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New York

Hot and Havana
by Trong Gia Nguyen

¡Sí Cuba! Festival
March-June 2011
Brooklyn Academy of Music and other venues

Cuban Visions
Metropolitan Pavilion

I love walking into the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s entrance hall of the Peter Jay Sharp Building and people-watching every which way. On one side moviegoers buy tickets for “Tree of Life” while to the other dance enthusiasts queue up for classical dance at the Howard Gilman Opera House.  Thrown in the din, experimental or world music blares from the BAMcafe above. Those darn Fort Greene denizens have it made, and I am very jealous.  If this world-class venue were in Greenpoint, I know my life would be near complete.

From March to June, New York opened its arms to BAM’s citywide celebration of Cuban artistry known as the ¡Sí Cuba! Festival. Fourteen institutions including the organizer, Carnegie Hall, Museum of the Moving Image, and Americas Society hosted concerts, readings, and art exhibitions throughout the months.

One Friday night I caught the sounds of the Pedrito Martinez Group, led by the Havana-born percussionist and eponymous singer.  Martinez’s catchy and very danceable Latin jazz filled BAMcafe, not to mention our sultry hearts and festive feet. In the side gallery Helena de Bragança’s ultra color-saturated portraits radiated another form of Caribbean vitality that we often associate with our love of the Latin. Having been to Cuba, the one thing I know that is missing from these images is sweat! It’s freaking hot there, and these people look a little too comfortable, but that’s how many Cubans are. No matter what the climate (political or otherwise), you sometimes just have to grin and bear it!

Taking place simultaneous with the ¡Sí Cuba! Festival, the Metropolitan Pavilion hosted the exhibition “Cuban Visions.” Twenty-six artists offered an abbreviated survey of contemporary art practice in Cuba. The selection is not so far removed from the usual fare in these parts, though it was as distant as one could possibly get from the profligate, mega-installations abounding biennials and the like. Highlights included the corner converging painting by José Ángel Vincench, Abstract Painting That Speaks. The opposite ends of a street rubbing are embedded with speakers, one emitting the Cuban national anthem and the other of a passerby woman inciting the public to less nationalistic virtues. It is political art “lite,” but the austerity of the stones turned sideways works subtly and successfully.  Other works of note include a self-portrait by the esteemed photographer René Peña as Black Marat (2009), and Camera-man (2006), a quirky sculpture reminiscent of African nkisi charms by Carlos Estevez.

Last week at BAM headquarters, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed sections from choice canonical works such as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote. Founded in 1948 by the legendary prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, the company boasts an array of gifted dancers who continue the matriarch’s classical, expressive style rooted in tropical lyricism and sensuality.  The repertoire included simple but transformative sets that provided the perfect backdrop to the virtuosic balancing and pirouetting of leading dancers like Viengsay Valdéz and Alejandro Virelles. In Don Quixote, Virelle’s impressive agility and swiftness was dazzling against the Castillian village as he seemingly glided about like a messenger of the Cuban gods.   Appropriately titled Le Magia de la Danza (The Magic of Dance), the evening was characteristic of the broad aesthetic originality emanating from the island we’ve imprisoned ourselves from, ninety miles away. So close, and yet so far.

~Trong Nguyen

Images: René Peña, Black Marat (2009), courtesy the artist; Helena de Bragança, from the series I Am Cuban, courtesy the artist and BAM; Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing The Sleeping Beauty, photo credit Rebecca Reeve.

Posted by Trong Gia Nguyen on 6/12/11 | tags: figurative abstract digital photography realism conceptual performance video-art installation mixed-media traditional sculpture dance modern

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