Photos: Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba
One of Michelle Obama’s last official acts as First Lady was to award the prestigious International Spotlight Award of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to the Cuban dancer and dance instructor Lizt Alfonso.
It was 2016, and then-presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro had initiated a dialogue between their governments. The Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba School project received the recognition at the White House for more than 25 years of work dedicated to dance, spirituality, and culture.
“During those days I confirmed that our path was the correct one, that we must fight for dreams and make them reality, especially if it means that you can make so many people happy,” Lizt tells us.
For Lizt Alfonso, Cuba is synonymous with Alma Mater, and the word dance has the same meaning as life. Perhaps that’s why her work as a dancer and choreographer has been closely linked to teaching. The company that she created in 1991 is defined as a company-school.
The Lizt Alfonso company has toured and been applauded on some of the most important stages in the world: in Tel Aviv, Israel; at the City Center and the New Victory Theater on Broadway in New York; the Shanghai Oriental Art Center in China; the Oude Luxor Theater in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands; the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany; the Cairo Opera House in Egypt; and the National Auditorium of Mexico City. The home of the majority of its shows is its headquarters at the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro in Havana.
Their dance shows have included Fuerza y compás, Elementos, Alas, Vida, Amigas, ¡Cuba vibra! and Luz Cuba. The shows are characterized by being accompanied by live music and interconnecting with other arts; they are a fusion of ballet, flamenco, and Afro-Cuban dance.
In 2015, the Company was the first Cuban dance group to perform at the Latin Grammy ceremony, alongside Enrique Iglesias, Descemer Bueno, and Gente de Zona. Together with the musicians, Lizt Alfonso’s company starred in the music video of the popular song “Bailando,” the most viewed Spanish-language music video at the time, with 29 million YouTube views.
Because of her great community work at the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba School and her dedication to the education of children and youth, Lizt was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Cuba in 2011. In 2018, the BBC named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.
How did that dream of teaching dance and founding a school begin for you?
When I was four years old, my mother took me to see a performance of the ballet Coppelia performed by Loipa Araújo at the National Ballet of Cuba in the Gran Teatro in Havana, in the García Lorca hall. As a little girl, I would dance whenever I heard any kind of music, and I was enchanted by that wonderful world that I discovered and decided never to leave.
I graduated from university in 1990, just when the “Special Period” began in Cuba. That happened to be the moment I was living in, but instead of complaining or sitting on my hands, I decided to make, create, invent. I was compelled personally. I felt I had a lot to say, to share and to offer, so no circumstance or person could stop me. Only my family and the dancers who believed in the project supported me. I was going against the odds.
Dance is considered a language in itself, a form of expression. What characterizes Cuban dancers? And what does the interaction with dancers from other parts of the world and such diverse audiences bring them?
Dance has allowed me to both share knowledge and enrich my own, and to travel the world. These experiences range from presenting the Company on the most important stages and events on five continents; teaching in different schools and universities; conducting workshops in dance studios and foundations; creating choreographies for other groups with different dance styles; giving lectures; and even being a jury member for national and international competitions.
Yes, dance has its own language that’s also very powerful, because it doesn’t need words to make itself understood. It’s wonderful to be able to share and interact with students from different countries, because each person is a universe, and each country they come from makes them very different because of their dissimilar life experiences. But in turn, that love for dance unites and equalizes them. It’s something magical that only the arts can achieve.
Audiences everywhere have received us excellently, whether at the Place des Arts in Montreal, or at “Fall for Dance” at City Center or at the New Victory, both in New York City … the emotional thing is that the Company has received a standing ovation everywhere. On stage, dance, hard work, discipline, doing good, and love speak for themselves, and people know how to appreciate them.
Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba is the first Cuban company to run for an entire season at the New Victory Theater in New York. How important is that cultural exchange?
We’ve had two seasons at the New Victory Theater in New York City. The first was in 2003, and the second in 2015, each with more than 25 presentations and with resounding success. This is a very special experience. It’s a theater on Broadway, but it belongs to the 42nd Street project and it’s geared toward families. So it’s nice to see how all ages come together in the audience to enjoy the shows, just like in Havana. The first time, we presented Fuerza y Compás, and the second time, ¡Cuba Vibra! The experts who work in the theater prepare an entire program that takes children and families by the hand to discover Cuba, including its people who come from Spain and Africa, its dances and music, and even its geography. We also welcome children with special needs, who are gushing with their affection.
One day, after leaving the matinee, a group of children saw us at the subway station and began to applaud us in sign language. As I always say, art builds bridges and opens boundless doors.
The United States is a natural market for our work. Since 2001, when the Company debuted at the Summer Stage Central Park, we’ve returned almost every year and sometimes more than once a year. They’ve always received us with love, kindness, and respect. They always want us to come back, sometimes even repeating the same show—“back by popular demand,” as they say.
Despite the obvious setback in terms of cultural exchange with Cuba under the Trump administration, many people insist on bringing people closer through culture, on uniting Cubans from all sides. What would an ideal cultural relationship be like between Cubans on both shores, and between Cubans and Americans?
There are no Cubans on both shores, there are only Cubans … We are a single community, large and strong. And all we have to do is stay together, like the family we are, wherever we are. We can’t get carried away with the interests of the powers that be. We must remember that Cuba is the MOTHER who always receives us with open arms. We must work to enhance the historical culture of this blessed island, and of the times we’re living in.
We’ve already collaborated with several companies, studios, and events, and in the future we’ll do so even more, because it’s what’s logical in art and life. Collaborations and exchanges help us grow and imagine new dimensions.
When you founded the company in 1991, most of the members were women. Why was that? Do you consider dance a form of female empowerment?
When I founded the Company, the focus was directed at highlighting women and their potential. It was an opportunity to do and speak. Later we became a co-ed company, in order to be able to tell other stories. Today we can divide up into a company of women, of men, or a co-ed company.
The work with the School has several levels. It starts with vocational workshops, then children’s and youth ballet, all the way to professional dancing. It’s an enterprise that requires a tireless team to continuously improve both the technique and the preparation of each of these children and young people, from a human standpoint.
From when I created the studio up until today, many students have passed through our training. An important group of them are the professional dancers that today comprise Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba. They live in Cuba and in many other countries around the world, and I assure you that they are all good men and women, who have carefully laid out their objectives and goals they want to achieve in life, and will surely carry them out successfully. The arts teach much more than we imagine.
As a Cuban woman who has achieved such national and international success and recognition, what keeps you up at night and what are your current priorities?
You have to get up every morning reinventing yourself and looking with certainty toward the future. The sky’s the limit, as long as life allows. I always see that wonderful things are happening, and it’s not that difficulties don’t exist—of course they exist and sometimes they’re many, and terrible—but we mustn’t let that hold us back, we must keep looking and what’s more, seeing.
- THE NEW YORK TIMES: “An amazing company with its own spirit of celebration” | Jack Anderson
- THE WASHINGTON POST: “Cuban Dance Company Dazzles at the Festival of the Arts” | Molly Ball
- THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES: “A sensual mixture of fire and spice” | Heidy Weiss
- TORONTO STAR: “Spectacular, one of the best chorus lines on this side of Broadway” | Susan Walker
- THE GLOBE AND MAIL: “Lovely! Exceptional! The stage throbs with vitality!” | Paula Citron
- CBC: “A radiant expression of the true Cuban spirit in touching music and exuberant dance” | Michael Crabb