweaty magic. Hips are oiled and backs arched as the juice of live percussion pulsates through these exceptionally flexible bodies, courtesy of four tireless musicians. The drive of their drumming couples seductively with the variety of moves executed by the dancers. They stretch taut before twisting down onto the floor. Then, upright again, they undulate like a grove of strong young trees. You could sell tickets to this class, it’s that satisfying to watch. By the end the dancers are swooping across the space, human rockets gifted with a sexy, supersonic energy.