The short documentary Historia de un ballet (History of a Ballet, 1962) dramatizes an ethnographic encounter central to a creative process. Director José Massip followed Cuban choreographer Ramiro Guerra and his company of modern dancers as they researched, created, and premiered a new work, Suite Yoruba (1960), about Afro-Cuban ritual music and dance. The film depicts dancers actively engaging with anthropological methods as they conduct fieldwork and share their findings with a wider public through performance. Though not formally trained as anthropologists, dancers traversed disciplinary and social boundaries to create work that animated political visions of revolutionary collectivity.
I introduce readers to the documentary because it invites reflection on the interactions between dance and anthropology in the years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Through an analysis of the film alongside statements in the press and retrospective texts, I argue that in this ebullient historical moment, Cuban dance makers mobilized and enriched anthropological understandings of Cuba as part of larger efforts to foment social change. This discussion of dance and anthropology in post-1959 Cuba builds upon and contributes to scholarship on the role of the social sciences in Cuban nation-building (Bronfman 2004; Guerra 2015; Lambe 2017), race and Cuban nationalism in a socialist context (Benson 2016), and the place of the body and movement in fieldwork (Das 2017; Kraut 2008; Ness 2008; Ramsey 2000).
In the decades before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, two figures in particular shaped anthropological approaches to Cuban culture that inspired post-1959 dancers. The first, Fernando Ortiz, has been dubbed the “third discoverer” of Cuba. He held a doctorate in law, wrote about Cuban culture and folklore, and taught anthropology courses at the University of Havana (Palmié 1998, 356; Maguire 2011, 29). The second, Lydia Cabrera, often seen as an “inheritor of Ortiz’s work on Afro-Cuban culture,” had no formal training in anthropology, but she wrote imaginative texts on African diasporic stories and religions based on almost twenty years of ethnographic research among Afro-Cuban communities around Havana (Maguire 2011, 30-31).
Here, I do not delve into the details of Ortiz and Cabrera’s work or compare their output, which has been done excellently elsewhere (Maguire 2011, 29-62). Instead, I focus on how Cuban dancers engaged with an anthropological field that these thinkers helped to establish. Dancers built upon the work of Ortiz and Cabrera as they used their bodies to explore the contours of Cuban culture, particularly the place of African heritage in national identity. Examining these dance performances indicates the broad circulation of anthropological precepts and the diversity in approaches to testing and revising them in post-1959 Cuba.
After Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement took power in 1959, politicians, artists, and intellectuals aspired to create a utopian society of “new men and women,” as iconic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara famously propounded. Both anthropologists and dancers worked toward this end. An article entitled “La Antropología Cubana, una ciencia en función del futuro” (Cuban anthropology, a science in the service of the future) claimed that Cuban anthropologists, whether systematically cataloguing archeological fragments or studying childhood development, worked for “the creation of a new man” (Villares 1968, 38). The opening scene of Historia de un ballet introduces viewers to the ethos of novelty and change that also manifested in the dance studios of the National Theatre of Cuba (Teatro Nacional de Cuba, TNC).
As the camera zooms in on the TNC, narrator Luis Carbonell explains that the building predated the 1959 regime change, but that the dancers within wanted to express something new with their work. “In this case,” he details, “the new idea consists of a ballet based on Yoruban music and dances.” The film never explains why dance makers chose Yoruban music and dances, particularly those associated with the religion regla de ocha commonly known as Santería, rather than practices from other African diasporic, Cuban religions like Palo Monte (of Bantu/Kongo origin) or Abakuá (of Éfik origin). To choreograph new dances, Guerra planned “to open an investigation with the aid of Ethnology, History, Sociology, etc., …of the races concurrent in our environment, as well as their interrelation and fusion” (Guerra 1959, 11). Although artists and intellectuals had reflected on Cuba’s African heritage for decades, these modern dancers and their new work on Yoruban culture in Cuba nevertheless engaged with pressing questions about race and nation within the new order.
How would the new leadership address racial inequality on the island, many Cubans wondered in 1959. Initially, challenging racism was a priority. Legislation was passed to eliminate the vestiges of segregation on the island, and Castro called black Cubans the ultimate revolutionaries for fighting against imperialism and exploitation for decades. Yet, as scholars have shown, state-led initiatives ultimately failed to eliminate racism and inequality (Benson 2016). Nevertheless, within this context, the antiracist ideal that blackness was central to Cuban revolutionary nationalism became and remained a cynosure for many artists and intellectuals, including those of the National Theatre.
