Marianela Boan And Ellery Biddle Talk Cuban Art

While we are Renaissance men and women, we aren’t experts on absolutely everything. So we took up with friend of the Festivals (and our former communications manager) Ellery Biddle, who is in fact an expert on Cuban arts and media. We thought she’d be great person to give us some context on Marianela Boán’s 2010 Live Arts Festival production Decadere. Ellery tells us what the Cuban art scene is, and isn’t, and talks to Marianela Boán about how social critique plays out in her show.

In Cuba, a professional dance or theater performance is cheaper than a can of soda. Alongside its renowned literacy and education programs, the Cuban government has built an intricate system to support the nation’s artists and to “culture” the Cuban public. Tickets to music, dance, and theater performances cost only a few pesos more than a movie, and opportunities to see art abound. Cubans consume art with about as much voracity as Americans do college basketball—they know the names and backgrounds of the performers, they understand the history and context of the work, and they avidly discuss the choices of the artists and the nuances of their execution.

Marianela Boán reminded me of this in our recent conversation about Decadere, her new work that will make its U.S. premiere at the 2010 Live Arts Festival. I’ve traveled to Cuba multiple times as a student and as a researcher, and what I mention above is not a part of Cuban life that outsiders know much about—censorship is by far the more common subject in the popular imagination when it comes to creative expression in Cuba.

The Ministry of Culture administers professional and educational institutions for Cuban artists and in so doing embodies the government’s firm commitment to supporting the arts (a novel concept in a country like the U.S.). But like all federal agencies in Cuba, it is partially driven by an ideology that is highly protective of the Cuban government and of the tenets of the Cuban revolution. In the 1970s, it was the Ministry of Culture that famously placed dozens of Cuban artists under police surveillance because of the critical nature of their work, and it is through the works of writers like Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls) that many Americans have come to understand expression in Cuba. But this piece of history hardly completes the picture.

Marianela is among many Cubans artists who benefited from systemic and political reforms that took place in the mid-1990s. A re-structuring of the nation’s economy and a new era of leadership in the Ministry of Culture brought liberalized the state’s approach to cultural policy. With it came a generation of Cuban artists who have had the state’s full support for the creation of works that seriously critique culture and politics in Cuba and around the world.

So what does this have to do with Decadere? Perhaps not much—the piece is rooted in Marianela’s insights on what she has observed of American culture since coming from Cuba to the U.S. in 2003. Decadere contemplates some of the more regrettable hallmarks of contemporary American life—fast food, security cameras, and office culture&mash;and puts them into a larger hemispheric context using dance, text, movement that isn’t quite dance, and a whole lot of cameras.

We might expect a Cuban choreographer to make work about human relationships in Havana, or living under the surveillance of the state police, but this isn’t Decadere. Instead, Marianela presents a nuanced comparison of U.S. and Latin American culture that focuses on the workplace and the relationships that develop between people who work together. She also prods at human relationships with instruments of technology—particularly surveillance systems. She notes that there are surveillance systems “in most places in the U.S., and in Decadere as well.”

Decadere, she tells me, is ” . . . a piece that develops in a public space . . . that has been abandoned, and one in which the surveillance system and technology have outlived human activity.”

Self-sufficiency and survival seem to lie at the center of the piece–in the middle of the Decadere, Bethany Formica Bender performs Fast Food, a solo that Marianela created in Cuba in 1993. Formica anxiously begs for food from the people around her, only to end by sitting and eating her own fingers, one by one.

Marianela’s dancers, two Americans (Formica Bender and Scott McPheeters) and two Colombians (Marcelo Rueda and Carolina Carolina del Hierro), work together and separately, sometimes interacting, other times missing each other, attempting to interpret each others’ words and signals, sometimes succeeding and often failing. In this milieu, where in both art and in life, technology increasingly does the work of human beings, where we are left with the pieces that remain—like our own hands—Decadere provides us with a critique of our selves and the people around us.

Decadere runs September 15 through 18 at the Live Arts Studio, 919 North 5th Street, Northern Liberties. 8:00 pm, $25-$30.

–Ellery Biddle

Photos by on Marianela Boán.