In the Footsteps of La Rebambaramba: Afro-Latino Dance, Identity and Cultural Diplomacy

By Belén Vega Pichaco

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The Cuban National Theater performs folkloric dances in Paris. Photos by Roger Pic.

Tracing the journey of Amadeo Roldán's Afro-Cuban ballet La Rebambaramba (1928) I arrived in Paris. Yes, in Paris, France... both the author of the original libretto, the Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier, and the—also Cuban— choreographer Ramiro Guerra insisted in recalling the ballet’s 1961 staging at the Théâtre des Nations (Theater of Nations) in Paris.

However, it was not the geographical distance—the almost 5,000 miles from Havana to Paris—that was unusual. Paris, the mecca of the international artistic avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century, had long ago welcomed the music of Afro-Cubanist composers Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla, with the help of Carpentier, a resident of the French capital from 1928 to 1939. The orchestral version of La Rebambaramba— without choreography—had been performed at the Straram Concerts in Paris (1931) with a great success.

The striking feature was not the geographical but the temporal remoteness. More than three decades had passed from the creation of the score to its staging (Roldán, who died in 1939, was never able to see it). I wondered why had it not been danced before. And why was the Afro-Cuban ballet recovered in the early years of the Cuban Revolution? The answer to the first question was offered by Carpentier himself in Trayectoria de una partitura (The Trajectory of a Score) in which he explained La Rebambaramba’s “full-of-accidents-history.” The breakup of an interested U.S. dance company spearheaded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, whose romantic relationship also fell apart, delayed a possible performance. Also the businessman Sergei Diaghilev, soul of the Ballets Russes, and enthusiastic about the production of the Cuban show, died suddenly. Work had just been started to adapt the score for the stage. Both the breakup and the death could be considered unfortunate “accidents” that greatly delayed the production.

In 1933, Cuban playwright Luis A. Baralt failed in an attempt to collaborate with Roldán himself on a stage performance because of the chaos in the aftermath of the fall of Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship in Cuba. Finally, the choreographic starting point of the ballet—the dancing of conga and lucumi troupes (comparsas)—could hardly have been carried out before 1959: mixing black dancers with the white ballerinas of the elitist Pro-Arte Musical Society would have been a scandal.

In the late 1950s, the choreographer Alberto Alonso, one of the three founders of the Cuban National Ballet (together with his brother Fernando and his sister-in-law Alicia), prepared a show for Cuban television. From the aesthetics and staging points of view, that kind of performance is unsatisfactory. For one thing, video montage imposes its own narrative rules and also the viewer’s vision is limited to the camera’s “eye.” However, the media and social impact of that television performance of La Rebambaramba—possibly greater than any other in a Cuban theater, especially before 1959—should not be underrated. Can we then make a link between the recovery of La Rebambaramba and the Revolution ideology by taking into account this television performance during Batista’s dictatorship? To try to answer this question, I invite you to join me on my journey in the footsteps of La Rebambaramba.

Roldán, Carpentier, Guerra... they all led me, last fall, to the archives that hold the historical papers of the Theater of Nations in Paris to find more about this annual festival. Practically forgotten today, this gathering had a great importance from its foundation in 1957 until the mid-1960s, because of the high degree of international participation. Theater, lyric and dance companies from all over the world attended the yearly festival that took place there. International artistic companies competed there in a kind of "Performing Arts' Olympics"—as the press baptized it—during the Cold War. Think, for a moment, about the Theater of Nations as we do the sports Olympics, in which each country presents its best athletes not only to get the most Gold medals (unequivocal display of power), but also to show off their national "values" such as strength, resistance and control—attributes that in this political context took on a metaphorical meaning. Analyzing the presence of La Rebambaramba—as well as the other works presented by Cuba in 1961 and 1964—at the Theater of Nations may perhaps bring us closer to an answer.

For its first appearance at the Theater of Nations, Cuba chose a show that alternated three pieces of modern dance by Ramiro Guerra (Suite Yoruba, La Rebambaramba and Rítmicas) with folkloric dances. Despite the apparent lack of cohesion of the spectacle, one element gave it unity: the recurrence of the theme of Cuba's African heritage. Guerra's choreographies tunred to the Afro-Cuban pantheon (the gods or orishas of Yoruba santeria) in Suite Yoruba and to an episode of colonial life when African slaves grouped in comparasas enjoyed "freedom" to perform their songs and dances on the eve of Three Kings Day (January 6) in La Rebambaramba. In the third choreography, Guerra recovered another of Amadeo Roldán's most emblematic works—along with the aforementioned Afro-Cuban ballet—composed for Afro-Cuban percussion instruments (guüiro, mar[imubla, chequer[e, quijada, etc.). 

