Spanning Cultural Bridges Over the U.S.-Cuban Gulf

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the Cuban National Folkloric Dance Ensemble arrived in Clinton Township, Mich., on Jan. 30, it was so chilly--50 below--that the animal-skin heads on several drums cracked.

"It was very cold," remembered artistic director Rogelio Martinez Fure, midway through the tour. "But the audience was very warm."

That opening night represented a triumph in a long struggle to expand cultural exchanges between Cuba and the U.S., and from Fure's perspective, the Michigan performance and subsequent dates in his troupe's 39-city, two-month tour made it all worthwhile.

But then, 3 1/2 weeks into the tour, the warmth that Fure and his troupe felt was threatened. On Feb. 24, the Cuban Air Force shot down two civilian airplanes belonging to members of the anti-Castro exile group Brothers to the Rescue, killing four men. The incident put slightly thawed relations between the U.S. and Cuba back into the deep freeze.

"My immediate feeling when I heard the news was, 'Why did this have to happen now?' " said tour producer Michel Vega, who had worked to arrange bookings and obtain visas for almost two years. With 36 dancers, singers and musicians, he said he believes this is the largest cultural import from Cuba since 1979.

Vega feared he would have to end the tour and ship the group home. With direct flights to Cuba prohibited, he began arranging travel through a third country.

But now, Vega and Fure say, none of that has proved necessary. The troupe will appear Tuesday in L.A. and Wednesday in Claremont, and since the shooting it has performed from Brooklyn to Hays, Kan., almost without a hitch.

The only presenter to cancel so far (the tour ends March 29) has been the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., on a direct order from the U.S. Defense Department, Vega said. There was a small demonstration in Charlotte, N.C., a week after the planes were downed, and a handful of angry phone callers have canceled tickets at some venues. But by and large, both Vega and the troupe's directors say their reception has remained positive. In North Carolina, for example, the show sold out and received a standing ovation.

Still, the incident and its aftermath have taken a toll. "It's incredibly frustrating," Vega said, "because it's taking away from all the goodwill that's been created by the tour, and from the actual news that these people are here to present their culture directly to the American people."

A passionate lover of Cuban music, Vega is a New York-based arts promoter who managed Afro Cuban jazz bandleader Mario Bauza's career in the early '90s. "Cuba has an incredible cultural legacy which U.S. audiences have been deprived of getting to know firsthand for three decades now," he said. "That's why I thought it was important to bring this group, something special and historic."

Founded by Fure in 1962, the Cuban National Folkloric Ensemble is the country's leading exponent of traditional and popular dance and music. They do everything from the orisha dances of the Afro Cuban religion of Santeria to contemporary social and street dances to historical oddities like tumba francesa--which showcases the influence of French and African escapees from the Haitian revolution with formal, minuet-like dances set to pure African percussion.

The troupe seems to have successfully communicated the most compelling aspect of Cuba's dance--its tremendous vitality. "The control and technique of the dancers are astonishing," said the Washington Post. "But their ability to translate this disciplined refinement into a joyous celebration of life is even more so." Louisville's Courier-Journal called the performance "great entertainment. . . . The audience was standing and cheering, begging for more."

"This tour has been an extraordinary experience for the company," Fure said. "[It] shows us that culture can be a bridge between peoples. . . . I believe that after everything else, people will receive this message."

*

At least for now, the official avenues for that message are still open. The Helms-Burton Act, signed by President Clinton on March 12, expands aspects of the economic embargo of Cuba but makes no mention of cultural programs.

"The president took a number of steps to show the U.S.'s forceful response to the shooting, but he notably did not tighten the screws on [such] exchanges," said a State Department spokesman. "We think exchange with Cuban artistic professionals and the nongovernmental community is very important to helping that community develop some independence."

But, said Gillian Gunn Clissold, director of the Georgetown University Cuba Project, Havana now has added reasons not to cooperate. Clissold said the Cuban government was already nervous about the potentially subversive effect of such contacts. And now, "if the U.S. government is presenting itself in a confrontational mode, then the Cuban government is going to be much less flexible in authorizing exit visas for cultural groups that the U.S. wants to [have] visit."

The losers on both sides would be artists and audiences. Martha Galarraga, a singer in the Folklorico Ensemble, said she and the company had enjoyed the response they'd gotten here. "It's a very good experience," she said, by phone from Kansas last week. "These exchanges are to the advantage of the people. If these things are frustrated, it's a pity. But it's not our fault."

* The National Folkloric Dance Ensemble of Cuba performs Tuesday, 8 p.m., Veterans Wadsworth Theater, $25, (310) 825-2101, and Wednesday, 8 p.m., Pomona College, Claremont, $20-$25 ($8-$10 for Pomona students), (909) 621-8032.

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