Ever since President Trump tightened travel restrictions to Cuba last year, many Americans who would like to see the island nation’s verdant landscapes and vibrant arts scene have been waiting for more favorable political winds. In the meantime, you can dust off your guayabera shirts and salsa-dancing shoes, because the Kennedy Center is offering a little piece of Cuba in the capital.
The two-week festival Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World, which kicks off Tuesday, is bringing 242 artists from Cuba to D.C., where they will join forces with 170 Cuban-Americans to showcase the country’s rich culture of performing and visual arts.
“This will be the first time this many Cuban artists have gathered for a festival in America,” festival curator Alicia Adams says. “It’s unprecedented.”
Getting visas for the Cubans was tough because, in addition to reinstating some travel restrictions, the Trump administration has severely reduced staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Adams says. As a result, the Kennedy Center had to fly the Cuban artists to Mexico, where the U.S. Embassy could process visas more quickly.
“We were working on the visas until the very last minute, and we did it!” Adams says. “We got them all.”
“Cuba punches way above its weight because the government has invested in arts and culture for all of these years, and also because they are somewhat isolated on an island, and that gives the arts and sounds a place to incubate and focus,” Adams says.
Adams and her colleagues are giving the Kennedy Center additional Cuban flair by parking classic 1950s cars around the building, vehicles reminiscent of the ones that drive along Havana’s Malecon. The halls of the center will feature work by Cuban artists and domino tables, science educators will be on hand to talk about Cuban flora and fauna, and the cafes and bars will serve up Cuban food and drinks, Adams says.
For the most immersive experience, would-be tourists should check out the “Cubano Club,” a hip spot for sipping mojitos and taking in live music. The club will occupy the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Gallery, which is being temporarily redecorated. Cuban visual artist Roberto Diago has created a mosaic facade for the club, and Kennedy Center staff have added a neon sign and photos of famous Cuban musicians.
Other visual art installations around the venue include a piece by Cuban artist Manuel Mendive called “Fragmento de Paisaje” that fills the Hall of States with metal sheets painted with dreamscapes of shape-shifting creatures. In the States Gallery, visitors can see an abstract video installation by Cuban-American artist Emilio Perez.
There’s a lot to take in, but don’t just gawk, Adams says. Rather, she recommends chatting up D.C.’s guests from abroad. One of the best places to do this will be in the Kennedy Center’s atrium on Thursday and Friday nights, from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, when visiting artists will be mingling and giving impromptu performances.
“I hope [visitors] will be enlightened by the people that they will meet from Cuba, and experience the beauty and humanity that exists on that island,” she says.
5 shows to see at Artes de Cuba
The Kennedy Center festival includes dozens of performances in multiple disciplines. Here are some standouts:
Tue., 8 p.m., sold out.
This is your chance to see a rare assemblage of reigning goliaths of Cuban performing arts on one stage. Performers include singer-dancer Omara Portuondo and pianist Rolando Luna, both of Buena Vista Social Club fame; the bracingly original classical guitar phenom Ali Arango; and Grammy-nominated singer Aymee Nuviola.
Yissy & Bandancha
Wed., 8 p.m., $15-$49.
Virtuosic drummer Yissy Garcia leads a genre-defying quintet that also includes a bassist, a trumpet player, a pianist and a record-scratching DJ. Garcia calls the music they create “high-speed Cuban jazz,” but fans of hip-hop, funk and Afro-Cuban dance music will also find a lot to like.
Malpaso Dance Company
May 11 & 12, 8 p.m., $15-$49.
Since its founding in 2012, this youthful contemporary dance company — youthful in terms of its performers and the organization itself — has become known worldwide for passionate, expressive and inventive movement. Its program will include a pas de deux called “Ocaso,” about a couple reeling from a cataclysmic event, and the ensemble piece “24 Hours and a Dog,” a playful encapsulation of a typical day for 10 dancers in Havana.
Argos Teatro’s ‘10 Million’
May 19 & 20, 7:30 p.m., $19-$39.
This highly autobiographical play by Cuban-American playwright Carlos Celdran is a tumultuous coming-of-age story of a boy (played by Cuban actor Daniel Romero) growing up in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution. A sensitive, bookish child, the boy is torn between his Castro-loyal mother and middle-class father, who eventually abandons his family for the promise of America. Featuring a minimalist set and just four actors, the play mostly consists of monologues and narratives spoken directly to the audience.
Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s ‘Don Quixote’
May 29 & 30, 7:30 p.m., $29-$129.
Cuba’s national ballet company dances a version of “Don Quixote” that improves on the classic ballet by Marius Petipa (which itself was loosely based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes). Rather than a string of flashy set pieces with comic interludes, this “Don Quixote” tells a believable love story, one with character development and pathos. In addition to fiery solos from top ballet stars like Viengsay Valdes, expect to see powerfully coherent dancing by the corps de ballet.
Visit Cuba for free
Artes de Cuba includes several free performances on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Here are three worth checking out.
Arte Y Moda Fashion Show
May 14, 6 p.m., free.
Cuban designers will showcase costumes inspired by the paintings and sculptures of Cuban visual artists during this celebration of the country’s art and style.
La Dame Blanche
May 15, 6 p.m., free.
As La Dame Blanche, Cuban singer, flutist and percussionist Yaite Ramos Rodriguez makes pulsing music that merges hip-hop, reggae and Latin beats.
May 19, 6 p.m., free.
Hundreds of singers from here and afar will pay tribute to Cuban poet Jose Marti, whose “Versos Sencillos” became the basis for the country’s most patriotic song, “Guantanamera.”