Unofficial Visit: Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet 
Havana, Cuba
Approaching midnight. Right of the Museo de la Revolucion, lights flicker in a series of elegant windows as trees sway in the breeze. This is the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet.
​Upon presenting myself at the door, I am given a tour. The guard lights an inner staircase with his phone. We climb. He is tense, emphasizing the need to be quiet, the need for speed. This visit is off the books. The amount requested for this privilege is low: six CUC. Six dollars. I am unnerved that six dollars alone might change his life enough to balance the risk of us being found. This is one face of survival in Havana in a post-Fidel Castro, post-Obama temporary US rapprochement with Cuba, and while he doesn’t speak to me about this challenge, other Cubans do. They leave jobs as doctors or accountants to work car and bicycle taxis because with tourists they earn in a day what they made before in a month. And the people shut out of the tourist economy can be fatalistic, sometimes bitter. A worker-artist living on the Malecón says the government has abandoned them; he wants to know how to get inside the new economy. The ballet-school guard has found his answer to that question, taking hesitant, stressful first steps toward enterprise.
​Quietly we go room by room. Classrooms with desks, classrooms with barres, the cafeteria, the makeup loge. The presentation is egalitarian; every space is worthy of a foreigner’s photo. Che and Fidel smile from walls and instructional bulletin boards. The guard proudly announces the names of the dancers as we pass photos in the corridor. One frame, oddly, is propped against the wall in a classroom corner, obscured by a table. The picture is of Carlos Acosta as a child dancer, his port de bras taunt, his gaze internal. He studied at the school before leaving Cuba for an international career, and now he rests on the floor. Is there any connection between the two? 
​Seeking out metaphors comes too easily, perhaps because the Cuban reality is so hard to pierce for an American. The reasons go beyond cultural and ideological divides. I wouldn’t have even been granted the tour had I admitted to being American. The guard posed the question confrontationally: Are you American? His question, like his stare, challenged. An American would not be welcome to wander the halls. And who could blame him? The Trump administration demonstrates American capriciousness: we hold out a hand one minute, then pull back just as intimacy and commerce hit the beat. But fortunately there is ballet, and it has its own form of rapprochement. In an unexpected pas de deux, the guard and I exchange glances and then a smile over a dimly lit photograph. We stop and admire the line of dancers with their legs extended at straight 90 degree angles. One of the most celebrated of all ballet moments. We exchange one word. Giselle. In this ballet, through the power of dance, love and the beloved live on. The lovers might be separated by communities or even death, but they remain united.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 1, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Throughout the Escuela, prominently and carefully hung photographs reveal the history and pageantry of the illustrious Cuban dance company, making it all the more surprising to find this photograph of world-famous principle dancer Carlos Acosta tucked away behind a table in the corner of a general classroom.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 2, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

I am photographing the staircases of the foyer when the offer of a private tour is given.  Originally, I was allowed to explore only this area of school.  I like to imagine that my enthusiasm for photographing the deliberately broken staircase railing—a conscious articulation of ruination by whomever created it long ago—inspires the offer to view and photograph more.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 3, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Propped against the staircase wall of the grand foyer is this motorcycle.  It underscores the awareness of this building as a working school, not a memorial to the arts.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 4, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Inside a dance classroom, barres and props are pushed against the wall, including a stage door.  I want to push through it and discover the figures surely dancing beyond it.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 5, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A freshly painted floor has pushed the barres and chairs off to the side.  Unable to move beyond the doorframe, I find myself in an Edgar Degas ballet-class viewpoint.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 6, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

At night in the corridors of the Escuela, the lit angles and perspectives compete and merge in a dance of surreal composition.  The Wilis of Giselle will appear any minute.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 7, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Electrical infrastructure in Havana is challenged, resulting in cobbled-together cabling and fixtures throughout the city.  In the dance studios and classrooms of the Escuela, this translates into a more refined, yet no less conspicuous, overlay of florescent tubing slicing up Neoclassical arches.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 8, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The Carlos Acosta photograph as I first discovered it, the dancer cut off at the neck by a table.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 9, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A marble and plaster staircase on the northern end leads guests toward the ornate gilded ceiling.  This Neoclassical building was once a private mansion, a display of wealth and cultured taste.  Now the building is foundational for shaping culture itself.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 10, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A grid of florescent lights makes metaphor physical: Recent history is illuminated (the smiling Che), and the past is thrown into shadow (Neoclassical window treatments).

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 11, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In the same classroom as No. 10, a board is pinned with relevant history: a pas de deux of luminaries from the Revolution and the world of Cuban ballet.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 12, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In the shadowy underbelly of a staircase, the memory of an elegant bourgeois past survives.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 13, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Inside another classroom, the students face not a black- or bulletin board but the sweep of legs leaping into cabrioles.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 14, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The upper levels of a Spanish-style inner courtyard are illuminated by lights from a loge.  A scene from Romeo and Juliet leaps to mind.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 15, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

At night, the classroom-lined corridor echoes with every step.  Here especially, the guard requests silence.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 16, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

In this room overlooking the courtyard, the student and adult dancers ready for performances, putting on makeup at mirrors positioned along the edges and congregating at the tables.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 17, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

A bulletin board obstructs the mirror in a dance studio, detailing the history of Cuban ballet in carefully clipped collage—and accented with SpongeBob SquarePants stickers.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 18, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Even in the cafeteria, the chairs could be in arabesque, prepared to move in lines across the stage à-la Act II of Giselle.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 19, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

Mirrors and wash basins in the makeup loge catch the rays of electrical lights from across the courtyard.

Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet No. 20, Havana, Cuba, 2017.

The Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet looks down over the tree-lined Paseo de Marti, where under a full moon, a lone child takes loops on his bike.

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