Flirting With Fidel:Dance, Suffering, Revolution

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution , by Alma Guillermoprieto. Pantheon, 250 pages, $25.

Few dancers write memoirs, and so the world of dance remains an elegant mystery to many of us, despite lovelorn films like Red Shoes or reverential ones like the Margot Fonteyn series. A recent review of Robert Altman’s The Company , in The New York Review of Books , insists on the anti-romantic view of dancers, who are not to be seen as moths dying ecstatically in the flame of their art, but more like 9-to-5 office workers plodding through their duties. No blood-soaked ballet shoes, please , no tortured insteps. But this will not do for those of us who remember Ginger Rogers picking herself up and dusting herself off, shoes full of blood, or, for that matter, the Little Mermaid, dancing for love on feet like knives. The author of Dancing with Cuba comes down on the side of sacrifice. Alma Guillermoprieto’s dispatches from the barre are full of painful disciplines, all so that we may continue to gawk at those apparitions like dragonflies-or, as she puts it, “pure limpid dance, so free of sentimentality that it seemed to be performed by a flock of subtle iridescent birds.”

Before she went to Cuba, Ms. Guillermoprieto danced in New York, poor and often hungry, and this vie bohème has seldom been made to sound so delicately romantic, illuminated by the tender comradeship of those who have nothing to share but their generosity of spirit. Ms. Guillermoprieto and her friends sat together all evening in The Russian Tearoom over a single cocktail; they told each other of discoveries like the place that, “for ninety-nine cents, served an enormous platter of noodles cooked with all kinds of vegetables and bits of meat …. It is unbelievable!”

In Cuba, on the other hand, she was a comrade indeed, because Westerners could only be there for ideological reasons. She was unpolitical, didn’t read newspapers, understood nothing of what went on. Hindsights and insights come at the end of the book, but meanwhile we toss with her on an ocean of incomprehension. She was expected, for instance, to teach dance without the essential use of mirrors, because communists must repudiate the vanities of capitalism. Who uses this kind of talk? Everyone in Cuba, it would seem, but this gem is from her boss, one of the inflexible, dogmatic females that afflicted communism from Warsaw to Vladivostok. Ideology was indeed the reason for deprivations, but this one was at a remove; vanity had nothing to do with it. Fidel Castro insisted on a palace for the arts and the dance, in the same way that later dictators felt they had to have a national airline-for prestige. But the Cuban dictator had no feeling or respect for the arts, and so they were underfunded: no money for mirrors, or for music.

This is a tale, then, of artists and poets, dancers and architects-bewildered, always in conflict, trying to keep alive standards which they knew were essential, but which were also suspect, not to say dangerous. A familiar tale now-we have heard it over and over again-but it was new to them.

Young Alma was guiltily resistant to exhortations like “The Revolutionary is consumed by this uninterrupted action which has no other end but death, unless the construction of socialism on a global scale is achieved” (Che Guevara). She was suspicious when the atrocious suffering of the sugar workers-as bad as that under their former owners-was justified as “slave’s work that a free man can assume only on the basis of the most profound revolutionary consciousness” (Fidel Castro). Mind you, this insistence on suffering did continue a theme from her New York days. Martha Graham, in a rage, once pinched an errant dancer and said that pain was necessary for the dance. “I think,” says our author, “that at that stage in her life she wanted to contribute to our training by guaranteeing we would suffer.”

A sapient friend told Ms. Guillermoprieto that she was someone with an outstanding talent for suffering, but this was not what she meant when she wrote to a friend that “I’m beginning to understand that I’ve been greatly deformed by capitalism.”

Her stock of common sense, which revolted against the rhetoric, didn’t prevent her from falling in love, like so many, with communism itself-partly because she was being introduced to real poverty, real suffering, the hardships of the countryside and of the workers. Partly, though, this inclination toward sacrifice, pain, death has such deep roots in our natures that we have not begun to understand them, I think. Ms. Guillermoprieto fell in love with Fidel, too, not to mention “a real guerrilla revolutionary” who subscribed to Che’s dictum that in order to have a meaningful life and contribute to the well-being of the human race, it is necessary to die, and fast.

In country after socialist and communist country, people fell in love with their leaders-and this has dark roots, too.

Easy now to mock the submission to the Revolution that so many artists accepted, hearts aflame, heads full of doubt and dislike. Ms. Guillermoprieto most sincerely hated the false glamour of the Revolution, and she just as sincerely believed in it. Not surprisingly, this young woman-not yet 21, devotedly teaching with inadequate materials and improperly trained pupils, goaded by ignorant bureaucrats, supported only by the loving friendship of equally fragile people-fell into depression and breakdown.

Two tales illustrate the gap between the image of the Revolution and its reality. Oscar Lewis, the American anthropologist and author of The Children of Sanchez , was invited to Cuba by Castro himself, because his work, said Fidel, was more revolutionary than a thousand speeches. Fêted and honored, Lewis asked only that the people he interviewed not be punished if they expressed doubts on Castro and the Revolution. Fidel promised; then the chief of police, Fidel’s pal Pineiro, intervened. “It wasn’t entirely clear to me why the chief of police should be so interested in Lewis’ project,” confesses Ms. Guillermoprieto. Next came the persecution and the imprisonments. Hard to imagine a more painful awakening for Lewis than when the People’s Revolution turned its hatred on him. Very soon after he died, and surely it was from a broken heart.

Then there was the scandal of the junior school, attended by the children of peasants, whose quarters were discovered smeared with shit and angry graffiti. Ms. Guillermoprieto’s superiors agreed that it wasn’t enough to give children lessons and exhortations; they needed love, and they missed their families. But these same insightful adults, in their roles as revolutionary leaders, could not admit this, or act on it. They lectured the kids thus: “The party rescued you from poverty, gave you a future, you ungrateful antisocial brats, you should be ashamed.” This kind of tale has been told often enough in the later days of Revolution, but then it came as a bitter shock.

Meanwhile, our poor author was ill, wandering in the forests of depression without a guide. Chat about Freud and the unconscious might have been just the thing in New York, but not in Cuba. Ms. Guillermoprieto was certainly socially responsible: She wasn’t able to commit suicide because she could not find a way to do it that wouldn’t upset or distress other people.

To her relief, she was sacked by the jealous boss to whom she was preferred by her pupils. And so back to New York, safety and plenty, and a better understanding of her state of mind. Invited to return to Cuba, to restructure the dance school at the Escueles Nacionales des Arte, Ms. Guillermoprieto refused. Instead, she became a journalist and, later, a writer. Here she is, this honest, insightful, informed witness to our turbulent days.

This book will make a good number of aged people wince, and laugh at youthful folly-but laughing out of the other side of our mouths, we do sometimes suffer strange feelings of loss. Everywhere are the poor, the unfed, the insulted, the injured: It was nice, for a time, to think that there could be an end to all this.

Dancing with Cuba is a useful source of information, and those intrigued by Fidel will find plenty here to ponder. The man who makes four-hour speeches and finds people to listen to them must have something more than is granted most orators.

Cuba hasn’t done well-there’s not much to admire in the way of social achievements. The people are a different thing. Those musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, for instance, ignored for years, lately discovered, with wonderful television programs made about them-who could forget their humanity, and their humor? They have charmed the world. Better to think of them than the complex of buildings of the Escueles des Arte-now thought to be a masterpiece-falling down and threatened by the jungle. Fidel can’t be bothered.

Of herself, the author says: “No one ever asked me then, and I don’t know if I myself understood that I had a life that was not only extraordinary but real -the kind of life that doesn’t happen by accident, but is put together slowly and with effort.”

Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers (HarperCollins) was published in January.