A conversation with Cuba’s 2020 National Dance Award winner Johannes Garcia, maestro of AfroCuban dance theatre

Johannes Garcia wins Cuban National Dance Award 2020

Johannes García, director of the Cuban Traditional Dances company (Compañía de Danzas Tradicionales JJ), will receive the 2020 National Dance Award. The Covid19 restrictions have halted performances, and Garcia dreams of getting back to the stage. Cuban media La Jiribilla reported their conversation with Johannes in October.

At the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional you met people who today you share your life with, like Silvina Fabars, now part of your family, and your brother Juanito has been your comrade on this long adventure.

I can tell you that the enthusiasm that existed at the time we joined the group [the National Folkloric dance Group/Conjunto Folclorico Nacional] – February 10, 1966 – was very strong, it was a time of great social change in Cuba, and the people, despite the contradictions, were very united. Some of us came from Lawton: Alicia Santos, Julia Fernández, my brother Alfredo O’Farrill, Lourdes Hernández; We had danced in the group Nuevo Teatro y Danza. We, along with Juan Jesús Ortiz, Silvina Fabars, Nereida Naranjo, Mercedes Riscart, Leonor Mendoza, Manolo Micler…, we were the youngest of the Group. We didn’t set out to fight with the oldest members of the Group, who were a bit tense with the entrance of the youth, but we wanted to share not only the stage or the classes, but also the work that was imposed on us by the change brought about by the Revolution. I’m talking about volunteer work, for example. That was uniting us and we were forming as a family, many of us fell in love and got to have a real family in the group, like Silvina. We lived more than eight hours together, and the youth from Folklórico joined us, such as Nancy Zamora, Clara Ibáñez, Humberto Vázquez Moreno. The oldest were Jesús Pérez, Nieves Fresneda, Isora Pedroso, Carmen Duquesne. Ana Luisa Cáceres came in with us, and she was young. Silvina married my brother, and they had such a wonderful son who is a talent, he sings well, plays well, dances well, was the first dancer of the National Folkloric and then of the Liszt Alfonso dance company. My whole family are dancers. Our children also joined in and, being boys, they participated in performances of the National Folkloric, Judith and Moremi, and Oddebí and Isanusi premiered Comparsera, choreographed by Ana Luisa Cáceres. In the filming of La rumba de Papá Montero they appear, they were children of the solar, we did not have to look for other boys who may not know how to move on stage. Judith and Moremi were dancers of the Cuban National Folkloric company; Isanusi studied at the National Ballet School, was at the National Ballet company; my niece, Olga García Pérez, is also a dancer. We were empiricists, these boys studied at the National School of Art and then entered the professional movement.

How did the Cuban folkloric dance technique come about?

Santiago Alfonso entered our lives and the life of the group in 1967. With his characteristic intelligence, he convinced everyone, young and old, to take classes. He did a great job in relation to the folkloric training technique, which I would like to take up again, because it led us to project a great show, it led us to understand that there can be a folkloric school.

Folkloric technique is nothing more than taking the technique of modern dance, some exercises of classical dance, and taking it to the motor centre of AfroCuban traditional dances. Santiago did it with us, we were no longer only the original 17, there were also Mirtha Ocantoy, Rebeca García, who came from the National School of Art. Santiago was training us in a way that we all stood out as first dancers, as soloists, we were the ones who took the main roles, including the young people who were already in the group, founders of the group, and others who were older like Juan de Dios Ramos, director of Raíces Profundas, and Margarita Ugarte, bearer of folklore. And it became clear that taking these classes contributed to the projection of folkloric dance. The company was a school for everyone, Santiago recognizes it, he came from Ramiro Guerra’s school of modern dance, and he knew how to create a training method, that he developed as he deepened his individual study of folklore, and introduced movements from folklore to this training. He already knew ballet technique, that is, he had the knowledge how to help the dancer show their personality to bring this to the group. I think that this teaching should be revisited, I impose it on my Compañía de Danzas Tradicionales de Cuba JJ, and that makes it different with other groups. One of the things that distinguishes us is our technique, you have to have tremendous training to endure a show of an hour and a half dancing with that dynamic.

Was it necessary to practise AfroCuban religion to be a member of the Folkloric company?

No no no. I personally thank, and we all as a nation must thank, Rogelio Martínez Furé, National Awardwinner for Literature, Research and Dance, and Rodolfo Reyes Cortés. These two never got along because they were in search of the aesthetics of the folkloric show. Rodolfo would take the script that Rogelio gave him, very well researched, and he would do his choreography. Then Rogelio would come and tell him: “This can’t be here,” and what was left was a bit of choreography. This is how Rodolfo Reyes, who was Mexican, worked, sharing with the people who were already in the dance group and were carriers of folklore. They created an aesthetic from extracting what can be presented on stage from the religions. You don’t have to be religious, you have to be a researcher of religions, and you have to refer to the life of the slave in Cuba, in the Caribbean, on the continent. Cuba had slaves persecuted from every angle, but the black person knew to create his social life inside religion. In Cuba, all the African gods came together to create Santeria, and that is where the cultural wealth is.

