I’ve recently returned from spending an incredible 7 days in Havana; I was there to spend some time with a wonderful dance company ‘Rakatan’. The idea was to help develop ideas for a new show. Actually the idea was to immerse myself into the complexities and contradictions that are Cuba – not really enough time in 7 days to do that, but a taster at least. Inevitably it turned into searching for ideas for the new show.
I’m not even going to begin trying to decode Cuba here – it’s going to take many more visits and lot more work to get close to that, but it’s certainly a place of extremes – it has so many of the traits of other Communist countries that I’ve spent time in; Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, China at the beginning of the 2000s – huge amounts of state control in every aspect of existence, the idea of the ongoing revolution as the guiding principal for everyday life. This alongside a desperately broken economy which leaves people having to scrape things together in whatever way they can. There is no way, on paper at least, that people can survive on the wages they are paid – the average salary is about £20 per month – if you’re a doctor that is – in the few shops there are, the goods on sale would represent all if not more than that salary. In restaurants it’s possible to get a good meal for 3 people for £40… but it’s not just foreigners who’re eating there, so there have to be ways and means…
I could also go on at length about the impossibility of communicating with the outside world; the fact that you have to apply to the government for an email address, who then decide whether you deserve one or not. The fact that more or less the only place to get an internet connection is in the top hotels, but it’ll cost you nearly £10 for two hours of connection – half the average monthly salary – sort of the equivalent of being on equity minimum and having to pay £1000 for 2 hours online. Or the fact that it’s prohibitively expensive to make international phone calls, or to have a cell phone, or that in old Havana they say you have to walk with your eyes turned upwards so you can avoid bits of building falling on you. It’s not just talk either.
But then the climate plays its part as well – as supposed to the depression, caustic (and excellent) humour and bitterness I saw in those other countries, in Cuba there seems to be an ability to turn it around and celebrate life in some way. It helps when 25ºC is a cold day – it’s easier to see the bright side when the sun is out. I’m probably romanticising a bit – but there is vitality and a life, a survival instinct that seems to find a way through.
Many of the dancers I was working with are in the unusual position of being able to travel with the company – for the past 6 years they’ve been touring a popular, fun and commercially successful show called ‘Havana Rakatan’. Thanks to this they have periods of earning better money, of seeing the world – which has its good and bad points. It must be hard to be shown what appears to be the cake, but not to be able to eat it. Maybe sniff it.
The conditions in which they work over there are so far from what we have to deal with here. This ties back to a blog post I wrote some time ago about why we would continue to make work with theatre O regardless of how difficult it was financially. My utopian and idealistic feelings were put into some sort of perspective when I saw what making work in Cuba means – certainly for a company like Rakatan which receives no state support. What they have been given is the use of a theatre in the suburbs – this is a theatre that you wouldn’t be allowed to step into, let alone work in here in the UK. A stage with boards on the floor which threaten to tear bits off your feet if you tread on them in the wrong way. You can’t walk at the back of the stage in case you go through the floor into the cesspool that lies under it – which the mosquitos love. Bits of the ceiling can fall randomly, particularly if it rains, and then there are also the power cuts. And the heat. 35-36ºC when I was there. ‘Warming up’ in that temperature takes on a whole different meaning.
And yet here were 17 dancers, some of whom have to get up at 5 in the morning to get to rehearsals on time – not because they live a long way away, but because the public transport is a complete mess – all of whom, unless they get gigs abroad, are on a monthly salary of £6 per month (a taxi ride for me from the hotel to the theatre would cost £4). These dancers will train from 9 till 3 every day and move to full days when rehearsing a show.
All of this happens under the watchful eye of Nilda Guerra, who started the company when she was 23 – 15 years ago, even today, a 23 year old, black, woman, meant a very difficult path indeed. Her energy, drive and resourcefulness is hugely impressive and inspirational – if we think it’s hard here – she has to be looking in a hundred directions at once, constantly negotiating, charming, creating, talking, seizing opportunities when they briefly appear.
So it reminded me of a lot of things – mostly about the joy and pleasure that has to be found in the making of work – if not that then what?! It reminded me of the importance of invention, the positive side of constraints, that it’s ok to make decisions based on the fact that there’s no budget, that even if there is, doing ‘whatever we want’ isn’t the best way, that it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, that it’s the uniqueness of the voice that is important, not wether it fits into whatever else is happening, that you’re screwed if you run around chasing fashions. Maybe we know all this, but it’s great to be reminded of it.
Now if this show is to happen, it’s going to happen with solid financial support, so maybe that makes a mockery of everything I’ve just said – because I’m not really being put to the test – not with this production – but for Nilda, in order to make things financially viable, she has to send her dancers off to do gigs no cruise ships, in fancy hotels in Italy, Turkey, Mexico or wherever – she has to do things which are not expressions of her artistic integrity in order to survive – and she has incredibly talented dancers which means that this is possible – it’s a 24 hours a day job, but it is possible. Just as it’s ok for all of us to take jobs that we don’t feel are a reflection of our own artistic ambitions – as long as it allows us to realise those ambitions elsewhere. On our last project, ‘The Secret Agent’, I ended up not being paid at all – not an intended circumstance, but certainly one that would have been untenable without the other work that I do. There are lots of reasons to get upset over a situation like that, but in the end I feel privileged to even be able to consider making my own work – spending time with Rakatan made me appreciate that even more – and to be even more determined to do so.
As well as Nilda, I was also working with another amazing Cuban choreographer called Maca who has a company in Spain, La Macana. He was another fantastic reminder of the importance of play and curiosity. Maca is a child with ADHD in a grown up body – I don’t say this in a negative way whatsoever – it’s a very focused and productive ADHD! He’s always exploring, always coming up with ideas – people say he has red bull instead of blood in his veins – he calls it ‘primitive protein’. His own work is beautiful, and it’s thrilling to be working with him alongside Nilda on this.
Between Nilda, Maca and all the wonderful people I met in Havana, I feel re-invigorated in my own search, a renewed desire to make my own work with Carolina, to continue to define our voices as theatre makers, to resist the need to be fashionable and to be true to what drives us to create and tell stories that move, excite and inspire us.