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The can’t-miss shows of the Kennedy Center’s unprecedented Cuba festival

The Havana Lyceum Orchestra is one of the highlights of the Kennedy Center’s upcoming “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World.” (Havana Lyceum Orchestra)

The Kennedy Center celebrates the richness, diversity and influence of Cuban arts and culture with a two-week festival beginning Tuesday that features 50 events spanning music, theater, film and visual arts. The latest effort in the arts center’s history of culture diplomacy, “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World” showcases 400 artists, including 250 from the island nation, performing salsa, ballet, Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin funk and more.

The lineup of new and familiar artists and genres is unprecedented, according to festival curator Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of international programming and dance.

“As the national arts center, it’s part of our mission to do this kind of work,” she says. “We are the de facto ministry of culture.”

Adams has been interested in Cuban culture for 20 years and has brought some of these same artists to the Kennedy Center for other shows. Three years ago — after a dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations — Adams and her staff decided that the time was right to spotlight the island itself.

“The mood of the country was changing — so many of the old hard-liners had passed, and it’s another generation,” she says.

Since launching the effort, some progress has stalled, causing Adams more work and worry than is typical. The U.S. Embassy in Havana has a skeletal staff, she says, and couldn’t handle all the visa requests, so the Cuban artists had to go to the embassy in Mexico to apply. It took longer and cost more, but they were able to secure passage for everyone.

“We were determined to show the extraordinary artistry, talent and the humanity of the Cuban people,” Adams says.

The roster includes well-known performers — the Buena Vista Social Club’s Omara Portuondo, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill — as well as visual artists, theater companies and filmmakers. Free events on the Millennium Stage, dance lessons on the outdoor terrace and a cocktail tasting in its pop-up Cubana Club are among the unusual offerings.

Here are some of the highlights, chosen by Washington Post critics. (For the full lineup, visit


Cuba’s young modern-dance group Malpaso Dance Company, founded in 2012, has a warm, African-influenced style, and it embraces collaboration. Its repertoire includes works by Artistic Director Osnel Delgado as well as dances by such popular contemporary choreographers as Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre. Its performances here May 11 and 12 will feature two pieces by Delgado and a new work by Aszure Barton, the notable Canadian choreographer, that brings out a soft, melting and mysterious quality from these 11 vigorous and highly appealing dancers. — Sarah Kaufman


Theater in the Kennedy Center’s international festivals frequently provides insights not only into art, but also politics. The play “10 Million” is no exception (its title refers to a failed 1970 Fidel Castro initiative to harvest 10 million tons of sugar). Cuban playwright and director Carlos Celdrán’s four-character autobiographical drama recalls hardships from the 1960s into the 1980s, during which his parents were torn apart by their country’s domineering politics. The play debuted in Cuba in 2016 and had its brief U.S. premiere last year in Miami; the cast of Celdrán’s Havana-based Argos Teatro will perform it in the Family Theater May 19 and 20. — Nelson Pressley


The Artes de Cuba festival couldn’t possibly do justice to the creative life of contemporary Cuba without including the work of visual artists. Installations in the Hall of Nations, the Hall of States, the atrium and the River Terrace will feature the work of such prominent figures as Roberto Diago, Roberto Fabelo, Manuel Mendive and Celia Ledon. Likely to be a crowd favorite: Esterio Segura’s “Hybrid of a Chrysler,” a composite work made by adding metal wings to a 1953 car. It recalls not just one of the island’s most popular tourist images — the oversize American cars from the middle of the last century still used as taxis — but also its isolation, both self-imposed and imposed upon it. The work was seen at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and will be on view on the River Terrace. — Philip Kennicott


Two years ago, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra was an unknown group of students in Cuba. This year, they’re playing the Kennedy Center. The catalyst was the pianist Simone Dinnerstein. In 2015, she came to Cuba to perform at a festival organized by her former teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, and was so impressed with the spirit and quality of the student orchestra that she decided to record with them. The result, “Mozart in Havana,” came out last year, to considerable acclaim, and brought the orchestra to the States for its first tour with Dinnerstein. Now, the orchestra — students, faculty and alumni — is returning on its own, for a concert May 10 of Cuban-born composers, including two concertos by Leo Brouwer. — Anne Midgette

La Reyna y La Real, the female rap duo of Reyna Mercedes Hernandez Sandoval and Yadira Pintado Lazcano, blends musical styles to create a performance that is distinctly feminist and decidedly Cuban. Join them for a show May 17 in the “Cubano Club” in the Terrace Gallery, which has been transformed by artist Roberto Diago. — Peggy McGlone


Extend the fun on Thursdays and Fridays during the festival (May 10-11 and 17-18 from 9:30 p.m. to midnight) with “Noches Cubanas,” a free lounge party on the center’s atrium level. Enjoy a cocktail (cash bar) and entertainment by artists from the festival, and explore art installations. — P.M.

If you go

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Dates: Tuesday-May 20.

Tickets: Prices vary.