Beauty in the midst of poverty

A former Malibu resident makes a short film that chronicles the beauty of Cuba’s young, aspiring ballet dancers. The film will premiere at the L.A. Shorts Fest this Thursday in Hollywood.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The people of Cuba may not have much- not much to eat, wear or drive, nor much money to buy any of it, says Carlos Alvarado, a former Malibu transplant from El Salvador and chronicler of Cuba’s graceful dancers, but they have a soaring love for that which carries them beyond the prosaic concerns of the everyday-art.

“I wanted to go to Cuba for a long time because my family was so devastated by the civil war in El Salvador,” Alvarado said in a recent interview, “and all the guerrillas were supposedly trained in Cuba. I wanted to see why this country seemed to want to spread hate and destruction.”

When he finally made it there six years ago, he found something entirely unexpected. “Cuba,” Alvarado said, “is all about art and passion for life.”

His first visit turned his former idea of this communist country on its head.

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“There is no violence in Cuba, no drugs. They are very, very cultured, very well educated people,” Alvarado said. “You can have a full conversation with a five-year-old child there and it is like speaking with an adult here.”

Cuban culture embraces the arts – dance, music and painting – with fervor. When Castro’s revolutionaries forced out Batista in 1959 and installed a communist regime, much was banned from society there. But the arts flourished, albeit underfunded.

One day, Alvarado photographed a young ballerina crossing a street in Havana, amidst the squalor of an impoverished city, and his vision was awakened. During that trip and three subsequent visits, Alvarado traveled around the country, visiting ballet schools and shooting thousands of photos, and eventually produced a short film. He perfectly captured not only the beauty of the young students so dedicated to their craft, but the dichotomy of their poor and decaying surroundings. They all have high aspirations- to dance with the world famous National Ballet of Cuba.

“It is not a dream, it is a goal,” said Giselle, a waif-like young dancer, sitting in the stairwell of her school, featured in the film.

The school where Giselle dances is a building that has seen better days, with the plaster peeling off the rococo ceiling and the wrought-iron rubbed free of gilt. Giselle’s pointe shoes are dirty and have holes in the pink satin.

Another young dancer confirmed this ambition: “To live in Cuba is to live with many sacrifices,” he said, “Cuba is not all good, nor all bad. But we as artists must work very hard for what we love.”

Alvarado’s photos of the young dancers attracted the attention of established Cuban painters and he was invited last year to show his work in Havana with well-known artists. “My first gallery showing there was in the castle on Havana Harbor called ‘El Morro,'” Alvarado said. “It had been used as a prison where they tortured Batista sympathizers when Castro came to power.”

The exhibit was successful, with Alvarado’s ballet prints being purchased by collectors around the world. One of them is Malibu law professor and president of PMBR (a company that provides California Bar review instruction), Bob Feinberg. “I have several of Carlos’ photos in my home,” Feinberg said. “He has a fantastic reputation in Cuba because he shows this amazing contrast between such beauty in the midst of such poverty. That is what makes his work so powerful.”

Alvarado has shown his work locally at the Spontos Gallery in Venice and at the Tutto Bene restaurant [now Giovanni’s] in Malibu. His goal is to publish a book of his Cuban photography: “A big, beautiful, coffee table book that shows what Cuba is all about. Not just the cars and the cigars, but what it is like to be a ballerina in Cuba. They are the symbol of what Cuba means to me.

“And I will take the profits from this book and send it to the dancers there to show them that the world cares about their hard work and about the dream they hold onto in spite of all their obstacles,” Alvarado added.

He acknowledged that not many of the students will succeed in reaching the National Ballet of Cuba and that they have few options beyond that last ballet class. “Perhaps some will become teachers, perhaps some will give up,” he said. “Cuba doesn’t let many people out of the country, so they will likely just lead poor lives.”

Alvarado’ short film, “Cuba: Beyond the Cars and the Cigars,” is at this week’s L.A. Shorts Fest in Hollywood. A late entry, one screening will be offered at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood (theatre #9) this Thursday at 1:15 p.m. A few tickets remain available. This short is a pre-cursor to a feature length documentary Alvarado is preparing that will take audiences further into the hearts and homes of a Cuba most of the world has not seen.

“I will only use Cuban artists in this film,” Alvarado said. “Cuban dancers, Cuban teachers, Cuban musicians to score it. Cuba is not about revolution. It is about art and culture and passion.”

More information about Alvarado’s work can be obtained at the Web site, www.carlosalvarado.com. More information about the L.A. Shorts Fest and screenings can be obtained at the Web site, www.lashortsfest.com

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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