The folkloric dances, all of African descent, were introduced by Cuban National Theater director, Isabel Monal (by the way, a Harvard graduate, according to the French press), as what "the Cuban people dance in their daily life." Their performance by a group of popular dancers trained as part of the amateur movement (movimiento de aficionados) promoted by Castro's regime contributed to accentuate this popular imprint. Not surprising the headline of L'Humanité  newspaper declared: "The voice of an entire people." However, the French Communist newspaper contradicted itself (and Monal's statement) when it explained that these folkloric dances, "rumba, columbia and guaguancó, lead to the heart of the daily life of blacks in the country." Were all Cubans black? In the light of the 1961 show, one might conclude that was the case. And that Cuban people could even be considered as African people, given the press release from the Theater of Nations in which it linked the "most authentic folklore" of the Caribbean island with that of other African countries (Niger, Madagascar and South Africa) attending the Festival. 

The coincidence of Cuban participation in the Theater of Nations, in April 1961, with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba delayed the arrival of part of the dance company and reduced its performance to only one of the five scheduled days. However, it was powerful anti-imperialist propaganda, as the French press commented on this "unexpexted consequence" for culture, and was looking forward to the arrival of the missing Cuban dancers. It also strengthened the diplomatic ties with the U.S.S.R. as the Theater Company Vakhtangov from Moscow publicly proclaimed the solidarity and support of the Soviet people to their Cuban counterparts. After its Paris show, Guerra's Modern Dance Company continued its route towards the Eastern Bloc area: the German Democratic Republic, Poland and, of course, the Soviet Union. 

In 1964, Cuba returned to the Theater of Nations, but—excluding modern dance on this occasion—it featured the newly founded Conjunto Folklórico Nacional (National Folkloric Ensemble) which presented a program of congo and yoruba dances. The ensemble group once again conveniently omitted the Hispanic or European roots of Cuba's folklore (a chauvinist French critic denounced the absence of the contradanza without saying a single word about the punto cubano or zapateo, among other music and dance genres connected to Spanish colonialism). The 1964 Cuban partiicpation had also an important propaganda factor: the picture of Ernesto Che Guevara linking arms with one of the black dancers and the director of the company, made headlines in French newspapers, so the performance of the National Folkloric Ensemble and the political task of Che Guervara in Algeria (a meeting with Ahmed Ben Bella) became connected in this indirect way. Indeed, following the Paris performance, the company undertook a tour that concluded precisely in that African country. 

In short, the self-representation of Cuba in the Theater of Nations as an Afro-Cuban people (if not African) allows us to place in a broader context Ramiro Guerra’s recovery of La Rebambaramba and other works with music by Roldán (Mulato after Tres pequeños poemas, 1926; the anti-imperialist ballet El milagro de Anaquillé, 1929/1931 and the aforementioned Rítmicas, 1930) in the early years of the Revolution. As Fidel Castro tried to bring dance closer to the “Cuban people” by making them the creators—regardless of their race—of export-quality professional shows, Guerra followed anti-racist policies in his company, such as the hiring of “10 White, 10 Black and 10 Mulatto dancers,” a quota that paradoxically emphasized segregation.

Undoubtedly, one of the readings that could be extracted from the emphasis on Afro-Cuban roots during the early years of the Revolution would lead, precisely, to an image of racial integration that is not exempt from deep contradictions. However, bearing in mind Castro’s foreign policy and the “internationalist” work in Africa, we cannot ignore the equally strong anti-colonialist message launched by the representation offered by the Cuban National Folkloric Ensemble in 1964, first in Paris and then in Algeria (until 1962 a French colony). Likewise, let us recall Fidel’s speech at a later date (Guinea, 1976) where, in listing the reasons for his help to the Angolan people, he identified Cuba as a “Latin African people.”

But did not the aforementioned dance performances at the Theater of Nations constitute a more powerful diplomatic tool than words, by embodying the “Latin-African” identity while disguising it, at the same time, as a simple choreographic spectacle?

Belén Vega Pichaco, a Fall 2017 Afro-Latin American Research Fellow at the W.E. B. Dubois Research Insti- tute at Harvard’s Hutchins Center, is a DRCLAS Graduate Student Associate. She is a Juan de la Cierva Post-doctoral Researcher (MINECO, Spain) in Musi- cology at the University of Oviedo and a member of its Research Group MUDANZES (Music, Dance, and Cultural Studies). She received her Ph.D. from the University of La Rioja with a thesis on “The Construction of the ‘New Music’ in Cuba (1927-1946): from Afrocubanism to Neoclassicism.”