Iván Tenorio’s Legacy

A maestro of the Cuban stage.

Iván Tenorio, one of the most outstanding Cuban choreographers of the 20th century, has passed away. A painful illness had distanced him for some time from the stage. His demise, announced during the 24th International Ballet Festival of Havana, was an authentic commotion in the artistic world. He had been an actor, modern dance and then ballet dancer, but it was his work as a choreographer, which he mixed with intellectual rigor, dramatic sense and will of formal experimentation, that led him to become part of the history of Cuban art. Some of his works like Cantata (1971), Rítmicas (1973) and La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba; 1975) are veritable landmarks of the island’s ballet.

A descendant of a family of Spanish émigrés, Tenorio was born in Jovellanos, Matanzas province, on January 12, 1941. When the family moved to Havana in 1956 he began studying dramatic arts in the academy that actress Adela Escartín had in her theatre hall of Prado 260. There Iván would make his debut, while still being a student.

The fact that he went to live in New York between 1958 and 1959 made it possible for him have contact with modern dance. He attended the academy of Martha Graham and received some lessons from the legendary revolutionary of choreographic art in the first half of the 20th century.

It is not strange that on returning to Cuba in 1960 he decided to join Teatro Estudio, the most novel of the scenic groups of the country at that time. He performed in the production of Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega and in Farsa y licencia de la reina castiza by Valle Inclán. He became Vicente Revuelta’s assistant director, but his fascination tilted toward the world of stage dance. That explains his joining a company called Danza Contemporánea directed by Guido González del Valle, which had a short life, but Tenorio would make his debut there as a choreographer with the piece Oratorium, with music by U.S. Paul Creston, in a function in Las Máscaras Hall.

Years later he would recall in an interview: “It was a debut very marked by the theatre conceptions that I had inherited from my artistic initiation. In the treatment of that work there was something of what would be in a later stage The House of Bernarda Alba. Three women in black were given to a pious attitude, which culminated in a final agony of an expressionist tonic, to unmask the religious puritanism. Formally, because of the gestural rhetoric it used and even the wardrobe and the makeup, it was a breaking away from the moulds most used on the Cuban stage of that time.”

The young artist had taken ballet lessons with Joaquín Banegas and Cristina Alvarez, so his decision to present himself to an audition of the National Ballet when Danza Contemporánea disappeared in 1965 did not come as a surprise. He seriously made an effort to dominate the technique of academic dance and if he did not have a relevant career as a dancer, he soon acquired so much knowledge that he was able to be a rehearser in the company.

The invitation to participate in the choreography workshop sponsored by Fernando Alonso from the direction of the troupe was the opportunity to conceive the first of his ballets: Del amor y de la guerra (Of Love and War), later renamed Adagio para dos (Adagio for Two), based on the Adagio for strings of Samuel Barber, with designs by Salvador Fernández, premiered in the García Lorca Theatre on December 22, 1967. The work was seen by famous British critic Arnold Haskell, who later wrote in the magazine Bohemia that it was “a complete choreographic poem that can be any programme’s ornament.

However, Tenorio’s work wouldn’t have achieved the development that today we know if he hadn’t had the possibility of joining between 1968 and 1974 the development of a new group: the Ballet of Camagüey, which he got to through his former professor and friend Joaquín Banegas. It was a provincial company, formed by very young dancers, but in which there was much more freedom and time to work than in the National Ballet. The material conditions were meagre but there was a great deal of will to experiment and few prejudices in terms of modern art. In 1970 Iván created for them Pavana para una infanta difunta (Pavane for a Deceased Princess). During the scarce minutes that the work by the same name by Maurice Ravel lasted, the choreographer achieved the development of the brief love story of a couple, spied on by a spectral court. What calls attention is that the piece was not premiered in the Principal Theatre, the usual venue of the company, but rather on a stage created in the largest of the factory centres of the city of Camagüey, the Railway Workshops, where the Ballet staged frequent functions for the workers.

In 1971 the creator would dare to undertake his first extensive work. The point of departure was the cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, but his interest was not focused on illustrating the licentious medieval poems that composed it, as other choreographers had done, but rather to base it on the almost barbarian force of the score to refer to something much more abstract: the birth of sensitivity and the spirit of relation in primitive society. Its premier with the title Juegos profanes (Profane Games) in Camagüey on September 4, 1971 almost unleashed the censorship of the cultural authorities, already immersed in the “grey quinquennium”. Fortunately, Tenorio had defenders and the ballet, opportunely revised to free it of accusations of rudeness and even pornography, was premiered again under the definitive title of Cantata. Years later he would say:

“I couldn’t have translated into words what the Cantata means. When I say that it is the story of feeling, of what man feels, I am only getting close to it. In Cantata I got to mature a series of factors present in my formation. I was seeking a vocabulary, to penetrate in the classic language and to dominate it, to present a strong, explosive movement. Cantata was not my first work, but it was with it that I decided to become a choreographer.”

