Lorna Burdsall & Estela Bravo: U.S.-Born Women Artists in Cuba
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Sun Jun 11 17:43:44 MDT 2000
New York Times June 11, 2000
The Heart Was Their Guide, in Love and the Arts
By MICHELE WILLENS
HAVANA -- THEY are American-born women who fell in love with radical
Latin American men. Each has lived close to four decades in Cuba, and
while their husbands spent time in prison or in the mountains with
Fidel Castro, they carved out distinctive artistic lives.
Lorna Burdsall, a charismatic white-haired figure, is now in her
early 70's and the director of the modern dance company AsiSomos,
which combines dance, image theater, poetry and music. Today she
mostly performs in her home for visitors ("Where else do I get to hug
my audience?"). But since arriving in Cuba in 1955, the wife of a
revolutionary who went on to become a top intelligence official, she
has held high positions in both Cuba's world of dance and its culture
bureaucracy. Along the way, she was a pivotal figure in establishing
modern dance in Cuba.
Estela Bravo, in her late 60's, has made 26 documentary films since
arriving in 1966. Many are about Cuba, and all are about Latin
America; one depicting North Americans living in Cuba included Ms.
Burdsall. Her latest, "Fidel," was shown at the Latin American Film
Festival in Havana in December. It was commissioned by Channel 4 in
Britain and has been shown there as well as in Canada, Argentina and
Chile. She is hoping to have it distributed in America.
Currently she is making "Operation Peter Pan," about the 14,000 Cuban
children who were sent to the United States by their parents to
escape the Cuban revolution.
Each of these women has a love story. Ms. Bravo, one of three sisters
raised largely by union organizers (her mother died when she was 12),
was a leader of Students for a Peaceful World at Brooklyn College
when she attended a meeting of the Student Congress in Poland in
1953. There, she met Ernesto Bravo, a medical student and activist
from Argentina who was receiving medical treatment after having been
tortured and tried under Juan Perón on charges of organizing
anti-government student activities.
The chemistry was instant, but he returned home to Argentina and she
to Brooklyn. The next year she made a trip to Brazil for another
student conference, this time as a reporter for the periodical Latin
America Today. "I decided I should stop by Argentina and see
Ernesto," she said. He was being hidden by anti-Perónists, but she
managed to spend a week with him. "We decided then and there to get
married," she said.
She eventually took a monthlong journey on a cargo boat from New York
to Argentina, where the two were married in January 1956. Over the
next eight years, they had two children (a third would come later)
and Mr. Bravo became a professor of biochemistry. "One day," Ms.
Bravo recalls, "he told me he'd been invited to Cuba to teach
biochemistry in medical school and I said, 'Great, it's closer to the
States.' I thought I'd be visiting my home country more, but little
did I know that the move would turn out to be closer only
When Ms. Bravo arrived in Cuba, Ms. Burdsall was already well
entrenched. Raised in New London, Conn., she had trained with Martha
Graham and Anthony Tudor and was studying dance at the Juilliard
School. In 1953 she went to a dance at the International House in
Manhattan, where she noticed a young man doing the mambo. "He had the
most intense eyes," she said. "I asked someone where he was from and
was told Cuba."
Manuel Pineiro, the son of a Bacardi Rum executive, was studying
business administration at Columbia University. The two were married
in New York, but soon after, Mr. Pineiro, who was talking a lot of
socialism and politics, said he needed to go back to Cuba for a
"I knew he was going to the mountains to fight with Fidel, but he
never really said it to me," said Ms. Burdsall. "He kept saying he'd
be back, but finally I got a call from him, while I was at a dance
summer program in Michigan, and he said, 'Do you think you could come
here instead?' I went straight from Detroit to Havana."
There, she raised a son -- now with a daughter of his own -- and saw
her husband only intermittently until the revolution succeeded in
1959. Sometimes, they met under almost comically dire circumstances,
as when she visited him secretly in the mountains.
"I wore this beautiful yellow dress," she recalled, "but as I was
going up to the mountains, it started pouring and there was mud
everywhere. By the time I got to his location, I was entirely filthy.
Still, his comrades were in on the surprise and they told him, 'The
commandant wants to see you.' And when he walked in, there I was. We
got only an hour together before he was called into action. That
night I slept on a pile of something very cold, which I later
discovered was grenades and ammunition."
When Mr. Castro came into power, her husband -- known in the
revolutionary world as Red Beard -- became Deputy Minister of the
Interior, in charge of state security. After his death in a car crash
in 1998, an obituary in The New York Times described him as the
"ruthless but urbane spymaster who for more than 30 years led Cuba's
intelligence apparatus and directed its efforts to export revolution
to the third world."