The National Theatre cultivated exchanges among performers, ethnographers, musicologists, and folklorists as they explored different facets of Cuban racial and national identities in a revolutionary context. The National Theatre had a Department of Folklore, which sustained important dialogues with Guerra and his Department of Modern Dance. Led by musicologist Argeliers León, the Department of Folklore published a journal of ethnographic research, trained a new generation of folklore scholars, and staged productions of popular Cuban music and dance practices. In his research and performance projects, León worked with informants, who also inspired and performed with Guerra and his modern dancers.
Noted informants, for instance, appear in Historia de un ballet in scenes that show dance makers conducting fieldwork in the town of Regla, a sacred site for Santería. At one moment, Guerra and costume designer Eduardo Arrocha stand in the corner of a room filled with Cubans dancing and singing the rhythms of the divinity Changó. Guerra’s camera shifts between the ritual and a costume design that Arrocha sketches based on the scene before them. Carefully staged to reenact previously unrecorded events, the scenes feature dancers and musicians like Nieves Fresneda and Carlos Aldama who had worked with León and also later performed in the chorus of Suite Yoruba.
The film acknowledges but misrepresents the contributions of informants like Fresneda and Aldama to professional performances. In one rehearsal scene at the TNC, an older woman leads several young modern dancers in a sequence as the narrator comments, “We went to them, the anonymous artists of the pueblo, and now we brought them here so that professional dancers of modern dance would learn their art.” Far from ethnographic curiosities, these “anonymous artists” in fact were making names for themselves as foundational figures in the emergent modern and folkloric dance establishments of post-1959 Cuba. Even revolutionary art, then, was built on a prejudicial subtext: the documentary portrayed modern dancers as enlightened creators who transformed the performances of lower-class, African-descended Cubans into valuable art.
Despite reifying certain race- and class-based hierarchies in the domain of cultural production, Guerra saw his work, what he called “national dance” (Guerra 1959) or “revolutionary ballet” (Arrufat 1960), overcoming social and racial boundaries. According to Guerra, Suite Yoruba laid the groundwork for a revolutionary “national dance” by exploring Cuba’s mixture of Spanish and African influences, as depicted in the opening scene when a female dancer steps through an oval cutout of the Virgin Mary to dance as Yemayá (Figure 1). To be national and revolutionary, dances like Suite Yoruba had “to contemplate racial integration,” Guerra claimed. He continued, “Between whites, mulatos, and blacks surge the unexpected nuances of movement characteristic of our dance” (Arrufat 1960). His company of dancers with different racial backgrounds left the confines of the theatre to study popular dances in humble neighborhoods. Combining Cuban ritual dances with a modern dance technique that Guerra had learned in New York realized processes of integration and fusion that ostensibly formed the essence of Cuban national identity.
In this effort, Guerra believed he built upon and extended the work of Ortiz and Cabrera. After long days rehearsing Suite Yoruba, Guerra would read Ortiz’s 1951 book, Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (Black dances and theatre in the folklore of Cuba) (Pérez León 1986, 13). Guerra also asserted that Suite Yoruba had much in common with Cabrera’s Cuentos negros de Cuba, a collection of Afro-Cuban legends (Pajares Santiesteban 1993, 64). With these texts in mind, Guerra used corporeal experimentation to process ethnographic research.
Such methodologies at times raised questions. León once had to defend Guerra’s physical process to cultural bureaucrats: “Ramiro has to be in it,” Guerra recalled León explaining. “Ramiro cannot be on the margins and looking through a window. Ramiro is studying a number of cultures in the body and in the mentality of his dancers,” León concluded (Hernández Baguer 2012, 71). Dancers transgressed intellectual and social boundaries to move alongside their interlocutors, learning and interpreting through their embodied actions. León recognized what Guerra and his dancers proved through their work: that the body was crucial to thinking.
Suite Yoruba and Historia de un ballet allowed modern dancers to share their embodied analysis of Cuban cultural practices to great public effect. One critic reported that Suite Yoruba always attracted a full house and elicited breathless “ooohs” from the audience (Quiroga 1960, 48). According to another review, this response resulted from the fact that “the spectator feels the power of what is being watched, the convincingness of the truths contemplated” (Ardévol 1960). The work had broad explanatory power, a different commentator argued, as Suite Yoruba made cultural practices more “accessible intellectually and emotionally for the spectator with little knowledge of such manifestations” (Valdés-Rodríguez 1960, B6). Historia de un ballet also enjoyed success and currency, earning recognition in international film festivals and regular screenings when modern dancers toured around the country (Anon. 1963, 15b; Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna 1965).
