A cool, clean wind is whipping off the Atlantic, carrying the fragrance of the ocean as it thrashes the potted palms atop the Parque Central hotel. It's nearly midnight on Monday, and the stars in Cuba's cloudless sky seem to hang close enough to touch. Here on the open-air terrace, gazing out at the city's faded splendor, Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, is on top of the world.
Below him, fanning out through the nearby nightclubs and bars, are his dancers and the more than 100 others who have joined Webre on a journey to his ancestral homeland. The Washington Ballet has come to spend the week performing at Havana's International Ballet Festival, the first American ballet troupe in 40 years to dance here.
Webre, 38, is hoarse as he points out nearby landmarks to his younger brother Charles. It's been a hellish 15-hour day of traveling. But he's reluctant to leave his breezy post and go to bed. In a sense, he has just arrived home.
As the son of a Cuban mother and American father--both from families who had made their fortunes in the island's sugar mills--Webre neatly embodies the troubled history of this island. The contradictions of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, which wrested control of Cuban industry from the aristocrats who dominated it--including foreigners like Webre's father--still echo in every decaying, sun-bleached corner of the capital city.
Famed for its universal health care and schooling, Cuba is nonetheless caught in a time warp. Lumbering through Havana's narrow streets are the enormous finned Chevys and Oldsmobiles of the 1950s, now battered and rusting. An old woman emerges from a narrow, smoky doorway clutching two limp, fluffy chickens. (Lunch? Sacrifice?) Magnificent buildings--pastel confections with colonnades and arched doorways and crumbling balustrades--are irreversibly scarred, pitted and chipped. There is no money for upkeep.
You see no one with a cellphone.
Webre surveys all this from atop one of the luxury hotels that cater to the tourist industry (although the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo prevents most Americans from getting here, the rest of the world--particularly Canadians, Spanish and Italians--still plays on Cuba's beaches).
Webre was born in New Orleans. He never set foot in Cuba until about a year ago. From the 1940s to 1960, his father was the director of Central de Azucar, a sugar mill in nearby Cespedes. He and his wife lived in a mansion with two dozen servants. They owned a beach house; they belonged to the country club where Fulgencio Batista--the dictator eventually overthrown by Castro--was, for all his power, famously denied membership because he was a mulatto. Webre's older brothers tell of riding horses through the sugar cane fields, and of marveling over white bread and bologna on their trips to the United States to visit relatives.
"I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Webre's brother Louis likes to say, "and it was yanked out in 1960."
That year the ascendant Castro nationalized the sugar industry and threw Webre's father in jail. Soon afterward, he and his family--five children, and Webre's mother seven months pregnant with the sixth--were ordered to leave the island with little more than what they could carry. Though it was August, his mother, Webre says, wore her Mamie Eisenhower mink stole and all her jewels.
"That's essentially why the revolution happened, because of that lifestyle," admits Webre, who can be philosophical about his family's loss because he wasn't there to see it happen.
His father's fortune was absorbed by the Cuban government. The mansion was turned into an orphanage; the beach house became an inn. Such transfers of wealth happened all over the island. In a twist of perfect irony, the exclusive Catholic school to which Webre's mother was chauffeur-driven as a child was turned into a toe shoe factory, supplying pink satin footwear to the ballerinas of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Now the exiles' scion returns, heading a smallish but relatively prosperous American ballet company, trailing wealthy Washingtonians and key artistic power brokers. Two of Webre's brothers and a sister have also joined him here.
Webre did most of his growing up in Texas and joined New Jersey's American Repertory Ballet soon after college. He eventually became its chief choreographer and artistic director. Last year, just months after taking over the Washington Ballet from its founder and longtime director, Mary Day, Webre came to Havana to meet with Ballet Nacional Director Alicia Alonso. Alonso, the legendary ballerina who interrupted her career with American Ballet Theatre to found the now world-renowned company in her homeland, invited Webre and his troupe to the ballet festival. The idea took hold of Webre at once.
For the Washington Ballet, this trip is an adventure of unprecedented scope, a marvelous publicity magnet--and expensive. The trip has cost the company $300,000, nearly half of it raised from foundations and individuals. The more than 50 "community leaders"--board members and other donors--kicked in an extra $1,000 each to help fund the expedition.
Also tagging along are scads of company staff members, music directors and singers, a handful of contemporary dance choreographers including Donald Byrd, Dwight Rhoden and Trey McIntyre, presenters including the heads of the Massachusetts-based Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival and New York's Joyce Theater, and theater directors Molly Smith of Arena Stage and Joy Zinoman of Studio Theatre. A film crew headed by director Barbara Kopple has been trailing both the Washington Ballet and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba for months.
