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<i> Dance Cuba</i> Documentary Tracks Washington Ballet's Unprecedented Visit to Cuba - 2004-04-24

Perhaps in no other place in the world is the intersection of art and politics more apparent these days than between the United States and Cuba. In well-publicized cases earlier this year, U.S. immigration authorities rejected visas for several Cuban musicians - including septuagenarian Ibrahim Ferrer, who won a Grammy award in January, despite not being there to receive it himself. More recently, visa problems kept the Cuban co-director of a new film set in Havana from coming to its Washington premiere April.

"We are beginning a new work for this big Cuba project, which is so rich in dimension. This is the first time in 40 years that a major American ballet company will perform in Cuba," explains Septime Webre, the Cuban-American artistic director for the Washington Ballet. He spoke prior to taking his troupe to participate in an international ballet festival in Cuba in 2000. This visit is one main subject of the new documentary film, Dance Cuba: Dreams of Flight -- which is being shown as part of the Washington International Film Festival.

Dance Cuba's American co-director and producer Cynthia Newport says she faced obstacles before she even left the United States.

"I am often asked how long it took to make the film, and I say three years, 10 months, two weeks, four days and six hours," she says. "And it was wonderful, but it was a challenge. And the challenges began with securing a license from the U.S. Treasury Department in the very beginning.

She also had to persuade Cuban authorities to give her a journalist visa to pursue a story that was not yet written.

"In modern Cuba - documentary films - you know the ending before you start. In American independent film, it is a bit of an exploratory process and a learning process, so there is no set conclusion," she says.

The film portrays the controversy that surrounded the Washington Ballet's decision to even go to Cuba.

"The Washington Ballet supports Castro and Communism. If you are not Communist, do not go to the ballet!" a message left on the Washington Ballet's answering machine said.

"It is outrageous that a company and a group of your reputation would even think of this partnership that you guys seem to be undertaking with the Cuban government. This is a dictatorship that is well known for its oppression of their citizens. And I am frankly outraged by this," says Washington Ballet artistic director Webre, who spoke to his dancers about criticism left on the company's answering machine.

"I want to make sure that a couple of things remain true: that this project is about a cultural exchange and that what we do as artists transcends politics," he says.

One Washington Ballet dancer, Laura Urgelles, came from Cuba but was granted political asylum in the United States.

"When you are young and you are full of ideas and you are seeing things on TV - things that you are told, things that you are given - you know, you have ideas," she explains. "You believe in things. You are kind of naďve. And then, one day, you just start asking yourself questions about why this is?"

She did not accompany the troupe to Havana, though, because the Cuban authorities did not grant her a visa.

On the U.S. side, the film's Cuban co-director, Boris Crespo, was not granted an American visa for the film's world premier in Miami in February. Despite the fact that he has visited the United States four times in recent years and says his business is independent.

"And the excuse that the State Department gave us is that the Cuban artists are giving money to the Cuban government," he says. "And the American government is trying to cut the incoming funds from the international sources to the Cuban government. So, the decision they have done is to not allow any more Cuban artists to go to the [United] States on their cultural exchange program."

This argument is confirmed by Stuart Patt, at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. Mr. Patt points to a 1985 presidential proclamation that rejects a U.S. visa for any Cuban who cannot prove that his or her earnings do not go back to the Fidel Castro government - which has been accused of widespread human rights violations.

"There was a period of time, starting about four or five years ago, in 1999, in which we did exempt certain categories of Cubans, including artists, from those visa restrictions, from that presidential proclamation," he explains. "We were trying to encourage some people-to-people exchange, trying to advance the idea of a more democratic transition in Cuba. But the net effect from everything that we can tell is that only that the government of Cuba was being enriched by the proceeds earned by these artists."

Mr. Patt added that because all Cubans are required to give money to their government in one form or another, it is very hard to prove the opposite to U.S. authorities.

Meanwhile, the American director of the film Dance Cuba, Cynthia Newport, points to the human cost.

"It gets to be a little bit of a tit for tat - if the Americans do this, then the Cubans retaliate by doing this," she says. "And again, it is the individual people who get caught in the middle and are - from the Cuban point of view sometimes, their hearts are broken."

She adds that the current visa situation reflects the tremendous tensions between the two countries, but also shows what she called "an amazing closeness."