February 12, 2004

Memoirs of Her Last Tango With Cuba

Book Review

By Dan Cryer

To read memoirs in recent years is to fall into a strange land known as Dysfunction. This is the hideous realm where fathers abandon you, mothers force-feed you with guilt and brothers seduce you.

Victimhood is the given. Not to worry, though. Surviving to write the book is the payoff.

Call me a cynic, but I'm tired of this smarmy stuff.

Which is one reason why Alma Guillermoprieto's excellent "Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution" seems so refreshing. As the subtitle indicates, it's only
partly about her.

Another reason, of course, is that Guillermoprieto writes so well. Since the 1980s, her dispatches from Latin America have cast a brilliant light on the region's politics,
culture and iconic figures.

"Samba" (1990) made use of Rio's Carnival as a case study of the Brazilian soul. "The Heart That Bleeds" (1994) and "Looking for History" (2001) consisted of
reportage and essays that had appeared in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

"Dancing With Cuba" tells of six months as a 20-year-old teacher of modern dance in the revolutionary Cuba of 1970. Despite the exotic setting, the book is basically a
traditional coming-of-age tale. Its antiheroine is "an inept young woman." Its themes are disenchantment, self-doubt and failure in love and work.

Still, even when this young woman momentarily turns suicidal, the tone of the middle-aged memoirist never descends to self-pity. Guillermoprieto is too disciplined, too
painstaking a wordsmith to let things spiral out of control.

In fact, it was her love of language, equal to her love of dance, that would not permit her to cozy up to the Revolution in the first place. She was accustomed to nuance;
right away she saw that it spoke in "sledgehammer words." Pamphlets on its heroes read like lives of the saints, demanding a faith she couldn't share.

Worse, the Revolution simply didn't trust artists. Art based on individual idiosyncracy was bourgeois and forbidden. Since the party was the only permissible avant-
garde, avant-garde art was an oxymoron. Never mind that this was Guillermoprieto's great love.

A dancer since the age of 12 in her native Mexico, Guillermoprieto had moved to New York in her teens to begin the study of modern dance under its living legends.
(Her brief portraits of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp are indelible.) But since flat feet and severe myopia doomed any substantial career for her
in dance, Cuba seemed both an adventure and an opportunity to hone teaching skills.

The National School of Dance, where Guillermoprieto taught, was grandiosely named but woefully underfinanced. Studios lacked the basics of mirrors and pianos. Her
"advanced" students were poorly trained. Had they excelled, they would have had little chance of employment in a nation that could barely feed its people.

Guillermoprieto's bosses, rigid commissars on the Soviet model, provided controls instead of support. Elfriede Mahler, the American leftist who supervised the school,
demanded "the obedience of a soldier, not an artist, and I was never going to stand at attention and salute her." It was all Guillermoprieto could do to stay out of this
harpy's line of fire.

Pursued from afar by two unsuitable would-be boyfriends, Adrian in New York and Jorge in Mexico City, the young teacher found no solace in a love life. Instead, she
turned to gay friends for the chance to laugh and put her unhappy experiences into some kind of perspective.

The author's visit coincided with Cuba's historic push for a record 10 million-ton sugarcane harvest. Nearly all citizens, including her students, were coerced into the
fields. But the inefficiency of forced labor and the frequent breakdown of the country's obsolete sugar mills doomed the effort.

Hearing Fidel acknowledge this failure in Havana's public squares, Guillermoprieto began to understand that his grip over the nation was complicated. Unquestionably a
tyrant, he, nonetheless, had a romantic genius for articulating his countrymen's deepest feelings. He was a charismatic who could orchestrate even economic statistics
into oratorical gold.

"I lost myself in a rapture," she writes, "that was produced not so much by the speech as by the sonorous undulation of his words."

In light of Guillermoprieto's disenchantment with Castro's Cuba, her revelation that once she returned to New York she "dedicated long hours to Latin America's
struggles for liberation" comes as a shock. Having seen the havoc wrought by Fidel, did she really want to back movements committed to transforming their countries
into Cuban clones?

What's consistent, in any case, is the volatility of her emotions, the confusions of her intellect. Only later would the balanced, seasoned journalist emerge.

To re-create her Cuban sojourn, the author has drawn on such techniques as invented dialogue and composite characters. But there is no reason to doubt the book's
essential emotional truth.


DANCING WITH CUBA: A Memoir of the Revolution, by Alma Guillermoprieto. Pantheon, 287 pp., $25.

Copyright © 2004