In a city whose screaming lack of wealth is deeply linked with Washington politics, there is keen interest in this prominent Washingtonian's Cuban pilgrimage. A crew from one of Cuba's two state-run TV stations met him at the airport, filming his arrival with ABT ballerina Amanda McKerrow--a guest artist with the Washington Ballet--and Mary Day, who has bravely soldiered along, though she is in her nineties and recently had hip surgery. The next day, as Webre rushes from one hotel to another for meetings, several passersby shake his hand, saying they recognize him from TV.
Webre, a self-promotional marvel who knows a good story when he sees one, milks the Cuba connection.
"I stand before you as the child of a daughter of Cuba and a son of the United States," Webre announces in accented but rapid Spanish, then English, at a news conference crowded with Cuban media on Tuesday, the morning after his arrival. He goes on to describe one of his ballets that the troupe will perform here, accompanied by Cuban music and inspired by Webre's memories of the stories of old Havana that his mother and aunts would tell.
"The mixture of Cuban and American blood running through my veins seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the coming together that's possible between our cultures," he concludes. "My American half reaches out to you with a handshake of friendship. My Cuban half reaches out to you as a brother."
Pedro Beltran, a reporter with Radio Ciudad de la Habana, asks Webre how American dancers can take on the complicated rhythms of Cuban music. Webre carefully explains that his ballet, "Mercedes y Betty," is only indirectly based on Cuban culture, by way of hearsay. "It's more a ballet about who I am," says Webre.
Beltran, however, still senses an authenticity problem. "Cubans have a special way of walking and dancing," he explains after the conference. "We are very rhythmic. We walk like this"--he rolls his hips and struts a few syrupy steps--"because we are pure rhythm. If you walk like this"--he mimes the upright stance of the ballet dancer, or possibly of the unmusical American--"it's wrong. You have to show this rhythm, or it's not Cuban."
Still, he says, Webre's visit is a good thing, even considering his family history, with his father being an enemy of the people and all. "He's coming here as a dancer--that's okay. If he says, 'Give me back my property' or something like that, then that's something wrong."
Havana in 2000 represents a step back in time in more ways than just the automotive museum that prowls its streets. As in the early 1900s, dollars are flowing into the city at an increasing rate; in fact, dollars have been adopted along with pesos as the official currency. Tourism is booming, both from Europeans and from Americans who come in through the back door--say, Mexico or Canada. What clearer signal of change than the fact that Benetton, the Italian sweater purveyor, has arrived?
Talk in the fancy hotel lobbies ripples with tales of Western entrepreneurs--tour organizers, lawyers--getting rich. Just around the corner, however, the stringy dogs and ill-clothed people slouching in their cracked and eroded doorways speak to the desperation of those who are shut out of the boom.
Webre tells of a Cuban television actor he encountered, a soap opera star who is so well known that people recognize him on the street. Yet he is so poorly paid, Webre says, that to make extra money after work he sells fish to the "dollar restaurants," which cater to tourists. Webre gave him some money to buy the license he needs to move up from fishmonger to waiter.
"It's a world in reverse," says Webre. "In the U.S., the waiters want to be actors. Here, the actors want to be waiters."
After the news conference, Webre heads to the toe shoe factory that once was his mother's school. It is a low, sprawling vanilla-colored building bordered by a still-graceful wrought-iron fence set in crumbling plaster.
Inside, workers sit at long tables in front of rows of half-sewn pink slippers. Che Guevara stares down from the wall. A faded poster urges, "Cumple su produccion--ida con Fidel." (Rough translation: "Work Well--Go With Fidel.") The wind rushes in through open windows in bursts. No one smiles as Webre walks into the room, introducing himself and speaking of his mother's connection to the building. Slowly they warm up and invite him to sit with them. They listen impassively as he describes "Mercedes y Betty."
When the film crew arrives, however, one of the factory honchos shows up to kick the Americanos out. Webre tries to win over the glowering fellow with his never-miss charm, but the man just stares at him. Leaving, Webre offers his hand, and for a few wrenching moments the other man refuses to shake it. Finally he does, and Webre bids him goodbye. "He's a low-level functionary who's never been there before," Webre mutters on the way out.
He heads to rehearsal at the Teatro Mella, a small theater where the Washington Ballet is to perform Wednesday and Thursday night. He checks in on the musicians, rehearsing in an upstairs hallway. He jogs downstairs to the stage and is immediately set upon by the technical crew members, who have a hundred questions and problems. It is clear that here, in this darkened theater that is like any theater in the world, Webre the irrepressible showman is truly at home.
In his few quiet moments, Webre reflects on what this historic week in Cuba might mean for his dancers, and for himself. "I would like the artists of the Washington Ballet to return fuller human beings and more intelligent artists," he says. "I would like to understand more fully who I am as a person, and appreciate more deeply this Cuban facet that I have in me, and hopefully gain some wisdom in the process."