Along with entertained and enlightened publics, informants and their communities ostensibly benefited from the effort to create revolutionary “national dance,” according to the culminating scenes of Historia de un ballet. The camera pans over a full house during the premiere of Suite Yoruba and zeroes in on the drummer Andrés Cruz. Cruz had played in the rituals observed by Guerra and Arrocha and now watched as modern dancers interpreted facets of his culture. The narrator muses: “How will his ancient eyes see this spectacle where his venerated gods are its protagonists?” The question hangs in the air and remains unanswered, but the expected response seems obvious. The creators hoped that the drummer would approve of the staged exegesis on his music and dance, and perhaps even be moved to join their effort to develop a new Cuban identity inspired by, but also fundamentally altering, his cultural practices.
The artistic and political objectives articulated by Historia de un ballet endured and went beyond the National Theatre. Modern dancers continued in this vein under Guerra’s leadership for the next decade. In late 1961, León left the National Theatre to direct a new Instituto Nacional de Etnología y Folklore (National Institute of Ethnology and Folklore) under the advisory guidance of an aging Fernando Ortiz. However, one of León’s students, Rogelio Martínez Furé, continued exploring the relationships between folkloric research and performance. He helped to found a new folkloric dance company in 1962 that included many Suite Yoruba informants from the ritual scene of Historia de un ballet.
In 1973, Martínez Furé wrote an imagined dialogue with the by then deceased Ortiz about the social and political implications of studying Cuban folklore. Though he speaks with Ortiz in the text, his fanciful essay also drew upon Cabrera as evidenced in his bibliography (Martínez Furé 1997, 281-2). In one passage, Martínez Furé reflected, “The African contribution, as the teacher Don Fernando Ortiz has said, did not graft itself onto an already preexisting Cuban culture; on the contrary, from the pairing of the Spanish and the African…surged the Cuban. The synthesizing process still has not finished, but we can contribute to accelerating it in for the revolution” (1997, 272; emphasis in the original). Similar to the creators of Suite Yoruba and Historia de un ballet, Martínez Furé saw his study and staging of Cuba’s cultural and racial mixing as accelerating a revolutionary synthesis.
Cuban dance makers—from their celluloid and danced treatises to their dialogues, real and imagined—worked to develop Cuban forms of choreography that celebrated national distinctiveness and unity. To achieve this end, dancers made use of anthropological methods and collaborated actively with ethnographers, folkloricists, musicologists, and anthropologists. Historia de un ballet captures aspects of the rich dialogues and notable convergences between the fields of dance and anthropology. Working together and apart, a diverse array of institutions and affiliated individuals brought together ethnographic research and performance to embody and move towards utopian horizons.
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Ardévol, J. 1960. “‘Suite Yoruba’ de Ramiro Guerra,” La Calle, July 12, 1960, [n.p.].
Arrufat, Antón. 1960. “Al hablar con Ramiro,” Lunes de Revolución, April 4, 1960, 15.
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Historia de un ballet. 1962. Directed by José Salvador Massip. Havana: ICAIC.
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Martínez Furé, Rogelio. 1997. Diálogos imaginarios. Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas.
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Pérez León, Roberto. 1986. Por los orígenes de la danza moderna en Cuba. Habana: Departamento de Actividades Culturales Universidad de la Habana.
Quiroga, Orlando. 1960. “Yoruba,” Bohemia, December 4, 1960, 48.
Ramsey, Kate. 2000. “Melville Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, and the politics of African diasporic Dance Anthropology.” In Dancing bodies, living histories: New writings about dance and culture, edited by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn, 197-213. Banff, Alberta: Banff Centre Press.
Reid, Michele. 2005. “The Yoruba in Cuba: Origins, Identities, and Transformations.” In The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, edited by Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs, 111-129. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Valdés-Rodriguez, J.M. 1960. “Tres Ballets Acertados en la Sala Covarrubias,” El Mundo, Sept. 18, 1960, B-6.
Villares, Ricardo. 1968. “La Antropología cubana, una ciencia en función del futuro,” Bohemia, January 5, 1968, 36-39.
 All translations from Spanish are my own unless otherwise indicated.
 For more on the different religions in political performance, see Miller 2000.
 See for instance, Guerra discussing his pre-1959 work (Hernández Baguer 2012, 67-68).