WASHINGTON — In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy managed the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over the next two weeks, Cuba’s top artists perform in the D.C. building that bares his name.
The Kennedy Center presents “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World,” bringing 400 artists to stage 50 events of Cuban dance, music, theater, film and visual art from May 8-20.
“This is an unprecedented moment in history to see this many Cuban artists over a two-week period in one place,” said Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming at the Kennedy Center. “The Cubans seem to bare no hostility toward Kennedy and they’re very pleased it’s taking place in such a prestigious institution. It’s one of those ironies that I find quite incredible. It’s welcomed by them and we certainly welcome the artists into the center.”
The festival curators are hoping to reignite a rich cultural history between the U.S. and Cuba, especially after diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries in 2015.
“Some of America’s DNA is in Cuba,” Adams said. “When the borders were more porous, the exchange of arts and ideas went back and forth. The cha-cha, mambo, domba — all of those dances and musical sounds are also in ours. … The artists, arts and culture out of Cuba is extraordinary. They punch way above their weight in terms of the people they’ve produced.”
Cuban dance will hit the stage with a number of renowned artists, including Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which will perform the iconic ballets “Don Quixote” and “Giselle.”
“It’s actually going to be the 40th anniversary of the company’s debut in the United States and that debut just happened to be at the Kennedy Center,” Adams said. “We are thrilled that we are able to host this company on this occasion and that Alonso will be here at 97 years old!”
You’ll also see Malpaso perform “Indomitable Waltz,” “Ocaso” and “24 Hours and a Dog.”
“A fantastic company of contemporary dance,” Adams said. “It’s a repertory company, so they’re using various choreographers to set work. … It’s relatively new on the Cuban scene, but it has also toured the United States, the Joyce Theater in New York and other places.”
For something extra spicy, Irene Rodriguez Compañía will perform flamenco dances.
“The traditions of Spain are very much evident in Cuba,” Adams said. “Irene, who was the star flamenco dancer, will be with us for one performance only here to participate in the festival.”
Just as legendary as Cuba’s dance reputation is its unmistakable musical stylings.
“Music is the soundscape for Cuba,” Adams said. “There’s never a bad band.”
If you ever saw Wim Wenders’ music doc “Buena Vista Social Club,” you know the sound well.
“Omara Portuondo will be here. She’s an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club.”
You’ll also hear the talented young musicians of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra.
“It ranges in age from 17 to 25,” Adams said. “Orchestras that come out of Latin America use the Sistema Method of teaching and have created fascinating, extraordinary musicians. … They’ll play the work of Leo Brouwer, one of the most famous classical composers in Cuba.”
The festival will also feature a rare reunion of the entire Lopez-Nussa Family.
“All together, there are about seven or eight of them that are all related,” Adams said. “They don’t always sing or play together because they’re not in the same place at the same time, but we will actually have all of them here on our stages, so that’ll be a real treat for everybody.”
Which other singers might we see?
“Aymee Nuviola, an extraordinary, Grammy-winning singer. She resides in Miami and is very excited to be here for this event. … Pablo Milanes will be the guest of his daughter Haydee Milanes. Pablo is probably one of the most extraordinary guitarists in the world. … And Los Van Van, probably the most well-known group out of Cuba, has been around for quite a long time, but their music continues to impress, inspire and draw lots and lots of audiences.”
If live theater is more down your alley, get ready for Teatro el Publico’s postmodern interpretation of “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“Carlos Diaz is one of the best Cuban theater directors in the country,” Adams said. “We are happy to welcome them back with a Fassbinder piece. … What’s interesting about what Carlos has done is that all of the female roles are being played by men, sort of Shakespearean.”
Meanwhile, Argos Teatro will present a political piece called “10 Million.”
“This is a piece exploring the difficulties of a family that is torn for political reasons,” Adams said. “The wife decides to leave, the husband and the child stay at home, but just the churning and what that does to a family is explored in this. When people see this, particularly people that are recent immigrant families that may have landed here in the United State or Europe, it touches them because it’s really telling them a story that is sort of a heart burn for them.”
If you’re a movie fan, you can help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Havana Film Festival.
“We will have a retrospective of some of the great films out of Cuba like ‘Strawberry and Chocolate,'” Adams said. “Many of these films are not films that Americans have had an opportunity to see, so it’s going to be a great chance to catch up on great films that really give you a great context on Cuba. You will see some of the landscape, you will hear some of the stories, you will understand some of the troubles they have seen. It’s really quite wonderful.”
The festival will also screen a pair of Kavery Kaul documentaries, including “Cuban Canvas.”
“That looks at the visual arts scene in Cuba and where it is today,” Adams said. “She had also done a film before many years ago [called ‘First Look’] that looked at it then. So it’s looking at it then and now and both of those documentaries will be shown as part of the festival.”
The Kennedy Center will also display Cuban renderings of American movie posters.
“They don’t necessarily use the posters that are delivered with the film, they create their own,” Adams said. “It’s really quite imaginative that they see the film and then they decide what to emphasize through the art. We’ve also invited some young graphic designers to do some new posters based on the title of the festival, ‘Artes de Cuba’ … displayed as part of the festival.”
In between shows, you’ll be able to take in the colorful exhibitions of Cuba’s visual artists.
“Visual arts in Cuba is so dynamic and so brilliant,” Adams said. “When you walk into the [Kennedy Center] building, you’ll immediately know that it’s Cuba you are going to discover. … All of the halls will be occupied with the artwork of Cuba’s great visual artists.”
Which specific artists can we expect to see?
“Manuel Mendive, who is sometimes referred to as the Picasso of Cuba; Roberto Diago is one of the most sought-after visual artists; José Parlá is a Cuban American living in New York selected out of thousands of entries to create the mural at Ground Zero,” Adams said. “We’ve done something really cool with Emilio Perez in the north gallery on the terrace level — every 15 minutes will be this video that he created that will just encompass the entire room.”
Don’t miss the exhibit of Celia Ledon’s creatively resourceful fashion design.
“Her work is going to be exhibited in the atrium,” Adams said. “There’s one dress she’s creating that will be suspended from the ceiling. She uses all found materials: rubber from tiles, trash bags, the pop-top off a soda can, all of those things to create this work.”
You’ll also see a classic automobile with a futuristic upgrade.
“It’s call ‘The Hybrid of a Chrysler’ by Esterio Segura,” Adams said. “It has wings on this car, so it’s making a statement about transportation or taking off, however you want to interpret that. … Yesterday, we found six kids sitting in the car so we gotta have more security!”
All the while, you can stop by “Noches de Cuba” every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m. to enjoy a lounge open to the public with food, drink and pop-up performances.
“There will be Cuban food, mojitos, daiquiris and all of the Cuban and Caribbean drinks,” Adams said. “Anybody can come and just hang out, drink, eat and enjoy Cuba!”
Find out more on the Kennedy Center website. Listen to our full chat with Alicia Adams below: