THE CUBAN DANCE CONSTRUCT:
A MECHANISM FOR CREATIVE AGENCY AND IDENTITY FORMATION
American University of Paris, Paris (France)
American University of Paris, Paris (France)
The Cuban state project of arts institutionalization has created a dance construct that is world-renowned and plays an important role in Cuban society as an outlet for expression and commentary, a protected space for dialogue, and a conduit to the international artistic arena. During a 30-day period in Havana, Cuba, the author explored the anatomy of the life of the Cuban dancer; from interviewing dancers, teachers, choreographers, and directors; attending performances; observing lectures, classes and rehearsals; and taking classes with the national dance companies. the author investigated how the dance construct influences the individual artists and the Cuban society at large and why the dance construct plays such a critical role. Dance as an emotional practice expands the range of creative agency and facilitates the expression of individual and community identity. The dance construct fulfills an artistic social contract between artists and the public to provide a protected space for dialogue and innovation. The vibrant Cuban dance construct demonstrates the potential of this contract when both parties participate in fulfilling their obligations in this agreement. Through deeper understanding of the cultural societal forces at work, the power of dance can be maximized to produce a positive impact on communities around the world.
Keywords: Dance, creative agency, identity formation, practice, artistic social contract
There is a saying among dancers that the author first heard when she was a young student at the Washington School of Ballet, “You don’t choose dance; dance chooses you”. The vocation to dance drives dancers all over the world to dedicate their lives to perfecting their craft. For the individual dancer, the pursuit of technical and artistic excellence satisfies certain fundamental human needs for self-affirmation, self-expression, and self-actualization. As dancers interact within the greater network of the dance construct, the collective action of dance amplifies the nature of collective identity and creative agency. This framework encompassing the transformative power of dance to mold individual dancers and collective entities has the potential to generate an array of positive development on society at large.
There is a growing trend of dance companies that engage in international touring and cultural exchange. Under the banner of “cultural diplomacy”, dance organizations travel far and wide, participating in international festivals, teaching residencies, and artistic exchanges; the aim is to capitalize on the power of dance to generate positive cross-cultural experiences that could lead to constructive dialogue in a larger public sphere that affects political and societal change. Alternatively, the case study examined here demonstrates how dance provides a channel for individual and collective agency and identity in a society with a history of inhibited autonomous expression under a repressive political system. The restricted activity of the public space finds relief in the artistic sphere with more lenient censorship and its pervasion throughout all socioeconomic classes. In order to more fully understand the mechanics of creative agency through dance as it can be applied to other communities and populations, the discussion needs to be restructured around a direct link between dance and the basic human need for agency and identity formation. The unit of creative agency is the individual dancer’s body and radiates outward. The participants of the dance construct observed in this investigation indicate the presence of a social contract between artists and public, an unspoken agreement to cultivate a unique space for creative development, conscientious dialogue, and meaningful interaction.
Artists may spend their entire career outside their home country, or be lifetime employees of the state in a national company, but always carry a national identity with them that informs their personal narrative. Therefore, the role of government-imposed structure on a dancers’ formation is critical in shaping the fully matured artist. The Cuban example of a state project of arts institutionalization has created a tour de force of a dance construct that is world-renown. There are approximately 60 dance companies and 150 dance schools throughout Cuba that include classical ballet, contemporary dance, and folk dance. During the author's month-long stay in Havana, she explored the anatomy of the life of the Cuban dancer in a variety of dimensions. Whether she was taking company class with Danza Contemporánea, observing rehearsal at the Ballet Nacional studios, or attending performances by students and professional Spanish folk dancers, the author got to know many dancers, teachers, choreographers, and directors who have dedicated their life to dance and are cultural products of a state-sponsored network of educational and professional institutions. This network establishes the parameters of dance practice that shapes the dancers, artists, and public both as external and internal cultural diplomats promoting the Cuban cultural identity and furthermore as conversant participants of an artistic social contract.
Theory of Identity, Agency, and Practice
This investigation is derived from the notion that there are certain human constructs that are essential for pursuing the good life that are more or less interdependent: identity formation and human agency. Charles Taylor’s theory on sources of identity and agency through radical reflexivity and expressivism, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice as a key to agency provide the theoretical schematics for the investigation of dance practice and articulation of artistic agency observed in this case study of the Cuban dance construct. Beginning with a brief discussion of culture as a soft power mechanism, the author will reiterate much of what has already been established regarding dance as soft power through cultural diplomacy; the role of dance companies as vectors for national narratives through international touring and cultural exchanges has been practiced widely throughout the world. Then the paper will extrapolate from Taylor’s expressivism and Bourdieu’s theory on the body in the logic of practice to create a framework for dance practice as a means towards self-mastery, self-expression, and self-actualization. Finally, it will delineate the nature of the structure within the dance construct as cultural capital is accumulated and distributed, as agents participate in dialogue and exchange ideas, and communities are shaped by cultural practice.
Dance as Soft Power
From the point of view of the state, the power of culture is a tool to be wielded in obtaining favorable outcomes in public diplomacy. Nation-building projects employ the use of art and culture to facilitate the end goals with the maximum potential for public compliance. The nationalist ideology and concepts of nationality and nation-ness employ the capacities of cultural artifacts of a particular kind to operate in a Taylor-like manner in constructing identity and ideology for a defined community (Anderson 1991). In addition to such internal narrative projections, states employ art and culture to shape their external narrative. Cultural diplomacy is primarily associated with soft power as a tool to legitimize foreign policy in conjunction with the global cultural norm (Kang 2013). A long-term, multi-dimensional process, cultural diplomacy concerns three areas of national interests: cultural identity, soft power, and the creative economy (Ibidem.). The use of the term cultural diplomacy has been on the rise, describing a wide variety of activities that extends beyond the practice of official government agents and envoys. The proliferation of practices related to cultural cooperation between nations or groups of nations has generated a broader paradigm of international cultural relations, calling for the formation of a new category, “culture in external relations” to facilitate the distinction between cultural relations that grow organically outside government intervention and cultural diplomacy that aims to advance national interests (Isar 2010). The operative capacities of culture to obtain a spectrum of social, political, and economic goals derive from the association between culture and agency, identity, and practice.
State-sponsored art and culture has been wielded as a soft power tool across the globe. States engaged in aggressive soft power initiatives recognize the prominence of individuals operating in the cultural sphere as influential representatives and creators of societal attitudes (Glants and Kachurin 2002, 3). In 1958, the first official diplomatic agreement was signed between the US and the Soviet Union, a watershed moment in people exchange, establishing recurring performance arts exchanges as a fixture in foreign policy (Richmond 2005, 240). China has sent its top performing arts companies to tour world capitals including engagements at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2010 presenting “Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall”, in 2011 with “Silk Road”, and most recently in 2013 with “Qingming Riverside”. The Chinese ministry of culture funds these large productions extolling their representation of the grand culture and history of China (Traiger 2013).
The author came to Cuba as a dancer who in the past has participated in international engagements as a “cultural diplomat” with City Dance Ensemble under the auspices of the US Department of State and has now turned a passion for dance into a passion for international exchange and dialogue through dance to create a positive impact on society. Managing this transition, she has struggled with the paradigm of “cultural diplomacy” and tried to place herself under. As a dance practitioner, she feels like this paradigm does not capture the depth contained in the transformative power of dance to create a positive imprint on society. While the author hopes that this investigation sheds new light on aspects of dance, culture and society that have not previously been fully articulated, it is impossible to contain all the power of dance and culture into one rubric. But with this new framework we can hopefully discover a wider scope of agency to tap into and help guide the next generation of dancers to pursue international dance projects with effectively targeted goals and outcomes.
The Dancer’s Body: The Fundamental Unit of Creative Agency
To date, the scholarly literature on the practice of art is largely from the perspective of the spectator (Bourdieu 1990, 34). The soft power paradigm delineated above largely focuses on the affect of art and culture on the public. By transferring the perspective from the spectator to the practitioner, the role of the body in expressivism and the logic of practice reveal greater depth and capacity for creative agency for the individual dance practitioner. The relationship between practice and the body is critical; the body is rich material to carry symbolic significance, acquire information, and transmit information through meaningful gesture and movement (Ibidem, 72). Taylor also indicates the force of the physical nature and material being of the individual to evoke meaningful creative expression (Taylor 2006, 371). The body is like a bank for cultural norms and ideals; the body learns practices, stores knowledge, then can enact history and past memories expressed through emotion to pass on that knowledge. In this way, the body of the Cuban dancer can be seen as a living repository for a wealth of cultural information, history, and ethos that externalize the Cuban identity through the communication, preservation, and reinvention of cultural capital.
