Guantanamo, Cuba – It’s hot and stuffy inside Teatro Guaso, a drab building on the main road leading out of the city of Guantanamo. The small auditorium is only half full, but loud with animated chatter until a strident, atonal music cuts through, yanking the audience’s attention to the stage.
Six dancers limp into an eerie red light.
At first, their arms dangle, their legs trail, then bodies contort and writhe; the dancers grimace and grunt. There are moments of grace and athleticism, but these are rare. This dance is an exploration of the body as uncoordinated, angular and awkward.
Gen is a loosely narrative piece by multi-award winning Yoel Gonzalez Rodriguez, 27, “a rebel, maybe without a cause”, as he puts it, a dancer, choreographer and founder of the Guantanamo dance company, Medula, meaning “bone marrow” in Spanish.
In Gen, Gonzalez and his dance partner Ines Maria Preval, 21, play two parents who keep giving birth to children with disabilities. The piece is a look at diversity and challenges negative attitudes towards disability.
“People should know that even children with problems are important, that one way or another they make things more beautiful, ensure we’re all different. Any child has the right to be born, whatever his problems. Of course I support the mother’s right to make the decision, but I want to raise some questions,” Gonzalez explains.
“I want to make people think,” he says.
While Cuba is renowned for ballet, folk and myriad popular dances – salsa, mambo, cha-cha-cha, to name just a few – contemporary dance, and certainly dance with a social message, is much rarer.
And rather than following the well-worn path to Havana and even out of Cuba, Gonzalez’s dream is to draw people to Guantanamo.
Medula rehearses every morning in a small studio in a house that has been turned into an art space in the centre of Guantanamo. The building is run by the Associacion Hermanos Saiz, a Cuban body that supports young artists and has been fundamental to allowing new art forms, such as rap and tattooing, to flourish in recent years.
The studio has three walls and the fourth opens onto a patio. The wooden dance floor is cramped even for a small, seven-person dance company.
Limited in how far they can move, in his choreography Gonzalez is forced to focus on twists and lifts, on pushing the number of ways that bodies come together and separate. This is what they do consistently in the morning I spend there: changing partners, experimenting with how to achieve difficult moves with the least strain for the lifter.
Gonzalez, who is leaner than the other dancers, gaunt even, with stick-figure tattoos on his arm which look as if they’ve been roughly etched with a ballpoint pen, is demanding.
“This is a workshop, not a garden,” he admonishes when the dancers start to chat. But his approach is collaborative, unusual in hierarchical Cuba.
His open approach is one of the reasons why talented young dancers from across Cuba have sought to join Medula.
“First one came, then another, then another until there were seven. Then a musical producer came. I have this need to communicate, to communicate with my body and I haven’t looked for anyone,” he says. “People just came.”
Path to choreography
Gonzalez’s first love was music, but his mother always pushed him to dance and when he heard the applause of the audience after his first performance as a teenager, he was hooked.
Cuba enables talented artists and athletes to attend specialist schools from secondary level.
Gonzalez attended Guantanamo’s arts school and was spotted by respected Cuban dance figures such as Alfredo Velazquez and Eduardo Rivero.
After the compulsory period of national service – prolonged as punishment for a “poor attitude” – Gonzalez joined Velazquez’s Guantanamo contemporary dance company Danza Libre when he was 20.
Initially, however, he found it frustrating.
“They had already performed abroad, so you can imagine they had many talented dancers and there was no chance for me to dance,” Gonzalez says.
|The central Guantanamo art space run by Associacion Hermanos Saiz where Medula rehearses [Sylvia Hines/Al Jazeera]|
But the setback proved fortuitous as he focused on choreography. He ended up winning the Danza Libre’s first national prize for choreography.
Guantanamo is peaceful, poor, as yet untouched by development. There's still time to spend the whole afternoon working on a piece without distractions. It's my Shaolin temple.
“That opened all the paths ahead of me,” he says.
