Gustavo Herrera, the choreographer of Cuban sensuality

His pieces contributed in an evident way to fostering a special moment in the 20th century.

Cuban choreographer Gustavo Herrera passed away last January 22 in Mexico DF at the age of 69. He had been residing in that city for years and worked as a professor at the National Centre of Arts. He was one of the most notable Cuban ballet choreographers, together with Alberto Alonso, Alberto Méndez and Iván Tenorio.

He was born in 1946, in the former township of Remedios, located in central Cuba, though he perhaps preferred to say he was born in 1962, when he entered the Experimental Dance Group in Havana, directed by Alberto Alonso. This was the preamble to his joining the cast of the Ballet of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. Even though this troupe, almost exclusively used for TV programmes, was not exactly one of the most aesthetically advanced in the country, among its choreographers there was a singular figure: Luis Trápaga, a former first dancer of the Alicia Alonso Ballet and a choreographer with a considerable trajectory that not only encouraged the rooky interpreter, but also led him starting 1965 through the complex spheres of dance creation.


Though his career in the Institute seemed promising, Herrera was so audacious that in 1969 he transferred to a recently founded company: the Ballet of Camagüey. This company had emerged thanks to Professor Vicentina de la Torre, but very soon it required the hand of a more experienced director and a dancer and maestro from the National Ballet of Cuba, JoaquínBanegas, started directing it.


Though the material conditions to carry out the institution’s work were extremely limited, the director as well as his collaborator turned it into an ideal site to experiment, while at the same time creating a young public, unbiased and avid not only of seeing works from the traditional repertoire but also pieces with a contemporary language. Numerous Cuban choreographers passed through its salons: Jorge Riverón, Luis Trápaga, Alberto Méndez, Iván Tenorio, VíctorCuéllar.


There he would create, in 1971, the first of his well-known ballets: Saerpil, with considerable success not only during that season but also in subsequent years, to the point that even today, despite the successive changes of directors and casts, the piece has remained in repertoire. According to the work’s script, a man full of metaphysical concerns is so submerged in them that they, materialised in a large snake, curls around him and suffocates him. The company’s sound engineer, José Villavicencio, created for the piece a musical collage based on folklore music from India and certain elements of electroacoustic music.


The work was strongly influenced by a successful choreography by Maurice Béjart, based on his searches in the Mudra School of India: Bhakti, whose pas de deux had been produced the previous year by the National Ballet. Despite this marked resemblance, Herrera had the skill to create a compact performance, in which the male soloist held a mortal dialogue with the woman that the metaphysical snake incarnated, while the women’s dance corps was surrounding him, until it tightened its grip on him and suffocated him in an atmosphere where aggressiveness was joined to a strong erotic component. It barely lasted a dozen minutes, the sufficient time to captivate a public that acclaimed it night after night.


Starting then, the young man became the Camagüey company’s first steady choreographer. His production during the following four years was rather extensive, though he was never able to exceed the success of Saerpil. He carried out considerable searches in works like Testimonio (1972) in which the criticism of the alienation produced by capitalism was the pretext for incorporating in the sound track creations by Pink Floyd at a time in which it was a sin to publicly promote rock music, while Sikanekue (1974) is based on the myth of the Abakuá society, the treason of Sikanekua, in the indiscreet woman that caused the death of the fish Tanze and motivated the foundation of a strictly male brotherhood. These were pieces with passages of interest, but that did not fully come together, perhaps because the spectacular and apparent in them was frequently strengthened at the expense of the conceptual. In those works sensuality predominated over the depth of feelings.


Meanwhile, that creative circle started living a precarious situation to the extent that the so-called “grey quinquennium” advanced in the country. Certain officials devoted themselves to the “strange things” that could occur in the premiers, everything demanded tiring arguments stuffed with phrases taken from Marxist manuals and the production of “ideologically” committed works was demanded. That explains the genesis of commemorative pieces like Presencia de Camilo, Elegíasantillanas, De cara al sol and De acero y futuro, which a while later would evaporate without leaving a trace.


Even with a constructive attitude, that space could become dangerous. One day it was reported that a group of dancers had been “parametered” and they were sent to the EstrellaRoja Fishing Combine to work in its processing plant. Though the situation was rectified shortly afterwards, an authentic scattering of artists took place and in 1975 Gustavo knocked on the doors of the National Ballet. He would remain there for several decades and would give birth to his most well-known creations.