Subsumed in Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, the embodied history of an individual shaped by schemes of perception, thought, and action, is “hexis”, the term for the socially conditioned physical body, its gestures and postures (Scheer 2012, 201). As the body can be a channel for externalizing the embodied history of an individual, it can also can be manipulated and activated to generate intentioned emotions through practice. Bourdieu (op. cit., 69) states that bodies, “as actors know, give rise to states of mind…as many uses of singing and dancing show, from the less visible intention of ordering thoughts and suggesting feelings through the rigorous marshaling of practices and the orderly disposition of bodies”. Both the form and substance for practice, the materiality of the body provides not only the locus of competence, dispositions, and behavioral routines of practice, it is also the “stuff” with and on which practices work (Scheer op. cit., 200).
Expanding bodily theory beyond social conditioning and determinism, the body of the dance practitioner is catalytic, generative, and discursive. The bilateral conversation between dancers and choreographers to create art, movement, and design demonstrates how bodies are capable of being dexterous material written upon and simultaneously capable of writing (Morris 2001, 58). Through this process, the dancer’s body becomes more than a cultural repository or living artifact to embody the past, and participates in writing a new chapter reflecting the present and influencing the next generation of dance practitioners. Bourdieu posits that there is a bodily intelligence that lies outside the realm of conscious reason that explains how the practical decisions filtered through the body of the dancer embodies their external field of experience (Morris op. cit., 57). The body of the Cuban dancer processes the particularities of their social and political conditions in a way that makes Cuban dance distinctly Cuban. The impact of dance on individual dance practitioners and society at large emanates from the unit of the body of the dancer, with its special capacity to foster identity formation and interactive dialogue, delineate a protected space for expression and sharing ideas, and facilitate meaningful change.
Taylor’s Expressivism: Formation of the Dancer
For the individual dance practitioner, the drive to dance fulfills certain basic human needs. Concerning self-hood and the pursuit of the good life, the moral intuitions at work are uncommonly deep, powerful, and universal (Taylor op. cit., 4). An innate moral imperative drives the individual to adopt a framework that explains the moral positions and choices that constitute an individual’s day-to-day experiences. The articulation and definition of this framework is key to achieving a full sense of self; with this self-knowledge, one can exercise rational agency with integrity, efficacy, and purpose. In the contemporary sense of identity, we are defined by the purposes and capacities that we discover within ourselves (Ibidem., 301). Exploring one’s inner purposes and capacities, articulating a first-person narrative through one’s expressive capacities, and harnessing the power of one’s creative imagination to expand the scope of agency within structure are the cornerstones of Taylor’s theory that will be used here to interpret the findings from the case study of the Cuban dance construct.
Individuals strive to create a stable identity, despite continual change (Tucker 1993, 195). The role of narrative in achieving such stability is paramount, enabling the individual to engage in a dialectical process of self-discovery and interpersonal relationships. The linkage between one’s orientation to the good and sense of self constitute Taylor’s framework of understanding (Frie 2011, 343). Building upon the normative framework that establishes one’s orientation to a moral stance, the articulation of a self-narrative provides a deeper layer of identity formation that leads to greater self-knowledge, self-interpretation, and self-affirmation. The pursuit of unity of self through this narrative formation is a critical component of the pursuit of the good life. The unification of the moral self is a precondition of internalization, finding order within oneself; this is attained through self-mastery through thought or reason, achieving calm and collected self-possession, harmony and concord of the whole person (Taylor op. cit., 116). The gaps or conflicts between inner and external realities are potential motivators for change in a social, cultural, or political arena, yet following Taylor’s logic, the ability to reconcile disparity cannot be achieved without the prior internalization and formation of a holistic identity.
Before an individual can effectively engage with a greater public sphere, the accuracy of this self-narration is contingent upon the capacity for language to articulate it. Taylor attests to the constructive powers of language to form a correct portrayal of an independent reality, a manifestation of what we are through expression, and a central capacity to human life (Ibid., 198). As an artist, the author work to extend the parameters of language beyond the verbal; a language that narrates a self-portrayal need not be restricted to the written or spoken word, for surely there are elements of inner reality that are unutterable. The process of radical reflexivity is an introspective self-examination; Taylor argues that the emergence of the modern self as the product of radical reflexivity creates the need for a reflexive language to fully articulate it (Ibid., 176). The search for a capable alternative language is powerful motivator driving the artistic imagination. One potential alternative can be found in the discourse of Byzantine chorography, the making of sacred space in Byzantium a performative inscription, the trace of the invisible sacred made visible by inscribing the sacred space with the dance (Isar 2009, 264). This genre of choreographic inscription demonstrates how dance portrays the unutterable, and Taylor’s search for identity reflexivity may find some answers in the exploration of dance, space, and movement as a mechanism for narrative formation.
Building upon identity formation as articulated by a self-narration, the individual is now equipped to respond to another universal drive: mastery of self. Taylor posits that rational agency is the constitutive good, standing above the rest of the universal intuitions (Taylor op. cit., 94). Agency is constituted by the affirmation of the self and the will to mastery; this will moves us, inspires us, drives us, and motivates the pursuit of self-discovery to reveal how that desire can be fulfilled (Millard and Forsey 2006, 201). Rational human agents have the capability to make and remake themselves by methodological and disciplined action; this pursuit of self-mastery empowers individuals to a wider possibility for agency (Taylor op. cit., 159). Defining agency as the human capacity for reflective action and choice, the key to optimizing agency lies in the capacity for performing masterful reflection to objectively assess the extent and limitation for individual action and to instrumentalize one’s capacities to execute choices based on that reflection. Another basic drive that is part of the modern sense of self is the obligation to live up to our own originality, from the theoretical construct Taylor refers to as “expressivism”; the creative act of the individual to make something manifest in a given medium fulfills each individual’s calling to follow an original path (Ibid., 375). The creative component of human agency is what allows an individual to project originality and actualize innovative, imaginative inquiries. The manifestation of creative innovation through a common reflexive language enables the creative agent to share and exchange of ideas, make normative affirmations, and forge intersubjective relationships. The space that is created throughout such exchanges of ideas opens a window for instrumental action (Tucker op. cit., 196). The Cuban case demonstrates the capacity for agency emerging from an institutionalized dance construct as a channel for its participants to shape the notion of Cuban identity and culture at large. The individual dancer finds power and agency through pursuing self-affirmation, maximizing self-actualization, and projecting their creative selves.
Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice: Dancing in Community
The logic of practice may help serve as a key to unlocking a space for creative imagination and external realization of human agency with the infusion of the physical body set within a social structure. Taylor (op. cit., 204) defines practice as any stable configuration of a shared activity, influenced by embedded ideas and normative constructs . The Cuban dance construct is a highly differentiated network of educational and professional institutions, pervasive throughout Cuban households in family tradition with communally agreed upon standards for practice and participation. Bourdieu, building upon his concept of the habitus and the nature of structure, asserts that practice is the means by which mutually reinforcing rule-resource sets infuse particular knowledge and dispositions (Sewell 1992, 15). The synergy of a community’s normative framework with the external manifestation through practice supplies a rubric for assessing the nature of agency for individuals in a variety of circumstances. The mechanics of practical logic permit the organization of thoughts, perceptions, and actions by a few generative principles that are intrinsically coherent and compatible with objective conditions (Bourdieu op. cit., 86). Aligning the rubric of the logic of practice with the politics of emotion and the physical capacities of the body can lead to an increase in the domain of agency. The Cuban dance practitioners encountered in this case study illuminate the redemptive power of practice to exercise agency under restrictive political and socioeconomic conditions.
Categories of emotional practice as outlined by Monica Scheer in which the capacities of the body that have been trained by specific social settings and power relationships can be used to connect the material of the body to the exertion of human agency. The four categories that Scheer (op. cit.) identifies are mobilizing, naming, communicating, and regulating emotion. Mobilizing is the emotional management practices that are meant to cultivate desired feelings (Ibid., 209). Naming employs the use of “emotives”, declarations of an emotion such as “I am angry”; these practices reflect the performative nature of emotional expression (Ibid., 212). Communicating as an emotional practice is dependent both on the skill of the performer as well as the recipient’s capacity to interpret the communication (Ibid., 214). Regulating is an emotional practice that is intended to enforce the emotional norms of a community and to facilitate the acquisition of a general sensibility associated with the conceptual and embodied socialization of the habitus (Ibid., 215).
While this may not be an exhaustive list of types of emotional practices, Scheer’s categories provide a solid foundation for delineating how the material of the body can be used to serve a special purpose in situating individuals within their communities, facilitating interaction among rational agents, and enforcing greater social cohesion. Scheer (op. cit., 198) also indicates that there is a link between cognitive-emotional processing and the nature of historical change and cultural specificity. According to the definition of emotions as articulated by Paul Griffiths and Andrea Scarantino, emotions are 1) designed to function in a social context, 2) forms of skillful engagement with the world, 3) scaffolded by environment in the unfolding of emotional performance and the acquisition of emotional repertoire, and 4) dynamically coupled to an environment which both influences and is influenced by the unfolding (Ibid., 197). The elements of context, engagement, performance, acquisition, and environment are the elements that Scheer (Ibid.) identifies as subject to a historical-cultural context. The Cuban dance construct contains a unique constellation of these elements against a particular historical-cultural backdrop that portrays how individual dance practitioners may generate positive social solidarity through constructing a creative space for dialogue, expression, and communication.
As Bourdieu (op. cit., 72) identified the relationship between practice and the body, dance practice amplifies the capacity for the physical body to acquire and pass on cultural knowledge, infuse symbolic meaning to parts of the body set in movement, and effectively communicate real emotion, ideas, and concepts. Practical logic organizes thoughts by a few generative principles; likewise, Cuban dance practice executed through various techniques and genres encapsulates a comprehensive landscape constituting a Cuban identity. The standardization of dance practice in Cuba originated in the Revolution when certain leaders were identified: Alicia Alonso in classical ballet and Ramirro Guerra in contemporary and Afro-Cuban folk dance. At the same time, the common history and roots of the Cuban Post-Revolutionary society inevitably lead to a homogenized participation in Cuban social dance that fills Cuban households and continues to be passed down through generations.
Dance practice as a subset of emotional practice could be differentiated into various groupings: self-mastery of mind and body, externalizing creative imagination/expressivism, story building and telling, and reinforcing bonds within and among communities. In this case study, dance practitioners used their craft to forge an individual and collective identity, articulate a seminal language for nonverbal dialogue, and engage in cross-cultural interchange. The practice of classical ballet in Cuba connects Cuban dancers to a greater artistic community, extending their network of support and space for artistic exchange and dialogue beyond their natural borders. The practice of folk dance functions as a living memory of an ethnographic mélange of historical cultural influences; for Cuban dance practitioners, they reinforce their community bonds and find a platform to display fraternal pride to an external public. The practice of contemporary dance satisfies the urge to pursue identity formation and re-formation; for Cuban dance practitioners, it is one of the few unbridled domains where this exploration can occur free from restriction or inhibition.
According to Bourdieu (op. cit., 210), the principle of ritual practice originates from the need to re-unite sociologically the contraries that socio-logic separates . For example, the function of marriage is the right to sanction two opposing principles, women owning property and new bonds. If we apply the same concept to dance practice, we see the paradox between the nonverbal communicative side of the human condition in a society that is built upon verbal language and structure for interpersonal communication; dance practice creates opportunities for society to come together, share ideas and experiences, and generate dialogue without uttering a single word. All things considered, this foundation of practical logic serves to resurrect a rubric of order and legibility to derive comprehensible analysis and conclusions from this case study; yet even Bourdieu (op. cit., 267) admits that practical logic takes many liberties with elementary logic, therefore a logic of dance practice may not be able to deliver all the answers for everyone but at least may help further the exploration into dance as a means to empower creative agents.
Dance Capital: The Creative Marketplace
The previous discussion outlining the scope of agency, as it is enabled through constructive, reflective identity formation and the use of narrative to project and engage in dialectical interaction, has not addressed the impact of structure on human agency. Bourdieu’s habitus, the durable and transposable dispositions acquired through experience or practice, interacts with and is shaped by a particular field, the dynamic space of objective relations among positions (Morris op. cit., 54). The universality of practice is limited due to its cultural relativity; the necessary method for analyzing practice is through situational analysis, which determines how individuals exercise choices within the limits of a specified social structure (Bourdieu op. cit., 53). The Cuban social structure is shaped by a politically restrictive patrimonial communism under severe economic pressure creating a society with limited options for political commentary and socio-economic mobility. As Cuban social services including health, education, and other municipal provisions are provided by the state, citizens are organized geographically by province and classified at an early age according to aptitude tests that place them in corresponding professional tracks. The nature of choice, mobility, and independence in Cuba requires alternative channels for individuals to actualize potential and exercise agency.
Structures are mutually sustaining cultural schemes, sets of resources that empower and constrain social action; consequently, agents are empowered and constrained by these structures (Sewell op. cit., 27). The constraints of social structure can at the same time be produced and reproduced by creative agents and impose limitations on agents within which they must exercise their capacity for reflective action and choice. The balance of power between agency and structure is not unidirectional; agency and structure presuppose each other as agency requires a structure within which it can define its range of possibilities while structure can only be reinforced by the actions of agents contained in that structure. Bourdieu posits that if there is a correlation between objective probabilities and an agent’s subjective aspirations, it is a result of a pre-adaptation to generate dispositions that are compatible with an agent’s surrounding conditions (Bourdieu op. cit., 54). Taken from another perspective, the choices made by agents are ones from among an available set of structurally provided alternatives, therefore the task of the socially transformational agent is to redefine or re-frame the existing social structure to create a new social structure the agent strives for (Wang 2008, 487).
Structure is critical not only in creating parameters that program adaptive behaviors, but also in managing the allotment of resources, including both economic and symbolic capital. Gallagher’s study of low-income women in Damascus revealed the mechanics of a gender dependency schema that is part of a broad moral order envisioning the Arab identity at-large. For these women, the centrality of social position and power in relation to gender, class, and education, enforce the structure and form the limits of human agency (Gallagher 2007, 244). In a set of conditions that may seem categorically constrictive, the women in this study found alternative cultural and material leverage to bend the narrative around gender dependency. By working through various gaps in structure, these women could recalibrate their access to resources and individual sense of worth in contributing to their community to exercise agency. In the Cuban context, beneficial gaps in structure materialize when interfaced with systems outside Cuba; for example, the outsourcing of Cuban professionals profits from the competition of foreign capitalist economies. Social formations in which relations of domination are mediated by objective, institutionalized mechanisms, the differences in modes of domination are dependent on the degree of objectification of capital (Bourdieu op. cit., 130). Even symbolic capital, though difficult to quantify, can be objectified and thus manipulated in institutionalized mechanisms to establish or reinforce systems of domination and power, such as between the State and the individual as seen in the Cuban case. Placing the relationship between resources and cultural schemes at the center of a concept of structure makes it possible to show how social change can be generated by the enactment of structures in social life (Sewell op. cit., 19).
Defining the Dance Construct
Taylor’s concept of the modern self has generated new forms of narrative, new understandings of social bonds and relations; for example, Benedict Anderson’s modern nationalism utilizes a historical narrative including a common cultural style and collective memory of group (Taylor op. cit., 106). This genre of narrative building is used to generate a coherent group identity; it helps determine the constituency of its members, leads to greater group cohesion, and a consistent platform from which to project outwards from the community. According to Taylor, articulation and clarity can release the capacity within to inspire love, respect and allegiance; additionally, greater lucidity can help see a way to reconciliation of moral conflict (Ibid., 106). In this light, we can see the ultimate benefit to achieving harmony of the individual and society through lucidity and accuracy of identity formation. Looking at the Cuban case, the Revolutionary government aimed to cultivate this same love, respect, and allegiance by articulating a new identity for the Cuban masses to adopt thus minimizing resistance to the regime change. The genuine personal interest of revolutionary leaders and overall efficacy of the use of culture in revolution are debatable and arguably not unique to the Cuban case; however I posit that art and culture carry potent agenting capacities under the theoretical paradigm outlined here regarding identity formation and creative agency.