Johannes Garcia in his famous performance as the orisha deity Chango

You talk about the aesthetics of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional in the stage representation of folklore. Has this aesthetic changed? What has influenced that aesthetic?

The current artistic approach differs from that at the time of the emergence of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional [in the early 60s], people who were not professional artists, but had learned AfroCuban folklore within their families; the second generation was able to unite these two poles [academic and familial] and consolidate the aesthetic line created by Rogelio Martínez Furé and Rodolfo Reyes, and that trend continued for forty years, until a few years ago it disappeared, that is the truth. The fundamental thing is that we were raised as researchers, we were not carriers (of the religions), we were seventeen young people who perhaps started with some religious knowledge, but it was not fundamental. Our aim was to separate the logic of art from the religious part, and bring it as art to the stage. With this individual and collective research work and the folkloric dance classes, practical and theoretical, we were able to consolidate the folkloric projection, and produce a convincing dance performance.

I remember that the group Los Doce, led by Vicente Revuelta, and all that plethora of figures of the time (1960s), went to the Conjunto to study the state of being possessed by spirits. They thought that when we danced for a deity we were possessed by that deity, but that is not true, there is nothing of the kind, because the art of theatre gives us the chance to represent that deity as a religious believer can see it, but the dance corps has to be consistent with that, and all that energy from the scene is what convinced the audience and made them burst into applause. Today we have dancers who only have studied the technicalities of movement, and that is where it gets lost. I have demonstrated that the ‘folk dancer’ should not be called a ‘folk dancer’, but rather an artist, perhaps with the additional ‘folk’ name, because he has to have musical knowledge, acting knowledge, and a sense of research into what he is going to represent. I always give the example of how I cannot take a young man on stage to dance cha-cha if I don’t explain what the tone of the cha-cha era was, what clothes were worn at that time, and all this contributes to creating a character, because if you are going to represent a Cuban man of the ’50s, if you do not know what he is like and you know nothing more than the technicalities of the dance, you will not convince me as the audience, nor will you teach me anything even if you are dressed in 50s clothes, I will receive nothing as a spectator, there will be no exchange of energy, and the cultural part will be lost.

How does your current company Compañía de Danza Tradicionales de Cuba JJ dialogue with folkloric traditions? How do you position yourself in the world of globalization and digitization?

We have a dialogue with both tradition and contemporaneity. The recipe is as follows: research, which is the first thing. You have to go through all the information because we are talking about oral traditions. Then we create the script that expresses the myth. I like that there is a moral. Then you have to get various creators around a table: choreographers, consultants, costume designer, set designer, musicians. You have to shake it to see what comes out.

We try to get our young dancers to complete their academic training at the University of the Arts (ISA). We do not get graduates straight from ENA (National School of Arts, higher education stage before the University of Arts), we have to overcome many obstacles, but we have resistance. Yandro Calderón, first dancer of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional, trained in our company. Dancers like Yunier García, Anaisa Casamayor, Enrique Milá, Danae Meléndez, grew up with us. We asked to open a Teaching Unit, but we realized that it was not viable because all the companies in Havana have the same difficulties that we do in recruiting dancers. We want to have the chance to turn people who dance into professional dancers. Arára was our last production and it was very well received. We gave a contemporary air to a work that had premiered a few years ago at the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional.

From the performance of ‘Arara’ by the Compañía de Danza Tradicionales de Cuba JJ Credit:Buby Bode/Cubaescena

We work at our headquarters, and we would like to equip it with all the digital communication media on which the globalized world depends. We want to publicize the ISA theses on folkloric dance issues, we want to share our knowledge, because many people misrepresent this area.

I want to return to the idea of ​​making a festival at the level of other dance forms. We have the ISA where three specialisms are taught ―modern dance, ballet, folkloric dance― but we do not have the same high profile as dance and ballet, and many people come to Cuba to learn our dances.

What does it mean to you to receive the National Dance Award?

The National Dance Award means a lot to me. It is the highest award that a dance artist can receive in our country. It is a recognition of everything that has been done and an encouragement for what I still have to do. I want to thank you, with all honesty, to all who contributed to developing my talent. I thank those who helped me find my way.

Link to original interview in Spanish by La Jiribilla

What is the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional?

Founded in early 1962, aimed to create a national emblematic institution to contribute to the rescue and rehabilitation of traditional AfroCuban popular dance and musical roots, to organize them according to the most modern theatrical demands, but without betraying their essence. Before 1959, AfroCuban cultural expression remained unknown, hidden and unvalued as a result of the racism. The revolutionary government post 1959 was committed to the revaluation and dissemination of AfroCuban cultural heritage, to achieve a culture that reflects the historical reality of the people. The first members, including musician Lazaro Ros, were people who learned these dances as a result of their family formation and preserved it through oral tradition. Among the 56 members of the original group, they were knowledgeable about the cultural practices of Yoruba [Santeria], Congo, and Abakuá religions as well as the music and dance traditions of Rumba.

From Ecured, Cuba