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With a plan to restore an abandoned Havana dance school, a Cuban ballet star leaps into a bitter legacy.
HAVANA, Cuba — For a society so steeped in the idea of “revolution,” Cuba can be a place of uncanny sameness. The same leaders, the same food rations, and the same old cars endure year after year.
But once in a while, a powerful new idea comes along that jolts the stasis and forces a moment of reckoning.
That is the type of a proposal that has been put forward in recent months by global ballet star Carlos Acosta, a figure as famous on the island as any baseball player or Olympic athlete. With Acosta preparing to retire from London’s Royal Ballet, he has announced plans to return to his homeland and convert a ruined ballet school into a state-of-the-art dance academy and global cultural center.
With millions in privately raised funds from the capitalist world, Acosta is offering to save one of the island’s most important architectural landmarks, the long-forsaken National Ballet School on the grounds of the former Havana Country Club.
If that sounds like a mere matter of tutus and leotards, it is not.
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The project was started in 1961, only to be abandoned four years later and left to sink into decades of bitterness and decay. Nearly a half century later, the Carlos Acosta International Dance Foundation will step in where Cuba’s socialist system has stumbled.
“Isn’t it a beautiful idea?” Acosta wrote in an open letter published on the island this summer, explaining the genesis of his plan. “Even more beautiful is that it wouldn’t cost Cuba a cent, and the entire arts center could provide the money that the Ministry of Culture needs to rescue other facilities in bad shape.”
The Cuban government has agreed, backing Acosta so far on the broad outlines of the plan.
Acosta’s project has far-reaching implications in a country where the arts and arts education have been dominated by the state for more than 50 years, nurturing generations of top ballet and modern dance talent. The project carries the possibility of an entirely new relationship between Cuba and its most successful artists and athletes, many of whom have left the island to seek personal fortune and professional fulfillment abroad.
Once viewed as traitors or sellouts, such Cubans could return as philanthropists, helping restore the island’s other crumbling schools, stadiums, and theaters with private funding. If Acosta can run an arts center with relative autonomy, then perhaps a Cuban baseball defector could return to run a sports academy, or a Cuban boxer could fix up a training gym.
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Cuba’s top cultural officials are praising Acosta’s plan, aware that they have an opportunity to transform the way Cubans abroad engage with their homeland. In an interview, Miguel Barnet, head of Cuba’s Artists and Writers Union, said he viewed Acosta’s offer as “a new way to open doors to the future.”
“We have to wipe off the bureaucratic mentality that things that come from abroad are bad, or poison,” Barnet said.
Barnet said Acosta is one of many “artists that are famous [who] don’t live here any longer, but love their country” and “can help contribute to the development of our cultural life.”
The buzz surrounding Acosta’s proposal has only intensified with the announcement that famous British architect Norman Foster has lent his name to the fundraising efforts and produced a design for the renovation of the school.
With a star international architect, a well-connected dance icon, and a landmark building, it would seem like a project with a high chance for success. But though Cuba’s abandoned Ballet School was built on good intentions, it has long been a monument to their failure.
In late March 1961, just weeks before the Bay of Pigs invasion would try to topple Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, the 34-year-old Castro invited a friend and former Argentine golf caddy named Ernesto “Che” Guevara to show him how to play the game.
Castro wasn’t really interested in putting technique. The outing was meant to poke fun at the new golf-loving American president who was Castro’s emerging rival, John F. Kennedy. The next day, the two bearded, guerrilla duffers made the front page of The New York Times, sporting