In a way, Bourdieu’s theory of practice fulfills the condition for cohesive self and group narrative that Taylor advocates. Communally agreed upon standards for practice and assigned meaning to components of physical rituals comprise a symbolic language that can inform a representational narrative. Practitioners operate according to a system of schemes of perception and appreciation of the participants’ self-representations (Bourdieu op. cit., 139). The importance of social agreement and the standardization of practice are critical to make this system functionally legible as a means for interactive dialogue. Bourdieu posits that the homogenization of practices can occur through mutual influence or can be artificially induced by the appointment of a skillful workman to synchronize practice, yet the creation of a homogeneous habitus through practice is based on the common history and shared values of a community (Ibid., 59). The social bond determines whether the reason embodied in social practices is in touch with history and nature (Tucker op. cit., 198). Without this synchronization, the impact and significance of practice is degraded. The capability of Cuban dance practice relies on the salience of these factors: social agreement on dance practice standards, coherence with the ethnic and social composition of the community, and compatibility with commonly held norms and values.
For the purposes of this discussion, the author will examine the Cuban case using the terms “dance construct” to define the parameters of the artistic community to include all dance practitioners, students, dancers, choreographers, teachers, and directors; dance administrators and managers; and members of the public, lay audience members and critics. Looking at this population, the author will attribute “creative agency” as the capacity to articulate a self-narrative through a thorough mastery and knowledge of self, use creative tools to reinvent such narratives, and engage in discourse within and across communities. Applying the theoretical framework for dance as identity formation, emotional practice, and creative agency to the Cuban dance construct, the author observed how the transformative power of dance positively impacts Cuban society and sought extrapolations to other dance constructs around the world.
The Cuban Dance Construct
Recognizing the influence of the intelligentsia as potential opposition to state creation, Fidel Castro attempted to rally these individuals to produce work in support of the fledgling regime. Castro recognized that Cuban artists and intellectuals had to be kept “onside” because they were an important symbol of national and international prestige and a link to participation in an international cultural economy (Kumaraswami, 2009). The origins of state interest in cultivating an extensive cultural landscape were generated during the period surrounding the first Cuban Revolution of 1933. The importance of creating a lasting political relationship between the intellectuals and the masses drove the revolutionary leaders to emphasize the role of culture in cementing this link and fighting anti-colonialism; the revolutionary leaders of the 1950s had lived through the first revolution and drew upon the cultural element as a source of legitimacy (Miller 2008, 683). The cultural policy that emerged after the revolution of 1959 has been described against a backdrop of a civil society and revolutionary state that were open to creative overlap; the incoming revolutionary government moved quickly to establish a plethora of cultural organizations, policy converged with rhetoric to a degree sufficient to command support from many cultural professionals (Ibid., 685). Regulating the cultural intelligentsia was a strategic tool for social control as the impact of well-esteemed cultural professionals on society was powerful. Consistent with the prevailing revolutionary rhetoric of pastoral care for the new Cuban nation, the state supported leading cultural professionals and experts to develop their art form to achieve their highest potential. The degree of creative freedom fluctuated across artistic fields and through decades of political and economic ups and downs. The most idealistic iteration of the Cuban model would place an emphasis on cultural education and development, egalitarianism, and the potential for freedom and meritocracy through artistic expression; the cultural policy laid out by Castro in 1961 may be interpreted as advocating an essentially inclusive and affirmative vision encouraging artists to use their talents to contribute to the collective national project (Kumaraswami, op. cit.).
The implementation of mass education was another key aspect of the revolutionary government policy; making dance education available for students in every province provides the opportunity for talented artists from any economic background to achieve their maximum potential and pursue a professional career. Students typically audition for the national ballet school at age 8 or 9 and for the national contemporary and folk dance school at age 11 or 12. Upon graduation at age 18, all students are required to complete 3 years of social service as a dancer in a company or a dance teacher in a school, which must be completed at an institution in the province where the student was born. After completing this service, they can pursue their career in any province, and if they obtain a contract for work outside of Cuba, they are permitted to leave. Until 2012, Cubans were not allowed to leave Cuba without permission from the Cuban government, and there are many occasions in which Cuban dance companies engaged in international tours lose dancers who defect and refuse to return with the company to Cuba. These defections are taken hard by the Cuban government and organizations that have provided an education for free and nurtured these dancers from the beginning of their formation, but the low salaries and difficult standard of living in Cuba versus the potential for upward mobility, greater artistic diversity and economic benefit compel some artists to cut their ties with Cuba to pursue a potentially better life abroad. This phenomenon should not detract from the positive aspects of the Cuban dance construct, which the author experienced firsthand during the one-month period spent in Cuba attending performances, observing classes and rehearsals, taking classes, and interviewing dancers, teachers, choreographers, and directors. The former minister of culture, Fernando Albelo, was a primary contact during the author's fieldwork and without whom this incredible experience would not have been possible. Currently a professor at the Instituto Superior del Arte (ISA), he has decades of experience working alongside the cultural leaders of the Cuban dance construct, making him an invaluable repository of knowledge. Many conversations throughout the author's thirty days in Havana with Mr. Albelo were illuminating and helped guide her exploration of this dynamic and captivating cultural entity.
Cuban Classical Ballet: A Unique Stamp on a Universal Technique
In 1931, Russian ballet master Nikolay Yavorsky founded the Escuela de Ballet de Pro-Arte Musical de La Habana; a former Ukranian soldier, Yavorsky was Alicia Alonso’s first teacher, immediately recognizing her special talent at ten years old (Roca 2010, 9). She continued her studies in her late teens at the School of American Ballet, making her professional debut in New York City in a variety of musicals on Broadway and ballets with Ballet Theatre (Chuhoy and Manchester 1967, 14). In 1948, together with her then-husband Fernando Alonso and brother-in-law Alberto Alonso, she founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso, the company that later became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) in 1959 (Roca op. cit., 9).
While waiting for the curtain to rise attending a performance of the Escuela Nacional de Ballet at the National Theater, Albelo shared with me many anecdotal stories and facts surrounding the founding of BNC. The original Ballet Alicia Alonso included only eight Cuban dancers and other American dancers who came with her from Ballet Theatre. In 1950, she founded the first ballet school, developing her own form of technique and breeding the first Cuban ballet dancers to feed into the company. In 1955, Batista wanted to buy Alicia’s company to make it a national organization, but because Alicia was at the opposite end of the political spectrum, she and her husband decided to leave Cuba to dance abroad including the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union. In January of 1959 after the Revolution, Fidel Castro asked Fernando Alonso how much money he would need to start a national ballet company; Fernando quoted a figure and Fidel said he would double it. Alicia then returned to Cuba and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Escuela Nacional de Ballet were founded in February of 1959.
