ENA Update

The National Art School in Havana, February, 2005

by Don Skoog

     Today, I walked the cloistered, meandering, earth-red halls of the School of Dance at the Escuela Nacionál de Arte (ENA). Most foreign students don’t know it’s there, tucked up into the trees on a hillside behind the old country club building. It is a disorienting place, both construction project and ruin, a proud monument to a visionary dream and a sad witness to its death.
     Built from red ceramic tile, its catalan arched pathways wind around huge stone domes, turning left or right, each offset in sweeping, asymmetrical curves that lead, perhaps, to crumbling spaces where beautiful, feline children dance the Orishas accompanied by batá drummers, or to the huge, ruined amphitheater that has never been used. Perhaps soon it will.
     It is hard to understand how this forty-year-old building, so beaten up, could still be so heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The school was never finished. Construction was halted well before it was made weatherproof, so its interior spaces have suffered in the rain and wind of storm season, and the mortar between the bricks crumbles in the moist heat of the Cuban summer. The last hurricane blew out windows and drenched the interior spaces, ruining the few books and dance costumes stored within.

     Yet the students are still here, still dancing, just as they did in the days when Castro dreamed of a new education for a new Cuba. But soon, modern dance came to be viewed as decadent, and folkloric art as anti-socialist. The beautiful new buildings of the ENA, each unique in the world, were seen as expressions of individualism, not examples of the collective spirit. And so they were discredited, their architects punished. Their funding was slashed and their decline began.
     But in today’s tourist-friendly Cuba, dance has once again become respectable, especially the traditional styles that attract foreigners to the island to watch and to study. But the school is now hampered by crumbling infrastructure and deficits, and by an inflexible bureaucracy unable to respond to its needs. (Many of the high school’s wooden walls were blown out during the last hurricane, so the administration decided to repaint it.) Each of the eight larger campus buildings has different needs and the school is trying to address them, but new construction on old buildings only highlights the decay while creating an esthetic mismatch of materials––an uneasy, unblended, uncontrolled collage. And so the story continues. It is not what it once was, and the climate, both natural and political, continues to alter it, day by day.

     People write of the awe they feel when surrounded by the ruins of another time. But it is even more moving to stand in the ruins of living history, the story still unfolding––a bright tulip pushing its flower to the sunlight through dirty snow––the promise of the new, walking carelessly through the failures of the old, still too young to heed the lessons in the decaying walls that can no longer shield them from the heat or rain.


     What I learned in Cuba is that Art really matters. That what you write or play or dance or paint is your only testament, the only permanent witness to the world you see with your eyes, or feel in your heart. It is the artist’s responsibility to give meaning to the past by contributing to the present. Our failure to manifest our world is treason, leaving our children, those who ride on our shoulders, in a lesser, poorer place.
     Practice your art as if the future of the world depended on it. Because it does. Pick up your pen and write down what you’ve learned. Open your horn case and show your students the song you were taught. Share your dance moves with those who didn’t travel with you. Tell anyone who will listen about what you saw in Cuba. It’s your duty. If you don’t, who will?

Hi Don!

     I enjoyed reading your article and seeing your photos. Thank you for the explanatory narrative, which answered many of the questions I had when I walked the out-of-the-way places at ENA. Your thoughts were very moving. They prompt me, as did the time with Andres Alén, to renew a commitment to play music.
     I went to Cuba without expectations and was flooded with surprises. Andres was able to speak to me in many layers of language that I understood. I am beginning to transcribe the lessons which I recorded and beginning the training exercises he recommended. I have no idea where I'm going with any of it, but I feel an urgency to play, practice, write, and study -- possibly teach and use some of the info in the workshops I give.
     Your views about the importance of music echo something Andres said: "Music
is a temporary and abstract art. It can't be seen like painting or architecture. The only way we have music is to make it happen. If you don't play it, it doesn't exist."! And a quote he gave us from Jose Artiste: "Music is the most beautiful of the arts."

Anne Muth

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