“But at that time, I still wasn’t that solid in my work. I’d been lucky, that’s all – I needed some more years to really learn what I was doing,” he says.
Gonzalez speaks of his time at Danza Libre, and particularly of Velazquez, with affection and respect, but says that he reached a point when he had to set out on his own.
“I wanted to direct a group, but with all the group thinking and contributing as well as me and fully in tune with all my ideas,” he says.
Before doing that, however, he wanted a wider experience and so set himself up as an independent dancer and spent time in Havana with well-known companies such as Danza Contemporanea. But he was always drawn back to Guantanamo and in 2014 returned to set up Medula.
“Guantanamo is peaceful, poor, as yet untouched by development. There’s still time to spend the whole afternoon working on a piece without distractions. It’s my Shaolin temple, where I have time to think, to write, to sing,” he says of his city of about 250,000 people.
“At the same time as dancing I’ve almost managed to complete a book, I’ve written poetry, composed music. If I were anywhere else, I don’t believe I’d have had the time to do this.”
Nearer to Haiti than Havana, Guantanamo feels a long way from Cuba’s recent tourist explosion; a bus stop on the route between Santiago and Baracoa rather than a destination in its own right. There’s little accommodation for tourists and none of the new restaurants offering international cuisine. And yet it has one of the richest cultures in Cuba.
Refugees from the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century included both black slaves and white French landowners who brought with them traditions from Africa and France which remain alive in Guantanamo today.
Haiti was once France’s wealthiest colony, and the latest Parisian fashions could be seen in the capital Sainte Domingue; today this influence persists in the Cuban dance known as tumba frances in which people wear costumes evoking the elegant balls of bygone Haiti.
And on top of this, until the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the US naval base of Guantanamo provided lucrative employment opportunities, attracting not only Cubans from all over the country but a wave of immigrants from Spain, Lebanon and Syria who brought their own cultural influences.
People dance in the afternoons and evenings at government-run venues such as the Casa de la Trova and the Casa de Cultura, or once a month in the street at Noche Guantanamera, when a whole street is turned over to food stalls, music and dance.
“You just turn over a stone in Guantanamo,” says Gonzalez, “and there’s a dancer.”
Paul Seaquist, a ballet impresario and producer of the three-year-old Cuba-based North Atlantic Dance Competition and Vladimir Malakhov Grand Prix, for which Gonzalez has won a choreography prize, aims to support and develop recognition of the dance talent in the country’s east.
“We firmly believe the future of dance – not only in Cuba but also in Latin America – is waiting to be discovered in Cuba’s east,” he says.
Seaquist believes it’s important that dance leaders look beyond the pupils of retiring stars when identifying new talent. “We should believe a bit more in the unorthodox, the rebels, the outsiders,” he says.
There are many Guantanamo dance companies, such as the Ballet Folkorico de Babul, concerned with preserving traditions. Gonzalez’s approach is different – he wants to incorporate these traditions into contemporary dance, but without losing their essence.
He recently worked with two octogenarians who were skilled at the traditional Guantanamo dance of changui, a music and dance style originating in the middle of the 19th century which comes from the Bantu culture of Congo and the Ivory Coast and is one of the roots of salsa.
“If I give you two older people dancing changui, it will move you more than two youngsters, for they dance it how it’s meant to be,” he says.
Gonzalez is frustrated by the global popularisation of Cuba’s cultural heritage, which he feels is being cheapened, and is working on a new show called de.generacion, about what he sees as the degradation and commodification of Cuban culture.
“Son, salsa, casino, danzon, kiriba – we are selling these popular dances simply as dances for fiesta, for the drunken. This rhythm” – he taps out the clave rhythm, the essential rhythm of Cuba – “came from the rumba, from the slaves who planted their pain and their needs.
“Guantanamo is a place which maintains its culture – maintains it rather than selling it. Changui is the only Cuban culture which hasn’t sold itself cheap, because those who do it, respect it.”
Despite this respect for tradition, his main reference point and inspiration comes from outside Cuba: he looks to Pina Bausch, the German modern dance choreographer and performer who spent her early years working in her parents’ café in Solingen and there learned to observe and understand what moves people.