Today, Cuban ballet technique is world-renown for its emphasis on virtuosity in lengthy balances en pointe for women, intricate jump sequences for men, and multiple pirouettes. The large company has fifty seven corps de ballet members, ten coryphées, seven soloists, eight first soloists, eleven principal dancers, and nine premiere dancers. The formation received at the ballet school is not only an education in classical ballet technique, but also indoctrination into a particular ethos or code of conduct. Reflecting the nature of emotional practice and community narrative building, the classical ballet construct in Cuba forges powerful bonds among members unified through an ordered philosophy of aesthetic, methodology, and a body of repertoire. Shaped by Alicia Alonso, the technical formation of the Cuban classical dancer is adaptive to the physicality of the Cuban body, which in contrast to the Eastern European physique, for example, does not typically have highly arched feet and long willowy limbs yet has a high capacity for power and stability. For example, the order of exercises at the barre as a warm-up has a slightly different order in Cuba. Normally, pliés are the first or second exercise; meant to warm up the knees, ankles, and hips, pliés prepare the dancer to execute movements requiring flexibility and turn-out. In a Cuban ballet technique class, pliés are done much later in sequence at the barre, after the feet, ankles, and muscle groups in lower legs and thighs have been warmed up. This change accommodates the Cuban physique, which typically is more muscular with tighter hips than the Eastern European physique. During a lecture that the author observed at ISA for dance history majors led by Albelo, the students discussed how Alicia established not only a school of technical standard, but also a way of life and code of conduct. Even down to minutia of the daily life of a dancer, Alicia made her imprint; when dancers are arranging their hair, they all open their hairpins the same way with their fingers and make their bun. Albelo explained that Alicia never allowed them to open the pins with their teeth because when she was younger, she chipped her front tooth doing her hair in this way. Her guidance in fostering a particular aesthetic in ballet technique in harmony with the dancers’ Cuban roots forged a unique and distinctive cultural artifact. When describing what makes Cuban ballet Cuban, Alicia Alonso describes the task as
[...] both challenging and complex, for here is movement as a pure form of expression, and it is difficult to put into works what is in practice a phenomenon expressed precisely in the movements, gestures, dynamics, shadings, and accents of dance itself […] we are speaking of a particular way of dancing, of expressing ourselves, and using classical technique in a particular way […] of style, of aesthetics, of taste, and of other factors that over several generations have emerged as belonging to a particular place. (Ibidem).
The dancers the author encountered with during her fieldwork shared their perspective on the place of Cuban classical ballet within the greater international dance construct. Veronica Corveas Serrano, Principal Dancer with BNC stated, “The principal aspect of classical ballet in Cuba is completely different from other countries. Our dance comes from the Spanish and African roots, like a stamp. I even feel this stamp in classical ballet”. Dancers of BNC are privileged to experience international touring engagements and discover how recognizable their style is to those outside Cuba. Dayesi Torriente Llanes, First Soloist with BNC noted, “All people who study ballet in the world recognize the Cuban ballerina”. For them, it is a source of pride and dignity to be acknowledged for excellence in the practice of ballet, placing them in a higher status in the international dance scene.
While an element of Soviet influence may have impacted the development of Cuban ballet technique, completely logical to infer as the Soviet investment and support for Cuba for decades following the revolution must undoubtedly have included a degree of cultural exchange, the author's interactions with various individuals indicated a reluctance to subscribe to the characterization of a Soviet-influenced Cuban school, perhaps reflecting an attachment to a distinct national pride in artistic achievement. Alicia Alonso states, “When I danced in the Soviet Union in 1957 and 1958, I returned to Havana to share my experiences from Moscow, Leningrad, and Riga with our dancers and ballet masters. But we always remained vigilant, wary of mimetism” (Ibid., 11). Svetlana Ballester Akímova Ballet Mistress of BNC described ballet technique as follows: "It is one, the same, around the world. In different schools, you can teach how to do different steps but it’s more or less the same. The difference, the big difference in schools is how they project the dance. Cubans are very passionate, they see what are the new challenging steps for male dancers and they try to do it, and they add this passion and special energy and you have the Cuban male dancer."
The author observed this special energy in the men’s class at the BNC studios. After the 90-minute class, the men take the first few minutes of their break to continue trying new tricks and play off each other making jump combinations more intricate and impressive than the last. The women of the corps de ballet entered the studio to begin rehearsal for Act II of "Swan Lake", perfecting their formations, musicality, and uniformity of the positions for the head and arms, in preparation for the Gala performance celebrating the 65th anniversary of the company. The performance experience is a dynamic frontier between the artists of the company and the public who are energetic patrons of the company, a critical demonstration of the power of emotional practice as a channel for creative agency in Cuban society. The externalization of elements of the Cuban spirit made manifest in these artists resonates with the audience who come to the theater for a transcendent experience, it is the gift that artists dedicate themselves to, their love for dance perpetuates the desire to perfect their capacity to render this gift its highest possible value.
Afro-Cuban Folk Dance: A Religious Tradition and Living Collective Memory
The African roots of Cuban folklore that are passed on through the religion practiced by the Yoruba people brought to Cuba during the slave trade are a pervasive influence in Cuban culture. The role of dance and music are central in Yoruba; the divine orishas each have a unique song and dance reflecting their particular characteristics. The national folk dance company, Conjunto Folklórico de Cuba, was founded in 1961 by Ramiro Guerra; not all dancers in the company practice the Yoruba religion but all dancers are trained in the folk dances from this tradition. Zenaida Armenteros, founding member of the Conjunto Folklórico de Cuba and master teacher of Afro-Cuban folk dance, stresses the importance of showing the differences between each orisha’s dance: "Ochún and Ximena are similar because they both came from the water. Ximena, from the sea or salt water, and Ochún, from the river. Ximena has her own form, as the sea. But Ochún is the river, is delicate, sweet, and the movements are completely different, the face must reflect these feelings."
The author attended a Yoruba ceremony for the Día Media, the middle day of a three-day ceremony when a Yoruba member received an orisha, Ochún, which had been chosen by his godparents, followed by the presentation of the boy to the community as a “son” of Ochún. It was a feast for the senses, from the colorful garments and white linens worn by the boy and his parents, to the smoke emanating from the men’s cigars believed to chase away evil spirits, to the musicians singing and playing the sacred drums. As the three musicians played the songs of each orisha, those present who were the “son” or “daughter” of that orisha came to dance in the center; they say that when you dance, the bad energies leave your body, and we were all moving in response to the rhythm of the drums. The last song played was the song of Ochún, the boy came to the center and as he danced at first with his eyes closed, there were moments when they believe that Ochún “enters” his body; he nearly falls down a few times and then dances with increasingly more energy, opening his eyes, dancing with his mother and father and the whole community celebrates. This vivid experience demonstrates how engaging the physicality of the body augments the capacity of emotional practice to perform a critical social function for this community.
This intuitive call to dance and express one’s participation in community was striking to witness firsthand, not only in occasions such as the Yoruba ceremonies, but also in more casual folk dance and music presentations. Just as in the Día Media ceremony, these events can extemporaneously finish with all members of the audience on their feet dancing and singing together such as in El Sábado de Rumba, the weekly performances of Afro-Cuban music and dance that take place in the courtyard behind the studios for the National Folk Dance Company and last until after sunset. What is perhaps more striking upon further reflection is the idea that before the Revolution in 1959, the Afro-Cuban traditions were relegated to the lowest class, mostly the poor agrarian provinces of Cuba; the Spanish dance traditions were more highly regarded as part of the upper class. As the Revolution was creating a new ideological construct for a Cuban identity adopting socialist values aimed at eliminating the egregious class divide, corruption, and racial discrimination, this prioritization was inverted; an Afro-Cuban folk dance company was created but there were no Spanish dance schools or companies in Cuba until the 1970s. At the dawn of the new revolutionary regime, Afro-Cuban music and dance was elevated and the African roots of the Cuban population was given a secure place in the cultural landscape as a significant source of Cuban identity. Today, the African and Spanish roots both play a significant role in shaping the Cuban dance construct.
Cuban Contemporary Dance: The Capacity to Enumerate All Things
The role of folk dance also plays a large part in the formation of Cuban contemporary dancers. Ramiro Guerra, who founded the Conjunto Folclórico, also founded Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (DCC) in 1961. The folk dance and contemporary dance companies select their dancers from the same school; contemporary and folk dancers receive the same training. This synchronization results in a distinctive sensibility observed in Cuban contemporary dancers. Jenny Nosedo Soca, Dancer with DCC noted: "We have learned different contemporary techniques, plus our African roots, which has evolved to make our contemporary dance. This contemporary dance is not the same that a Swiss contemporary dancer makes, it’s different because I have different information and culture than him."
When Guerra was looking for dancers to start the first modern dance company, there was no school for modern dance and he chose dancers from the street. Predating the institutionalization of dance practice in Cuba, the innate drive to creative expression manifested in Cuban society providing ample material for building a contemporary dance company that has become a preeminent pillar of Cuban cultural identity and a world renowned dance institution. The audition was September 25, 1959 and the first performance was on February 19, 1960 at the Teatro Nacional. The program featured two pieces by American choreographer Doris Humphrey, “Water Study” and “Life of Bees”, and two new pieces choreographed by Guerra, “Mulatto” and “Mambí”, which is the name given to soldiers who fought against Spain, therefore encapsulating the realities of the racial mix present in Cuba and the pride for those who defended Cuba from Spanish colonialism.
