It is said that in Cuba, even rocks dance. And those not endowed with the rhythm to dance will still make slight movements to the beat of popular music.
This island, with a diverse mix of races, has its roots in African and Spanish cultures. The former is the sovereign of rhythm and is found in all the current musical fusions. The latter provided the main elements regarding physical body expression and multiple rhythms.
The Chinese who were brought here as indentured labourers, the French who ﬂed from Haiti‘s revolution, black Haitians, and, to a lesser degree, the English and Germans all left something to create the mixture of what Cuba is today. What makes folklore and traditions the most popular form of expression for a people is often neglected by their ruling classes that may play it but will never accept it as their own.
In Cuba, many of the most outstanding artists have permeated their art with it and, as a result, some of the most authentic masterpieces of Cuban culture were created. Even with this kind of success, in many cases it was welcomed as something exotic and foreign within this country. There were some exceptions that were able to bask in the limelight of national and international popularity.
Everything African, for those lacking in experience or knowledge, was considered something belonging to black people, something dark and savage. Despite this, the African inﬂuences quickly reigned in the essential areas of Cuban music. The same happened with art and to a lesser degree in theatre and literature.
With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in I959, the new government wanted to celebrate their independence and national pride and used the arts to allow all Cuban things to spread freely. There is no better example than a Company that performed an art that, until then, was spontaneously performed on the streets.
The Company is Born
The National Cuban Folkloric Company was founded in the Cuban capital on May 7, 1962. Among the people who participated in the early stages were Rogelio Martínez Furé, ethnologist, researcher, and musician who provided the theoretical knowledge, and Rodolfo Reyes Cortés. Artists were chosen from a pool of ordinary people, those who could authentically perform what they felt in their blood from their ancestors. People like carpenters, housewives, teachers, and practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. Their purpose was to take to the stage what was previously only performed on the streets, empty lots, at religious services, and other modest places.
And so it started, struggling sometimes against up-tight conservatives and the slow change in people's perceptions.
The Company's main task was to “treasure” the folk dances and musical forms and to look into every corner of the island to create a repertoire from the African, Afro-Cuban, Spanish, and Caribbean inﬂuences on Cuban traditions. In the words of Dr. Martínez Furé, “to get everything from all the cultures, the Spanish and African, the religious and profane, popular dances and the music coming from other islands to make ours richer.“
With this mélange they have toured in more than 40 countries on renowned stages and participated in numerous festivals.
During the Company's 45 years of existence, a lot has changed but their essence has remained the same. Those young members who started as artists are now ﬁlling other positions, teaching the next generation. And these new students, unlike themselves, are mostly graduates from art schools but their advanced educational backgrounds are not a disadvantage with the Company — popular folk culture is still part of their streets and students enter these schools from many different backgrounds.
Manolo Micler, presently General Director of the Company (although he makes it very clear that it is his privilege to share the directorship with Martínez Furé) has been with the group for 4l years. He is one of the founders and has his roots in the amateur movement. He works in multiple disciplines including choreography. He spoke to CubaPLUS just before an anniversary gala. I asked him why did he join the Company?
Manolo answered, “I am from very poor origins, I learned all these art forms in a very natural way since it was part of what I saw everyday. Among my goals at the Company is preservation and renovation. Everything in life needs that, everything in life grows, develops, and dies and one has to leave the path clear for other generations without betraying the spirit. Many choreographers have paid us homage by creating dances for our repertoire. Among them are Alberto Mendez, Danny Villalonga, Isidro Rolando, Pancho González, Lizt Alfonso, Santiago Alfonso, and I also included some of mine.”
Not all of the dances preserve the classical style of the Company and l asked him why?
“The Company has not forgotten the goals it was created for, the ones that lie in its core and which also want to breathe some fresh air. Each era has its own type of entertainment; this is the challenge of the 21st Century.”
“The group was founded to rescue and spread Cuban folkloric art. There was no one doing that kind of job before. We did it giving it stage projection, always magnifying it for the demands of the theatre. We just gave it a vision of showmanship without betraying the folkloric essence. That is what we do today.”
“The Company's ﬁrst members were from a folkloric background, they were chosen for their knowledge,” says Fure. “They were living libraries. Today we have young people with other knowledge and we have to teach them theory and some other elements. That is what the veterans do.”
“Since its early start the group has had its critics. Some people saw it as a minor act. All African things were feared since there was a time in Cuba when the population was largely black and, with the experience of the revolution in Haiti, all black things were feared, including that related to culture. But the Company does not only have a repertoire with the Afro-Cuban side of Cuban culture. Folklore includes art from Spain, China, and other places whose roots have influenced our country.”
I was allowed to watch some technical classes and strictness and discipline clearly governs. It is not just about reproducing, as many people think, what most any Cuban can do since early childhood. It is about translating it into the language of the stage. That is how they perform and how they triumph on all the stages that they grace. Presently there are 18 male and 19 female dancers, 10 percussionists, 4 singers, 2 musicians, a whole body of professionals, choreographers, and technicians.
The teaching part also includes workshops for children and young people. They are taught folkloric and popular expressions. Those showing greater promise are trained for art schools.
For those from other regions of the world who would like to learn traditional Cuban dances with African origins, there is the FolkCuba workshop which is held twice a year in January and July.
Each Saturday, the Company performs a show at its headquarters in the Vedado area of Havana where spectators participate as a way for the Company to show their work and to obtain direct feedback from their audience.
The National Cuban Folkloric Company is a monument to authenticity and culture. Its imprint in theatre, television, and ﬁlm has made the group one of the jewels of everything that is Cuban.