In their marriage, serving Mr. Castro always came first. Fortunately
for Ms. Burdsall, there was dance, and in 1959, she helped found the
Compania Danza Contemporanea, for which she performed and
choreographed for 15 years. In 1977 she became national director of
dance and modern dance adviser to the Minister of Culture. Ms.
Burdsall's marriage lasted 20 years before she decided she wanted her
independence. She remained on good terms with her ex-husband, and is
especially close to her granddaughter, Gabriela, 11. who often
performs the witty and provocative dances her grandmother
choreographs. "Gabriela is like my other self, a younger version,"
said Ms. Burdsall.
Ms. Bravo's marriage remains intact. Her husband is now a consulting
professor on bioethics at the University of Havana. Both women live
well by Cuban standards. The suggestion that such good fortune may
have colored Ms. Bravo's recent documentary about Mr. Castro (it is
generally flattering in tone) infuriates her.
"I'm very independent, and I think Castro has only recently seen it,"
she said. "I originally asked for his cooperation and got back the
reply, 'Why don't you do it after I'm not here anymore?' I decided
early on that this was to be a piece about the man himself, not his
The film includes observations from people like the director Sydney
Pollack, who made the film "Havana"; the author Alice Walker, who
calls Mr. Castro "the great redwood"; and the writer Gabriel García
Márquez, who tells of going fishing with Mr. Castro.
Ms. Burdsall's artistic impact has not been political. She brought in
influences from Western dance that have since been taught to many
young Cubans. "By mentoring and inspiring scores of careers, Lorna
has opened Cuba to the world in a very special way and also brought
the outside world somehow closer to Cuba," said Jon Lee Anderson, a
New Yorker writer and author ("Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life").
Ms. Burdsall explains: "As part of the choreographic process, I have
always demanded active creative participation on the part of the
dancers. It's important for me that they reveal their cultural
identity through movements, gestures and sensations."
Although she cites Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey as her main
creative influences, she said her greatest influence came from a more
personal place: "The personality of my very creative and humorous
mother influenced me the most in shaping my personal style." Ms.
Burdsall has saved all the journals her mother (who died in 1978)
wrote over 80 years. "She was a frustrated everything," she added.
"All her life she was creative and had nowhere to put it."
While both Ms. Burdsall and Ms. Bravo have traveled back to the
United States, they remain committed to Cuba. That commitment was
tested during what the Cubans call the Special Period, in the early
90's, when the Soviets pulled out their support and left a shattered
island economy behind.
"It was so terrible in the beginning," Ms. Bravo said. "There were no
lights, no air-conditioning, no gasoline. I remember taking a walk by
the sea with my husband and we asked ourselves, 'Should we leave?'
Some of our friends had left. But we decided that we'd been here so
long, we had roots. And things slowly got better. People don't talk
enough about the sacrifices Cubans made then, how they bonded
together." M S. BURDSALL said of the same period: "I remember looking
out my window and seeing people leaving on rafts. I remember
performing for a group from Canada in 1993, and there was no light on
in the whole neighborhood. I greeted them with a flashlight and then
made flashlights part of the performance.
"But you know, I came to Cuba for love and in a way I stayed for love
-- this time for a country and the people, not one man."
Both Ms. Bravo and Ms. Burdsall say their art has had a far greater
impact in Cuba than it probably would have had if they had not
followed their men. "I have made 26 films and won many awards at film
festivals around the world, but in America nobody knows who I am,"
said Ms. Bravo. Yet on a recent visit, her phone rang constantly with
calls from people like her friend and fellow documentary maker Rory
Kennedy. And the longtime documentary maker Sol Landau, while
questioning her independence, nevertheless said: "I can't say
anything bad about her. She does good work."
Ms. Bravo said: "If I'd stayed in New York, I may or may not have
gone to film school and made films in a more formulaic way, one of so
many. Here I learn by intuition, and I think the style is more raw,
Ms. Burdsall found a similar freedom: "What would I have done if I'd
been just another dancer in New York? I'd have gone to auditions with
900 other dancers and been forced to retire at 40. Here I've had so
many opportunities and the audiences so appreciate my style of modern
dance. I look at the dancers around the country and I think, 'They've
almost all been my students at one time.' "
Last year, she attended her 50th high school reunion, making the trek
back to Connecticut. "A lot of the people did not know what to make
of me," Ms. Burdsall said, laughing. "But eventually they warmed up
when I performed one of my dances. Most of them had stayed small,
closer to home. We looked back over things we'd written when we were
graduating and mine said I was going to travel, write a book and live
in the country. Well, I didn't say what country!"
Michele Willens's most recent article for Arts & Leisure was about
Academy Award nominations for supporting actors and actresses.
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