Dancers of the company train each morning with a class in either classical ballet or contemporary dance, which includes many exercises with folk dance movement and is accompanied with the same type of drums used at the Yoruba ceremonies. Many dancers identify with contemporary dance as a means to express themselves through movement; some claim to be shy and not comfortable using words to explain how they feel, some find invigoration through innovation and the discovery of new possibilities through dance, and some love the freedom to use every source of knowledge incorporated into one’s body to explore an infinity of themes. Contrary to the fixed rubric for technique and choreography in classical ballet and folk dance genres, the range of contemporary dance exploration is limitless. Laura Domingo Agüero, Ballet Mistress and Choreographer stated, “Choreography is a necessity. Like any other art manifestation. It’s a dialogue, the human body is a great adventure, a great diversion.”
Dancers and choreographers use contemporary dance to analyze and articulate themes and concepts that are nearly inarticulable. From the perspective of Norge Cedeño, Dancer and Choreographer with DCC, the work of any choreographer is the result of a “counterbalance between the necessity of expression of their life experiences and the criticism or questioning of the life itself”, and for his own choreography, his pieces are “like a tour of the subconscious, the balance between what you can be and what you have in your mind that you cannot be.” The pursuit of such conceptually and psychologically complex themes aims to illuminate dimensions of human nature that may never be fully enumerated. The partial obscurity of the whole picture is part of what makes contemporary choreography a dynamic performance experience, invoking the audience to participate in completing the picture. Without giving the audience one meaning to ingest, the ambiguity and partial excavation of the human condition poses questions and guides the audience through the artist’s interpretations presented on stage; as a result, the audience leaves the theater not with one story, but each individual carries their own response to the questions provoked by the art. The conversation between the audience and the artists is fundamental to cultivate a fruitful forum for dialogue, commentary, and innovation. For Cuban society with limited channels for unrestricted expression, the theatrical experience as a junction where society assembles constitutes a special locus of community participation and articulation of opinions and ideas.
The physical self-mastery achieved through classical ballet, the spiritual connectivity manifested through Afro-Cuban folk dance, and the emotional cognizance obtained through contemporary dance are all components of dance practice that nourish the Cuban dance construct. The enduring strength and appeal of this construct is elemental to the Cuban vision of modernity, which has been described as a model that finds human liberation through feelings, emotions, and actions, finding a space for an ethical approach to life; despite all the material and political difficulties life in Cuba entails, a substantial and successful community of cultural producers remain faithful to the Cuban national narrative (Miller op. cit., 693).
Cuban Dance and Beyond
This study of the Cuban dance construct demonstrated the colorful reality of the creative agency exercised through dance under the logic of practice. Considering that our identity is what allows us to define what is important to us, that the creation of our own narrative helps define that orientation in what constitutes a good life and how we exercise rational agency, for the members of the Cuban dance construct encountered in my research, the practice of dance is critical to achieving one’s full potential. Breaking down the elements of dance practice that open up channels for creative agency can elucidate how different components of the human condition are tapped into and can further be amplified to affect positive change.
The power of dance practice sustains the relationship between the artists, the state as patron, and the public. The paradigm of cultural diplomacy illustrates this network as a mechanism for cultural identity formation, political soft power, and participation in the international creative economy. While this paradigm explains the compelling state interest in maintaining an influential cultural status on the international scene, I propose a more comprehensive paradigm to explain the critical value of dance as an expression of a artistic social contract. This agreement enables participants to engage in constructing a common space that is independent from political restriction. The myriad of possibilities contained in this space makes this contract attractive to those who find other political and public spaces inadequate. For example, communities experiencing conflict or managing post-conflict periods, this contract provides a reparative space for healing wounds and assuaging friction. The dance practitioners encountered during my field research demonstrate their dynamic capacity to occupy this space.
Creative Agency and Practice: The Dancer’s Perspective
The power of dance to have far-reaching and profound effects on a variety of communities and individuals derives from its ability to function like a language. Dance as a nonverbal language facilitates the articulation and communication of ideas, permits an openness to interpretation and dialogue, and has components and systems that parallel grammar and vocabulary that can be rearranged according to the various genres and dance techniques. For a dancer who dedicates countless hours to mastering his or her craft, dance, as a language can be their most adept linguistic capacity and their preferred mode of communication. When asked about how dance impacts her ability to create a self-image and sense of identity, Alcy Crespo responded, “I am a dancer, so I don’t talk so much. I’m shy and I express myself through movement.” Dance is also a dynamic language, constantly reinvented with each new generation of artists. As choreographer Eduardo Blanco stated, “The new generations every day have a better preparation, a new technique, a new technical language that is very important and fundamental that people are going to assimilate. The classics are not going to die, they are going to sleep, and when they wake up, they remake themselves.” According to Bourdieu (op. cit., 34) practice communicates through an ineffable artistic symbolic gymnastics ; dance satisfies the criteria for a nonverbal, representational language. A dancer mechanizes his or her body to portray a myriad of emotions, ideas, declarations, and interrogations. The intimate relationship between space and movement, content and container, open the channels for the creative imagination to generate visible traces in dance choreography. The dancers I encountered in this case study pursue this practice of communicating the internal realities present within each artist daily and contribute to a body of choreographic work that defines each generation of dancers, artists, and citizens of the world.
The quest for self-mastery is another critical daily component of the dancer’s life. The physical mastery of the body through training, repetition, and experimentation is integral to how each individual dancer approaches the studio with their next goal to achieve, their next skill to master, their personal inhibitions to overcome, working towards complete mastery of mind and body. For the Cuban dance practitioners, this domain of physical mastery is significant when the external constrictions on the mobility, both physical and socio-economic, are so formidable. Even though the travel restrictions on Cuban citizens have relaxed in recent years, the economic situation for the average Cuban has not changed and the possibility of traveling or moving abroad remains merely a dream. The pursuit of technical mastery pervades the life of a dancer and even from a young age, working towards technical excellence can be playful and take the form of friendly competition. Cuban dancers are known for their impressive turning ability. According to Svetlana, “This is a question everyone asks me around the world. ‘Why do they dance like this? Why do they turn so much?’ Starting in first grade, they play and practice turns all day long. Before class, in class, after class, with street shoes, dance shoes, without shoes, they turn and turn and practice making the sensation in movement and quality.”
In addition to physical self-mastery, the dancer works toward the emotional self-mastery required attaining ultimate precision in externalizing their internal realities: the ideas, emotions, and reflections experienced within each dancer. The psychological harmony of the dance practitioner is a prerequisite for engaging in the modern world as a creative agent. This type of self-mastery amplifies the capacity for agents to reflect on their situation. According to Frie (2011), this capacity is integral to attain psychological development and therapeutic change leading potentially to meaningful political and ethical change (349). For both individuals and society at large, the self-mastered individual is better equipped to generate a positive impact.
With this foundation, the dance practitioner continues along the path to self-discovery, identifying the elements of an individual identity. Having given form and substance to the creative agent, the dancer utilizes his or her physical and emotional capacities to instrumentalize, mobilize, and project the inner self. Dance as a communicative dialectical pathway aligns with Millard and Forsey’s claim that in pursuing moral agency in the modern age, self-knowledge is attained through dialectical process (Millard and Forsey 2006, 185). As a dialectical exercise, dance is an exchange of ideas between artists, creators, and performers; between artists and a critical public; and between artists and patrons. The dance practitioner finds depth and power along this path towards self-discovery. Jenny Nosedo Soca, principal dancer with DCC, began her training in classical ballet, yet because ballet dancers in Cuba are mostly fair-skinned, her teachers advised her to switch her concentration to contemporary dance, where she is more likely to advance further in her career. Though this decision was difficult, when Jenny began her formation at the contemporary dance school, “I started to discover some feelings and things that ballet didn’t allow me to. It woke up in me emotions and creativity that I had the opportunity to express through contemporary dance. When I started contemporary dance I didn’t know what it was, but when I got there, a new quality was born in me and that’s why until today I have worked 16 years at Danza Contemporánea.”
