As a young woman, Alma Guillermoprieto performed with Twyla Tharp, whose choreography helped change the modern dance landscape. In 1970, when Guillermoprieto was 20, she experienced a different sort of revolution, when she spent six months trying to teach her art to Cuban youngsters.
“Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution,” superbly translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen, reconstructs this stay, pulling from “the strange, willful trap” of Guillermoprieto’s memory – which, as she warns from the start, has plenty of holes when it comes to her decades-old Cuban experience.
The result is a loose mix of half-memories, reporting and musings on the place and meaning of art. The book’s subtitle, “A Memoir of the Revolution,” does double duty, referring both to Fidel Castro’s government and the Mexican journalist and author’s traumatic awakening to the larger world.
The mix works for some of the same reasons Guillermoprieto had such difficulty in Cuba – the sophisticated, intelligent singularity of her voice, her insistence on recognizing life’s grays and her sly wit. Both gentle and pitiless when recalling her 20-year-old self, the author evokes the bitter uncertainties of youth, heightened amid the seeming certainties of Castro’s revolution.
But first, New York, where Guillermoprieto offers a delightful window into her life as an aspiring dancer. Never a star, she nonetheless studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and performed in some of Tharp’s classic works including “Medley,” danced on Central Park’s Great Lawn.
“For me,” she writes, “those bright mornings when we rehearsed ‘Medley’ were the first irrefutable proof that being alive was worth it.”
Her enchantment is irresistible, as are her droll descriptions of the modern giants: “very old and more or less pickled in alcohol” (Graham); and “her style of dancing was deadpan – but that was also her style when she wasn’t moving” (Tharp).
The book’s sure narrative breaks down when it leaves the dance-world cocoon for Cuba, a country that quickly unraveled Guillermoprieto’s sense of self and purpose, driving her into “ongoing arguments for and against” herself and her life.
“Revolution, Imperialism, Sacrifice. These were sledgehammer words, of such enormous weight that I couldn’t help paying attention to them, and they seemed to invite careful reflection. But I also experienced them as crushing words, without nuances or secrets,” she writes.
Havana took a heavy toll on Guillermoprieto, who could not rationalize her belief in art and the individual with her nascent awareness of politics and war. What was the point of teaching Cunningham technique to a group of youngsters at a dilapidated school while the country struggled hopelessly to harvest 10 million tons of sugar, Vietnamese children were napalmed and Cuban bureaucrats sneered distrustfully at useless artists?
“Dancing With Cuba” has more to do with Guillermoprieto’s discovery that such questions exist than with finding the answers.
“There’s not much time left before I leave Cuba forever and this story ends,” she writes toward the end of the book. In truth, one reads the final pages feeling as though it has just begun.