- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000

The Washington Ballet is preparing to deploy the troupes and land a cultural force in Cuba.

Its 130-member entourage, including musicians, theater directors and visual artists, will arrive in Havana on Oct. 23 for a weeklong cultural mission.

"This is decidedly an apolitical trip, focusing on culture, not politics or policy," says Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre, who organized the trip and whose mother was Cuban.

"But we hope we can contribute to the body politic with this project. As relationships between people develop, and goodwill, the governments of those countries must recognize the fact of those relationships."

Dubbed "Dialogues in Dance: Cuba 2000," the trip allows the ballet company to perform pieces seen for the first time in Cuba, train with Cuban counterparts and participate in a three-day "choreographic encounter" with Cubans.

The main reason for going is to participate in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's 17th International Dance Festival.

Dorothy McSweeny, chairwoman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and a Washington Ballet board member, will convey D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams' "greetings" to Havana.

"Arts are nonpolitical," Mrs. McSweeny says. "This is a universal way of communicating. We did it with the Soviet Union. We're doing it with China. This is people-to-people communication. Dance is particularly appropriate because of the strong dance culture in Cuba."

The United States imposes a trade embargo against dictator Fidel Castro's government, but the Clinton administration has relaxed it for cultural exchanges.

"This has been met with enthusiasm by both Americans and Cubans," Mr. Webre says.

The trip, he says, has been "a huge undertaking. Not difficult, just huge."

Mr. Webre is taking people involved in other arts because "we wanted the interaction to be as broad and deep as possible."

"You can't separate the ballet from other forms of cultural expressions," he says.

The trip grew out of a meeting Mr. Webre had last fall with Alicia Alonso, the prima Cuban ballerina and director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, during his first trip to Cuba. "I had an invitation to travel to Havana from various people in the dance world in Cuba to learn about the dance world there."

While in Cuba, he also tried to learn more about his family's roots.

Mr. Webre says he and others at the Washington Ballet who developed the idea for the trip wanted participants "to have as many human interactions as possible, about art, culture and individual lives."

"We hope to accomplish greater understanding between Americans and Cubans about what their lives are like and what their passions are, using art as the platform and the medium of discussion," he says.

In preparation for the trip, the Washington Ballet brought Cuban master dance teacher Loipa Araujo here to teach company members and students, conduct master classes for the Washington dance community and give a lecture on Cuba's dance scene.

At the Cuban dance festival, the Washington Ballet will perform three numbers that had their premieres last season and one that is being introduced this season. They are "Mercedes y Betty," which draws on stories from Mr. Webre's family about 1920s and 1930s Havana; Nacho Duato's "Na Floresta"; Pas de Deux from Antony Tudor's "The Leaves Are Fading"; and Trey McIntyre's new "Blue Until June," which is being performed by the ballet company this week at the Kennedy Center as part of "The Jazz/Blues Project."

Mr. Webre says he wanted to bring a repertory that emphasized new work. "The Cubans have a fabulous ballet tradition, but the accent is on 19th-century classical work. We wanted to give the Cubans the experience of choreographers using classical ballet vocabulary in contemporary ways.

"But we wanted our repertory to be decidedly American in tone," he says.

The Washington Ballet hopes to commission a new work by a Cuban choreographer that will be premiered by the company at the Kennedy Center during the 2001-02 season and to have Mr. Webre create a ballet for Ballet de Carnaguey, Cuba's second largest dance company.

Mr. Webre says the company also hopes that arts presenters traveling with the dance company to Cuba will invite Cuban artists to perform in the United States.

Among those joining the Washington Ballet's entourage is Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington. She is working with Mr. Webre on a project called "Coyote Builds North America," to be staged at Arena.

"Arena Stage produces huge plays of all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit; it is very important for me that our work on stage builds bridges between the Americas, including Canada and Latin America," Miss Smith says.

Joy Zinoman, artistic director of the Studio Theatre in Washington, also is going. "The wealth of Cuban culture will be a real discovery for me, and this trip couldn't be more timely with the opening of our next show, 'Two Sisters and a Piano,' by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, happening upon my return," she says.

Jaylee Mead, chairwoman of the Studio Theatre's board, will be taking the trip, as will some of those involved in the production of "Two Sisters and a Piano."

The trip is expensive. Helping to cover costs are Arca, Ford and General Service foundations; the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions; Swyer Cos.; Terpsichore Sand; and donations of $1,000 each from community leaders traveling in the entourage.

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