The dance construct is a forum for the exchange of ideas. The classical ballet world is a transnational entity that encapsulates tradition, technical standards, and transcendent physical goals that unite dance practitioners from all corners of the globe working towards the same ideals. Folk dance is a living cultural artifact that animates the history of a community, affirms individual cultural identities, and renews an individual’s membership to that community. The practice of contemporary dance contains the capacity for creative agency, the body is asked to find new ways of moving, new ways of imagining and externalizing a reality from the mind of the choreographer, and new ways of moving the public to experience dance performance. Even though the dance education system is designed to cultivate excellence in a specialized genre, the mutual influence and interaction between genres is inevitable. In addition to the compartmentalization and specialization of the Cuban dance construct, it is filled with elements of fusion, hybridity, and interdependency of genres. This interdependence and interaction between genres in the Cuban dance construct is what makes the Cuban dancer uniquely Cuban. The specificity of the historical cultural context of the Cuban dance construct makes the Cuban dancer different from the Swiss dancer, as Jenny said. The Swiss dancer is a product of a dance construct that has different external influences and a different technical makeup than that of Cuba. The classical Cuban dancer allows the contemporary influence and Cuban folk traditions influence their style, the contemporary Cuban dancer receives formation in all the Cuban folk dances as well as classical technique, and the Cuban folk dancer reinvents tradition through fusion and advances in dance technique and education. According to Frie (op. cit., 349) agency involves the capacity for imagining and creating potentially new and different ways of being. The re-imagination of dance practice in the polyvalent dance construct observed in Cuba empowers its members to engage in this pursuit and maximizes the potential for creative agency.
Creative Agency and Practice: The Community’s Perspective
For the members of the Cuban dance construct, the individual agency exercised through dance is only one facet of identity formation; the connection to the greater Cuban cultural landscape and national collective memory is paramount for these dancers who have been educated, formed, and employed by the state. Identity formation through narrative cannot be affirmed in isolation, but rather needs to be placed in reference to a defined community. Narrating a normative framework helps make sense of an individual’s scope of rational choice making and helps articulate the defining properties of a referential community. The nature of choice in Cuba is subject to the restrictive properties of the government structure and the socio-economic situation. The importance of the public participation in a collective sense of Cuban cultural identity fuels the pursuit of culture and dance as an integral part that collective character. Originating from the Revolutionary project, the collective participation in Cuban cultural identity was paramount to Castro to help ensure the success of the revolution and carrying the masses through the intense transitional period.
As an external manifestation of a community’s normative framework, dance has the capacity to embody communally agreed upon values and norms of a society. In Cuba where there is a strong intention to maintain a clear demarcation of gender roles, the dance construct echoes the emphasis on masculinity through virtuosity, super-athleticism, and virility. For Cuban female dancers, the standards for virtuosity are measured in elements such as balance, flexibility, and attention to detail. Consequently, there is a counter-impulse to demonstrate the power of the woman; as dancer Alcy Crespo noted, “Men can dance things that women cannot do, so we are motivated to show the abilities and defend the ideas of the woman.” Other key normative concepts in Cuba originate in the values established during the revolution. The Cuban educational system, including the dance education institutions, provides free formation for those with the aptitude to fulfill the requirements for the corresponding profession; while participation in the dance construct manifests in varying degrees throughout the population, the opportunity is available to any capable individual regardless of socio-economic status or geographical location in Cuba. This phenomenon is remarkable in comparison with the elitist nature of art and culture in other Western societies. Not only is dance education free and open to any Cuban possessing the aptitude, but also tickets for attending performances are affordable for the Cuban public. Patronizing the high arts is not reserved for the upper class but is accessible to the general population; in effect, the theater becomes a special locus for community assembly.
The Cuban dance construct is a critical pillar of the larger Cuban cultural landscape that designates certain dance traditions as part of cultural narrative, empowering the various elements and values of the Cuban identity. For example, the African and Spanish roots are brought to life in folk dances and passed down through Cuban families, perpetuating the memory of the ethnic makeup of the Cuban population. Today’s Cuban dance construct would look very different if the Revolutionary regime had not integrated Afro-Cuban folk dance as part of the institutionalized system. The classical ballet idiom resonates as an extension of the self, a means to belong to an extended community bound by history, values, and technique. In a lecture I observed at the Instituto Superior del Arte, the nature of Soviet ballet repertory was discussed in relation to the historical specificity of the era and how that relates to the use of ballet in contemporary times. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba places Cuban dance and culture at a respectable place within the larger structure and network, a domain of mobility and international transaction not possible through other channels. The contemporary dance idiom encapsulates the capacity for imagining and creating potentially new and different ways of being. For the Cuban population living in a regime that has changed very little in 55 years, this outlet is an important means to fulfill the creative and generative appetite. Cuban contemporary dance patrons are drawn to the theater to experience and participate in performance art that externalizes the creative imagination of Cuban artists. Bourdieu’s concept of situational analysis, looking at how people exercise choice within the limits of a specified social structure, helps explain the Cuban case in evaluating how and why culture is so extremely valued and integral to the Cuban reality. In a situation where political choice and free commentary is limited, the role of dance and culture is seminal as a place for expression and community.
A structure that identifies the heritage, universality, and creativity of a society also governs the allotment of resources such as economic and social capital according to certain community-specific norms. In Cuba, the mechanisms of economic capital are regulated by the philosophy of the state that maintains extreme equality to avoid creating a poverty gap among Cuban citizens. While Cuban dancers are but a sliver of the world population of artists that do not receive commensurate financial reward for their work, I am using the example of Cuban dancers to show how cultural capital is a means to acquire a form of wealth under restrictive socioeconomic conditions. For lack of alternative mechanisms for attaining material economic capital, Cuban dancers do not aspire to great wealth, but to recognition and prestige for their achievement both in Cuba and abroad. When I attended performances of Giselle by BNC, I witnessed an interesting phenomenon: normally when the casting is published for a weekend of performances, it is known who is making a debut, who is the veteran favorite, and audiences flock to be part of those special performance. While social capital may be the more attainable resource for members of the dance construct, there is potential for these artists to participate in the international creative economy through festivals, residencies, exchanges for short-term engagements and even longer term professional careers outside Cuba as many other Cubans have done successfully due to the desirability of these exceptionally trained artists.
As an illustrative means for narrative formation, the dance construct in Cuba also functions as a dynamic tool for community building. According to Anderson, the emergence of nationalism relied on the power of cultural artifacts to generate the possibility of imagining a new nation. An organization is formed under a high center, where a ruler functions as a node of access, establishing hierarchical human loyalties. The temporality of narrative is altered such that the cosmology and history of a nation are indistinguishable; the lack of history is not significant, the link to a greater truth and inevitability of existence makes up for the lack of tradition and establishment. As a result, the new way of linking fraternity, power and time enables the emergence of a new nation. When the Cuban revolution was engaged in the same pursuit, the attention and emphasis made to art and culture aimed to fulfill these requirements for constructing a new nation. Experts were appointed at the top of a pyramid and a narrative was formed around the cause of the revolution: fighting Spanish domination and forming a new man under Communism was the ultimate goal. The Cuban dance construct reflects elements of this design in reflecting a uniquely Cuban entity, establishing tradition through linkage to the international dance construct, and bonding dance practitioners, dance patrons, and the state to a unified narrative and consciousness.
Upon further reflection of my time in Havana, the great irony I observed is that adjacent to the ubiquitous poor standard of living and struggle that is part of Cuban daily life, there is an extensive budget allotted to the Ministry of Culture that subsidizes all dance companies and schools, maintains all theaters and production costs, and supplies accouterments for all the dancers. Cuban dancers and all Cuban citizens experience hardship in obtaining goods and services that are standard in other parts of the world: regular internet access, living wage salaries, and consistent supplies of food and other daily necessities. The public fervor and zeal for Cuban culture and investment in the cultural machine is astonishing when juxtaposed with the poverty that exists in the Cuban reality. The ample cultural budget in Cuba originated from the early days of the Revolution, when the heavy investment in art, culture, and education was justified in forging the new Cuban identity; the resulting success in a world-renown dance construct and widespread Cuban national pride is a testament to the efficacy of this part of the revolutionary project. The next generation of leaders in Cuba could strive to find a way to redistribute or restructure these cultural resources to maximize the benefit to all citizens while maintaining a world-class cultural benchmark.