But the great change in his career would be brought about by a much shorter and apparently less complex work: Rítmicas, about the work by the same name by Amadeo Roldán. It was a pas de deux where the language of the ballet had to assimilate the gestural language of a music with a strong Afro-Cuban component. It was not a question of stylising a folkloric dance as it had been shown for decades in cabarets and on television, but rather to achieve that the modern ballet and a key work of the history of Cuban music get familiarised and offer a natural and powerful result. The work had two notable interpreters in the young dancers Amparo Brito ad Andrés Williams, who presented it in the 2nd International Ballet Contest of Moscow, in which they won gold and bronze medals, respectively. Three years later, the piece would be given the second prize of modern dance in the International Ballet Festival of Japan.

If we review Iván’s career, we find, like in all choreographers, notable works together with others that failed or were simply ephemeral, perhaps because they were only conceived for a special occasion. However, not many Cuban choreographers can pride themselves of having a creative work of several decades, with such substantial achievements. Suffice it to recall: The House of Bernarda Alba, his very personal version of the Lorca drama, premiered in 1975 and which remained for many years in the repertoire of the National Ballet: La noche de Penélope (Penelope’s Night; 1976), a solo with music by Wagner, of which Josefina Méndez made a notable creation; Leda y el cisne (Leda and the Swan; 1978) based on music by Debussy, where Tenorio aimed, way before other creators of our times, to subvert the customs and grant the role of the swan to a man, which was a success thanks to the talent of an exceptional interpreter: José Zamorano; or the Estudios para cuatro (Studies for Four; 1981) with music by Astor Piazzola, a work where to the rhythm of the tango the interpreters achieved a powerful dramatic atmosphere.

In some cases certain projects that were very much yearned for were not accepted as he wanted, such as the case of El triunfo de Afrodita (The Triumph of Aphrodite), another of Orff’s great cantatas, which he premiered with the National Ballet in the 1978 International Festival and was not performed again. This time the choreography did follow the text of the choral work: it was about a nuptial rite, carried out with the purest Greek flavour, where the delicateness and obscenity alternated. Two torsos, one male and the other female, united or separated in the panels conceived by Servando Cabrera Moreno, according to the requirements of the action, and where the courtships of the corps de ballet were as important as the work of the soloists. While some foreign critics praised some elements of the work, the public that saw it, as part of a long concert programme, considered it long and tedious and it was never put on again. Something similar occurred with the at length projected Hamlet, in 1982, and though it was performed again a few times, the creator was never able to retake it as he dreamed.

The choreographer never neglected his work in theatre, as shown by his collaborations with productions like the legendary Asamblea de mujeres (Women’s Meeting) and Shangó de Imá for the national Puppet Theatre, in the fruitful stage of the Camejo brothers or the production of The House of Bernarda Alba by Teatro Estudio in 1975. Throughout his life he also worked with several foreign dance groups like the Ecuadoran Chamber Ballet, the Rhine Ballet of France and the Chamber Ballet of Madrid.

For those reviewing the work of this creator, what calls attention is the intellectual concern behind his projects and the almost total lack of frivolity in his dance works. He wrote in his “Meditaciones de un coreógrafo” (Meditations of a Choreographer), published in 1983 in the magazine Cuba en el ballet:

“The choreographer’s work is, therefore, in the field of scenic arts, one of the most complex, and as such deserves to be assessed. It is the choreographer who in his work decides, goes to great pains in the persuit of an artistic finality from the first and most elementary idea to the definitive result, being responsible for every detail, seeking and sounding out the possibilities of the interpreters in whom he finds the dialectical counterpart of an act of creation, to which is added the many other factors of stage participation, which make of dance an art of synthesis of endless aesthetic potential.”

The audiences of the current generation will still remember his collaborations for the production of musical pieces by Mefisto Teatro: Cabaret (2009) and Chicago (2010), as well as the premier of Ellos bailan preludios de Chopín (They Dance Chopin Preludes) in the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana on October 30, 2010. In 2007 he was awarded the National Dance Prize. It will be necessary to challenge the work of time to not lose his legacy. (2014)

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