He follows her example, spending two hours every day in Cafe la India, in Guantanamo’s central boulevard, where a cafe cortado costs just one Cuban peso ($.04) and where you can sit and observe the full range of people in Guantanamo, from students to labourers to the formally dressed changui dancers.
But above all, Gonzalez is interested in the marginal.
He shows me a series of photos he has taken on his phone of homeless people, street sweepers, people living at the edge of society. In one series an old, destitute man carrying his belongings in a sack, takes out a book and begins to read.
“How often do you see Cubans reading?” he asks. It’s true. Though Cubans are well educated, every town has a library and books are heavily subsidised, you rarely see a Cuban reading in public. “And yet this is what this man with nothing wants to do,” he says.
“I want my city to see things that it doesn’t even know it has and to be amazed. To show that the magnificent can exist anywhere.”
Gonzalez’s social commentary doesn’t convey a clear thesis; it’s more a range of reflections and observations, which he hopes will raise questions.
And his choreographies tend to focus on human difficulties and constraints.
“What interests me is pathology. Mental disorder, schizophrenia; human feelings – pain, happiness; psychological and social disruptions,” he says.
A recent piece, Carcinoma, explored cancer.
“As a cancerous cell, how would I move across this space? It’s fascinating that it’s there inside people long before they know it. It makes me think of a bad marriage too, carrying destruction within it.”
Medula has both local dancers and ones who come from elsewhere.
Two come from Caimanera, the small Cuban town 21km from Guantanamo city and on the frontline with the infamous US naval base. Established in 1903 as a thanks to the US for helping Cuba win independence from Spain, it has been an affront to Cuba ever since the revolution.
They have been unable to do anything about it, however, as the treaty ratifying the “lease” can only be broken by mutual agreement. Every year the US pays $4,000 in rent, which Cuba never cashes.
This bizarre situation of having an “enemy” leasing land from you is compounded by the incentives that the US offers for Cubans to leave Cuba – unlike other immigrants, Cubans setting foot on US soil, which includes the base, are offered both citizenship and financial support.
Many have seen reaching the naval base as an easier route than trying the risky sea crossing and, as a result, the borders between Cuba and the base are heavily guarded. This border area is believed to be one of the most heavily mined places in the world. Access even to Caimanera is restricted: Cuban visitors have to apply for a special pass days in advance; residents have a permanent pass.
Gonzales’ dance partner Preval was born and raised in Caimanera and continues to live there.
“I think I’ve achieved more through living there, because it’s a place that has many feelings, it’s full of pain, full of history. Complicated.
“We look across at the naval base – it’s ours but we can only see it from afar. It’s also something very sad for the people of Caimanera because many have sons who have died trying to reach there, so as well as being the exploiter of Cubans, it’s also been the death of Cubans.”
She calls Medula “completely experimental”.
We have the opportunity to create something, to reach the public at the point that most hurts them,” Preval says. “Not to make people suffer, but to make them think.”
Talk to anyone from Guantanamo and they will proudly reel off a list of achievers in different fields – writers, artists, Olympic athletes – who have come from Guantanamo province. Ask where they are now, though, and all too often the answer is “Havana”.
Preval, already winning prizes in her own right, is ambitious but has no plans to leave.
“I want to conquer the world with dance,” she says. “But perhaps it’s not about leaving Guantanamo. Perhaps it’s about bringing people here to see my work.”
Gonzalez, too, wants the chance to perform on a bigger stage.
“I want to be seen outside Cuba. I’m tired of Cuban theatres,” he says, but adds that his intention is always to return to Guantanamo.
“I’m turning things around, even have dancers from Havana in my company,” he says proudly.” For me, this is a real achievement, like Pina Bausch who stayed outside the capital of Germany but was the most successful contemporary dancer in the world. This is what I aspire to, to reach the level of Pina Bausch – and if I can achieve it, even a bit more.”