Reimagining Cuba through Art and Culture
From the individual dancer, to the greater dance community, the creative power of Cuban dance has shaped the larger international perception of Cuba as a dynamic cultural center of music and dance. Whatever the perceptions of the Cuban political regime and aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, the world sees Cuba and Cubans see themselves differently because Cuban dancers have made an indelible imprint on the international dance scene. For the professional dance construct in Cuba and elsewhere, the interest in expanding one’s artistic horizons outside the home country where the core identity is cultivated is to enrich the art and open the channels for progress in artistic and technical excellence. As Svetlana stated in our interview regarding the role of international dance exchanges, “I think that this exchange, between teachers, dancers, companies, it’s important. Not only for us, it’s important for everybody. It’s nice to see other things. You can see how good you are or the things you must work on and it opens your mind to see how the world is. I have the opportunity to work in different countries and see different dancers and choreographies, and I can also see the good things that we have, this technique, the energy, and the artistic work. The exchange is of course very important. Not because of government or diplomacy, it’s not, it’s just important for dancers, artists, people.”The international dance exchange network functions like a marketplace of ideas. The overall caliber of the goods in the marketplace is elevated by engagement and investment in such interchanges.
One of the most unique properties of dance practice is its fluidity and capacity for reinvention according to the historical cultural context within which it is fostered. The particularities of the Cuban case can serve as a touchstone that helps reveal how dance changes form and substance in other cultural contexts. Of the many interesting facets of the Cuban dance complex, what struck me most was how the interaction of genres observed in the Cuban dance construct illustrated a dynamic channel for generating a positive impact on society. In a poor country with such economic disadvantage and political limitations, the luxury of culture in Cuba is a rare outlet for creating a uniquely Cuban space and Cuban artists occupy that space with full force. Emerging from a system that divides the genres into institutions that emphasize excellence through specialization in a particular technique, the mutual influence among genres enriches the overall cultural landscape to elevate the degree of symbolic capital embodied in each specialization. Holistically, the Cuban artist reaches a deeper level of psychological and emotional cognizance through exposure to the multi-dimensional artistic complex that has flourished in the decades following the Revolution. Imagine the depths of riches that present themselves in dance constructs across the globe; the unique properties of each cultural historical context could cultivate both the particular and universal innate characteristics of the human condition that might not otherwise be brought to light.
The discoveries made during this investigation resonated strongly in me and forced me to reexamine a chapter of my professional life that I had not fully understood at the time. I participated in the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival in 2009 and 2010 and I executed teaching residencies for young Palestinian folk dancers in the Summer 2010 and Spring 2011. What I encountered was a dance construct that functions as a space for expression and for projecting national and cultural pride. In its own way, Palestinian dance is perhaps one of the few spaces for external manifestation of a people’s past, present and future by reanimating a community’s history through tradition, producing an original contemporary dance aesthetic to reflect today’s artists, and paving the way for the future of dance in Palestine. Whereas in Cuba, dance as a formative cultural force was adopted by a political regime as a vessel to affirm national identity; Palestine, currently under occupation and not formally recognized as a country, carries its own powerful dance tradition such that when its people practice dance and music, there is no denying “This is Palestine”.
The widespread practice of traditional dubkeh folk dance and the interest in developing contemporary dance Palestine simultaneously expand the Palestinian dance construct at both ends. Classical ballet is beginning to gain a presence in Ramallah; the aunt of one of my students recently founded the Ramallah Ballet Center, which is gaining national and international recognition and support. Dance illustrates a national identity, in the Palestinian case, not in a post-revolutionary condition, but in a continuing conflict under Israeli occupation. Dance as a reparative and generative practice has more to offer in this arena. This begs the question, what are the possibilities for interaction with the Israeli dance construct? How could such interactions lead to greater conflict resolution and peace throughout the region? Without imposing expectations on the role of culture in society (Isar R. 2010), why not unleash the power of dance and dream to achieve what may seem impossible?
The Artistic Social Contract: A Reparative and Generative Space
In communities where conflicts are unresolved for long periods of time and coping mechanisms are limited or become fatigued, dance can become a form of conflict resolution as a reparative and generative practice. The driving force behind the strong public support and participation in art and culture in Cuba could be explained by the lack of alternative channels for exercising community, or by the fact that the art and culture is simply superb and traditionally integral to Cuban daily life, or perhaps a combination of the two. In Cuba, dance holds a coveted position in the cultural landscape in that it is largely untouched by censorship agencies in comparison with Cuban literature, journalism, cinema, and other media that employ verbal language that is subject to strict scrutiny. The therapeutic nature of dance creates a space for repair of past and current conflicts and for generating a new narrative to move past conflict. The things that are hard to say can be said through dance, the language that can be more precise and impactful without uttering a syllable.
The phenomena observed in the Cuban dance construct indicate the presence of a cultural social contract. This contract serves the needs of the artists and the public, the two parties involved in this agreement. This bond nourishes the capacity for creative agency for the community at large and cultivates a protected communal space for cultural expressivity. For this contract to actualize its full potential, both parties must acknowledge and exercise their participation in the agreement. There is an obligation of artist to the public, to produce conscientious art and an obligation of the public to the artist, to support artistic inquiry and shape the conversation with reflective criticism. The role of this contract becomes more important when the political and economic hardships create a condition of limited freedom. In Cuba, this contract is made evident in full force because both parties participate fervently to fulfill their role in the agreement. Cuban artists dutifully produce high quality theatrical experiences for the public, they maintain a superlative caliber of technical excellence, and they push the boundaries for innovative commentary and dialogue. The public dutifully convenes at the theater to support the artists, further the conversation, and witness seminal moments of individual expression, communal solidarity, and progressive development. This example of a fully active artistic social contract provides insight and inspiration to other communities facing external or internal restrictive conditions.
In dance constructs across the globe, the artistic social contract between dancers and public encompasses a large range of cultural activities serving various target populations and community-specific needs and goals. The acknowledgement of this contract is a vocation for members of the dance construct to exercise their participation and fulfill their obligations respective to their particular role. The highest talent artists are compelled beyond complacency to push their practice to the extremes of human excellence. Conscientious artists nourish the public with meaningful creations that advance a greater dialogue and conversely, the public should challenge art through their patronage, support, and participation in that dialogue to further the innovation and experimentation of those artists. In communities where dance can function as a exceptional means for exercising self-affirmation, self-expression, and exchange of ideas, dancers play an important role in applying the cultural social contract particularly when the political contract has created limitations on human agency. To understand the gravity of a dancer’s achievement without place unrealistic expectations as instruments of social change, we recognize that “Dance cannot compete with the resources of tyranny, for they are vast and life is fragile. Yet dance is subtle, it is an end in itself. It is a locus of freedom, revealed in the lived coincidence of dance, dancer, and audience” (Roca op.cit., 236).
The operative capacity of culture to obtain a spectrum of social, political, and economic goals is why some state governments have adopted culture into their agenda, but the source of those capacities derive from the association of culture and agency, identity, and practice. Taking a closer look at the mechanics of these associations can reveal the extent of potential and realized agency within the dance construct. The processes that connect social structure and agency remain to be more fully explored (Gallagher 2007, 228). The Cuban dance construct has revealed one permutation of these processes; an international comparative study of regional and national dance constructs may elaborate on the nature of the connection between culture and agency.
This investigation into the powerful association between culture and agency hopes to illuminate the many conduits for potential creative agency and motivate further discussion and experimentation with new types of projects and programs. In the modern world, creative agency is an invaluable mechanism for acquiring and exchanging symbolic capital for individuals and communities. There is a lack of grounded theory of aesthetics or playfulness in social life and a complex notion of collective memory to grasp the extent of cultural creativity embodied in society (Tucker op.cit., 200). Even without a comprehensive theoretical understanding, the modern world needs to support the pursuit of conscientious art, moving forward to nurture and guide the next generation.