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Santiago Alfonso: The imprint of the African in the body and soul of a Cuban

santiago alfonso

The choreographer and company director is proud to found, in the 60s, a movement in favor of his cultural roots and against racial prejudice in dance.

The authority of Santiago Alfonso in the culture of the country where he was born and lives not only responds to his history of more than six decades in Cuban dance, but also to his courage when telling it. When the celebrations, in 2020, of the sixtieth anniversary of the Modern Dance Ensemble, today Contemporary Dance of Cuba, this dancer, choreographer and company director recalled how the maestro Ramiro Guerra broke with ties that plunged the black culture to something less.

“It started from our roots, both in dance and music,” he says while expressing how proud he is to have been one of the founders of a movement where they faced important challenges at the dawn of the 1960s.

“Another of those who faced all this together with Ramiro was the musicologist Argeliers León. Between the two there was constant communication that in turn gave us insights and knowledge to all the young people in the group. A series of high-class religious worked directly with Argeliers in Havana. I remember, for example, Jesús Pérez, Trinidad Torregrosa and Nieves Fresneda, who became our folklore teachers ”.

“Among them there was no gaze towards the realm of black as something marginal, so common at that time. They taught us everything about that world, but from the cultural point of view because their objective was to give value to that culture. The themes of the works were never raised through the treatment of religion ", emphasizes.

From the modern in dance and its fusion to the expressions of African syncretism, creations aimed at an avant-garde arose that "produced amazement in the public, but in a positive sense, not rejection."

“Between 1969 and 1970 we started doing dance-theater when that was not yet known in Europe. Gallant imputation It is the first work to be done in Cuba, where we danced, acted and sang. Ramiro Guerra took us dancers who participated in this and other works on a path of total avant-garde ”, says Santiago.

The choreographer Alberto Alonso, Alicia's brother-in-law, had the Ballet experimental where he did musical theater. However, since 1941 he had been working on the Cubanization of academic dance.

"Influencing and introducing the Cuban way into the classical was also a form of inclusion for artists like me, because in that dream they reflected our roots."

However, Alonso's will was opposed by “the criteria of a woman of very high teaching in the Ballet that he considered that anything other than that had no value. Who told Ramiro Guerra that he was going to do a modern dance movement in Cuba with blacks? She wondered a few times.

Others said that he was supporting Santeria in Cuba, when it was done Yoruba Suite ”.

“Those were some of the thoughts with hints of racism that were prevalent. I never understood why they were exercising that struggle as if academic dance was antagonistic to the rest of the styles. I have never stopped appreciating the importance of training a dancer at the academy. A true dancer has to study ballet ”.

However, we face these taboos by working and putting creations to the criteria of the people and to the vision of criticism. Mambi, Mulato, Miracle of Anaquillé ..."

Santiago considers that a moment of rupture was constituted by the premiere of Yoruba Suite where he mixes folk elements of that Afro-Cuban religion brought to the theater and seen from the conception of dance.

 “Lorna Burdsall and Ramiro Guerra, after them Elena Noriega did it, they used the dancers according to the need of the work, since there was no racial discrimination in the composition of the casts or in the composition of the company. That gave dignity to the black dancer ”.

“We were all the soloists and when we needed to be part of the dance corps we did it too. I remember that Eduardo Rivero, the first dancer at that time, was a corps de ballet in some choreographies. And so it was with everyone " reports

"It meant the tacit acceptance of the presence not only racial and aesthetic but also cultural," says this teacher.

In his memory he fondly and nostalgically keeps names of the first members of the Modern Dance Ensemble, based in the National Theater of Cuba: José Ramón Pradas, Eduardo Rivero, Arnaldo Patterson, Antonio Caballero, Alberto Méndez, Florangel Baeza, Jonás Bombarlé, Ileana Farrés and Irma Obermayer, among others.

 "All of the above constituted a precedent for the emergence of the Cuban School of Dance, which is already a little put aside because now the contemporary is fashionable," he says in a tone of revelry, but the inflection of the voice makes one think a provocation or disagreement: “The company has taken a turn in other directions. That is undeniable ”.

But elegance is a quality of the personality of Santiago Alfonso. For this reason, his last words in this interview are of gratitude to the young dancers, choreographers, teachers and those who today direct Danza Contemporánea de Cuba.

In them, there is something that reminds you of the origin. Some reminiscence in the movement. But you have to be dialectical. Everything evolves. By going forward with their movement they have perpetuated ours ”, he concludes.

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