At that time in the troupe directed by Alicia and Fernando Alonso there was a considerable choreographic creation; Alberto Méndez had already achieved considerable landmarks with Plásmasis (1970), Tarde en la siesta (1973) and El río y el bosque (1973), while Iván Tenorio obtained his first great international success with Rítmicas (1973) awaiting his powerful version of the Lorca drama of The House of Bernarda Alba (1975).


In 1975 Herrera started to work feverishly in the salons of Calzada and D. On June 12 he premiered in the García Lorca Theatre Tula,a short piece based on a text by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, with music by Maurice Ravel, De lasolas, a work that he jointly created with Alberto Méndez, and Criollos, inspired on musical works by Gisela Hernández.


However, his most famous work that year was Cecilia Valdés, a ballet based on the novel by the same name by CiriloVillaverde, with music taken from Gonzalo Roig’s zarzuela and additions by José Ramón Urbay. The libretto was by playwright Nelson Dorr and the designs by Manolo Barreiro. The first function took place in the García Lorca Theatre on December 14. It was not the first time that Villaverde’s work had inspired a ballet. In 1966 the same company had premiered a version titled Mestiza with choreography by Lorenzo Monreal and music by Enrique González Mántici, but it was unable to become rooted in the repertoire.


The new version was irregular, together with the achieved choreographic passages others were seen that were simple fillings to be able to develop the action. On the other hand, the libretto, conceived as a much ideologised interpretation of the novel, did not favour the sustained interest of spectators. Shortly afterwards the creator revised it and it was put on again several times during the following years.


Very soon it became evident that Herrera did not possess the solid dominion of the academic language of Alberto Méndez that made it possible for him to make a personal synthesis of the universal romantic tradition and the Cuban, nor the deep sense of the dramatic that Iván Tenorio obtained from his years working with TeatroEstudio; what Gustavo had was the enjoyment of the dance, based on exploiting as much as possible stage resources that would awake sensuality in the spectators. He was more an artist of the show than of the concept, he worked based on an acute intuition and he learned sufficientballet, modern dance and Cuban folklore to produce works with a powerful effect. More than the large formats, his brief works, at times simple divertimentos, expressed in a better way his creed as a choreographer: Badanesa (1976), Dan-Son (1978), Prisma (1978) which later had its definite version as Erán-Erán (1979), Equinoxio (1980) and a moving piece unfortunately forgotten: Capitanes de la arena (1979), based on a passage of the novel by the same name by Brazilian Jorge Amado and music by Jean Michel Jarre.


This artist’s most mature works include Flora (1978, a tribute to the pictorial character created by René Portocarrero, with music by Sergio Vitier and stage design by Reymena. The choreographer was able to overcome the immobility of the painter’s decorated figures and give them grace, lightness, a Cuban flavour, without their losing that mystery that characterises them in their baroque world. Ballerinas like Ofelia González, Rosario Suárez and CaridadMartínez made very personal creations of their respective Floras. The work was produced again by the company a few years ago and demonstrated having withstood the test of time.


Herrera’s most included work at present in the programmes of the National Ballet is Dionaea (1984), in which he knows how to take advantage of the suggestive atmosphere of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos to show the drama of the insect attracted by the flower of that carnivorous plant that fascinates and attracts it to devour it in the end. There is a particular closeness between the resources and the language used in Saerpil and those of this piece that greatly resembles it, though it is still more compact and effective.


Parallel to this, Herrera demonstrated his versatility when staging productions with diverse groups, so dissimilar like the Havana Musical Theatre, the Artistic Group of the Armed Forces and the National Opera Theatre. It should not be forgotten that it was he who choreographed the dance scenes of the film La belladelAlambra, directed by Enrique Pineda Barnet in 1989.


This work was extended to several institutions of Latin America like the Colombian Classical Ballet Institute in Cali, the Ecuadoran Chamber Ballet, the SODRE Ballet of Uruguay and the Young Chamber Ballet of Madrid, which earned him several official decorations from those countries. Starting 1993 he worked steadily in Mexico, where he resided during his last years.


Now his work has come to a close and it confirms that, while he was not the most important dance creator of his time, his pieces evidently contributed to fostering a special moment of the 20th century where Cuban ballet tried to remain in the sphere of avant-garde experimentation. Only time will be able to establish that part of his work is going to outlive him. (2016)


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