Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Arts of Cuba, Set to Wow New York

The Arts of Cuba, Set to Wow New York
Published: February 8, 2011

All those and more than two dozen other artists will take part in a
wide-ranging festival of Cuban arts that will last more than two months
in locations around New York this spring. The festival, called "¡Sí
Cuba!," is one of the most significant indications that cultural
relations between the United States and Cuba are thawing after nearly a
decade in a deep freeze.

The festival, which is to be announced formally on Wednesday, is
scheduled to run from March 31 to June 16, with nearly every form and
style of Cuban arts and culture represented, in settings as diverse as
Carnegie Hall and the outdoor Big Screen Project; 14 city arts
organizations will be taking part. Music, film, dance, painting,
theater, photography and literature are all included, and dozens of
performers and artists are expected to come from Cuba for the events.

"We felt that this was the right time to do this, and New York the right
place," said Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of
Music, which is the driving force behind the festival and will host many
of the events. "There's an optimism in the air about freeing up more
interactions, which makes things feel very different than they did
during the Bush administration and offers an opportunity for all of us
to present work of a really high level in concentrated form."

Ms. Hopkins and other festival organizers said their only objectives
were to showcase the richness of Cuban culture and build bridges between
American and Cuban creative artists. But with both the Obama
administration and the dictatorship of Fidel and Raúl Castro showing
interest in reducing longstanding tensions between the two countries,
the event obviously has political connotations too.

"Both governments have clearly identified the cultural space as a safe
space for them to pursue connections between the two countries, so this
fits very well into that context," said Julia E. Sweig, author of "Cuba:
What Everyone Needs to Know" and a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations. "This could be like Ping-Pong diplomacy, except that
it's happening in the cultural sphere."

The Obama administration began loosening restrictions on travel to and
from Cuba nearly two years ago, which led to a trickle of Cuban artists
traveling to the United States and enabled American arts presenters to
visit Havana and investigate the scene there. Last month the White House
announced new measures that permit Americans to send money to Cuban
citizens; expand opportunities for travel to Cuba by academic, religious
and cultural groups; and allow charter flights from more American airports.

"When we were closed, and it was hard for Cuban artists to travel to the
U.S., they were still producing and having their shows," said Ben
Rodríguez-Cubeñas, a Cuban-American who is chairman of the Cuban Artists
Fund, which is devoted to promoting cultural exchanges. Mr.
Rodríguez-Cubeñas returned on Sunday from Havana, where he was
coordinating arrangements for the festival. "Cuba has always had a
vibrant arts scene, and Americans are now rediscovering that."

For its part, the Cuban government has recently eased some restrictions
on private economic activity, which, Mr. Rodríguez-Cubeñas noted, allows
artists more creative and financial leeway. In addition, some of those
scheduled to participate in the festival, among them a group of more
than a dozen young visual artists exhibiting under the name Queloides
("Scar Tissue"), tackle subjects that until recently might have created
political difficulties for them, like the racism present in a country
whose black majority is led by a white gerontocracy.

Two painters, Alberto Casado and Rocío García, will have a joint show
called "Concealed Faces" because they "deal with issues that aren't that
much in evidence in our media," Corina Matamoros, curator of
contemporary Cuban art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, said in a
telephone interview from that city. "That doesn't mean they are directly
political, but they address some of the less visible spheres of society,
like crime, poverty and sexual identity."

The Cuban artists participating in the festival include a handful of
very familiar names, like the National Ballet of Cuba, led by the
90-year-old Alicia Alonso. But there are also lesser-known groups like
El Ballet Folklórico Cutumba and Danza Contemporánea de Cuba; that
troupe will perform at the Joyce Theater in May.

"We've been trying to invite this company for quite a long time, because
they are very well trained, and their repertory is really quite
fantastic," said Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce.
"They've had some training in Martha Graham technique, but their
choreography really has developed without much influence of American
choreographers, so we think New Yorkers will want to see what the dance
scene there is like."

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, founded 60 years ago, last played in New
York in 2002. At the other end of the musical spectrum, the rapper
Telmary Díaz will be performing on April 23 at BAMCafé.

"Among aficionados of drumming and Santeria, this really is the premier
group, and people have been asking me for years when they were going to
be coming back," said Robert H. Browning, artistic director of the World
Music Institute, which is sponsoring Los Muñequitos de Matanzas' May
performances at Symphony Space. "We tried to bring them again two or
three times, but Cuba was always on the bad list."

Several Cuban-American artists have also been invited to participate in
festival events, literary readings and concerts among them. Cristina
García, the author of "Dreaming in Cuban" and other novels, said that
will create opportunities for creative artists on both sides of the
Straits of Florida to get to know one another — and each country's works
— better.

"I plan to stay in New York for three or four weeks to partake of these
riches, which are not the kind of thing you normally have any real
access to," she said. "And I think it's wonderfully advantageous for
them too. Not only are they desperate for connections and influences and
eager to see what is happening in all the different realms of the art
world here, I also think they want to strut their stuff. I'm sure they
are thinking this will lead to other invitations and travel, if things
go well."

Events in which Cuban artists are involved are contingent on their
getting approval to leave their country and visas to travel to the
United States. That was often a problem during the Bush administration,
but organizers say they are less worried now, even though restrictions
on the ability to pay Cubans for their work in the United States remain
in place.

"It's obviously not done until it's done," said Susan L. Segal,
president of the Americas Society, which will be sponsoring readings and
panels on novels and plays and a multimedia exhibition focused on
posters and film. "But this is a very prestigious festival, so I can't
imagine they will have problems getting visas."

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