A Dance Company Keeps Its Edge

Article by Lenore Fedow
Video by Mark Garzon, Nicholas Leung and Lenore Fedow

HAVANA – Yoerlis Brunet Arencibia stood in front of his 20 dancers, observing as they stretched and writhed on the floor beneath. With two claps of his hands, they were on their feet, ready to begin an hourlong class.

The dancers ran in circles around the sparse studio, twirling around each other to avoid collisions. With only a small oscillating fan in each corner, the dancers’ clothes were soon slick with sweat.

Dancers leap during a class at Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. Photo by Angelique Couvertier

The class – led by Arencibia, a former dancer with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba and now a ballet master and teacher there – was part of intense preparations for the world premier of a piece the company was scheduled to present later in the month.

Arencibia said the style of dance he teaches is strongly influenced by Latin American ballroom steps such as the Cuban salsa and rumba.

To read our full coverage of Cuba in 2016, click here. 

“It is very impressive to see 20, 25 people dancing at the same time with the same technique, even though they have differences,” Jorge Brook, the company’s manager, told a group of visitors watching the class.

The company is one of Cuba’s leading state-run cultural institutions, the embodiment of the socialist government’s effort to promote artistic talent. It is housed in the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, steps away from Plaza de la Revolucion, where a 358-foot Jose Marti memorial, a salute to a Cuban literary figure and national hero, towers over the square.

After the dancers completed their stretches, a three-man band began providing music for the lesson. The class was just the first in a long day of rehearsals.

According to Brook, the dancers are at the studios Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closer to a performance, they can stay as late as 7 p.m., as well as holidays, including Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, he said.

Dancers eat their meals at a cafeteria. Some students rent places nearby, while others live in dorms elsewhere in Havana.

VIDEO: Inside the company

International students sometimes join the ranks as part of an internship-like program. However, they “don’t dance like Cubans,” said Arencibia, who explained that he strives to teach students the Cuban technique while respecting each dancer’s individuality.

During the class, Arencibia would demonstrate a move once, watching his dancers repeat it back to him in perfect unison. Patient, but exacting, he circled the room with his hands clasped behind his back. To the amateur eye, the dancers were flawless, but Arencibia zeroed in on imperfections, gently moving a hip or hand into place.

The week was to be a busy one, with the premiere a week away. The dancers had been training with Colombo-Belgian dancer-turned-choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, preparing to perform her newest creation, Heterodoxo, at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, in honor of the 57th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

The company often works with foreign choreographers, such as Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and Dutch choreographer Jan Linkens. The company’s founder, Ramiro Guerra, trained in the United States with Martha Graham. “We have always been a very open company,” said Brook.

The dancers have performed throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, including, in 2011, its U.S. debut,  in New York City at the Joyce Theater. Arencibia said Linda Shelton, the Joyce’s executive director, insisted the group come to New York as part of the ¡Sí Cuba! Festival.

But the group rarely performs in the United States, preferring venues in Europe, where the pay is better, according to Arencibia. In the U.S., he said, the dancers receive only a daily allowance to cover living expenses. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba prohibits venues from paying for more than the expenses of Cuban artists.

As the class continued, Arencibia paced along the back wall, hands on hips, watching his dancers glide across the floor. He could only stay still for so long, jumping between the dancers to demonstrate the next move, rearranging and changing partners. Satisfied, he retreated back into the corner, blending into the background as his dancers took center stage.