Monday, November 15, 2010

dinner for 60?

Well, Thanksgiving is a week away, and as it is easily my favorite holiday (besides christmas) I decided it was my duty to volunteer to help organize our thanksgiving feast in Cuba. I figured that it would be too hard to just sit around and let the planning of such an important event fall into the hands of someone else. So here I am, a week away from cooking a feast for 60 people.

Has any of us ever cooked for this many people? Nada. Ninguna persona. None of us. It will be an adventure.

I think we have our first steps completed. Our menu is taking shape. We'll have the usual things, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn casserole. If luck will have it, we can conseguir some cranberries. Sweet potatoes, roasted beets and carrots, sauteed spinach and bok choy (and this is at the farmer's market down the street). Then we have some garlic bread, spaghetti (special family recipe), hummus, and peanut soup.

I just made spread sheets of all the ingredients. Now we have to quantify, and that's where I'm drawing blanks. How many potatoes for 60 people? If you have any advice, send me an email PRONTO.

The good thing about living in a house with cooks is that we're not totally on our own. Tato is a wonderful cook and he certainly knows a thing or two about cooking for crowds.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Recently I've been devouring books. I read a couple of kind of girly novels that were in the SLC book shelf, which contains all of the castaway books that get left behind when people leave Cuba. But Alejandro has also been cultivating quite a collection of English books left to him by people from the program. So, from him I've gotten a collection of short stories by Agatha Christie, Cuba Diaries: an American Housewife in Havana, and the Motorcycle Diaries.

I've already dug into the short stories by Agatha Christie, which have included my favorite detective, Hercule Poirot. I'm almost done with the Cuba Diaries, which is about the wife of a european business exec living in Havana. I haven't really been able to put it down since I started reading it yesterday. It shows a side of Cuba that I've been aware of ever since I realized that foreign businesses actually do business in Cuba. But nevertheless, it's tantalizing to hear about cocktail parties with so-and-so famous cuban artist, and the funny things that party leadership say at dinners with ambassadors and business leaders. And I marvel at the amount of STUFF it takes running her household, not to mention the seven or eight employees they have to take care of everything. But of course, she is well aware of an observation I made too: the more people you have working on something in Cuba, the less you end up getting done. It's a fun read, written from an American's perspective, and I can't help feeling almost vindicated reading it--"ah, I hate that too!" "yeah, that always drives me crazy when..." In any case, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an entertaining American's perspective on living here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


One of the guys who works at our house is named Gustavo. He's a really sweet middle-aged man who always asks you how you're doing when he sees you. A couple weeks after I arrived, he told me to think of him as my cuban father.

I knew there was another reason that I liked this guy. It turns out, he makes desserts and sells them to make some extra money. We bought one of his cakes for our 10th anniversary celebration, and it was amazing.

Tonight, he made flan. I absolutely love all kinds of custard, and I can still remember vividly the first time I had flan. Gustavo prepared flan in a unique way. After cutting aluminum cans in half, he filled them with the custard and then baked them in the can. It made just the right size serving for one. It's also an example of cuban ingenuity. Anyway, I've decided that when I get home I'm going to try and copy his idea.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

windy, cold, rainy. havana?

We've recently had a bit of rain in Havana--I think there's a tropical storm hitting us. As a result we're getting the first chilly weather we've felt so far in 2 1/2 months. It's light jacket weather. Such a thrill considering it's something I've been craving for some time.

I'm here in the tower where students from Brown University live, using their wifi. The building is located right on the water. Up here on the 12th floor it sounds like all hell is breaking loose outside, with the wind howling, the windows making noise, car alarms going off...but I don't think it's even raining right now.

Also, I heard about the plane crash in Cuba the other day. I think it was coming from Santiago de Cuba. We flew that same flight a few weeks ago. Yikes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Havana Ballet Festival part 3

My third performance at the Havana Ballet Festival was probably the most highly anticipated event on the program: American Ballet Theatre. Alicia Alonso, who founded ballet as we know it in Cuba, danced for American Ballet Theatre many years ago (1943, for example, was a date she cited in the documentary film that was screened before the evening's performance). So there is an historic link between the two companies.

The director of ABT introduced the evening's program, and he mentioned that it is the first time ABT has performed in Cuba in 50 years. Again, you get the feeling that you are about to witness something special, something historical. He gave his speech in English (there were many English-speakers in attendance) and his escort, a young-ish cuban ballet star, translated to Spanish.

Let me talk a little bit about the theatre. It's probably the largest venue in Havana, and by extension I would imagine it's the biggest in the country. Someone told me it seats about 4,000 people. And it was full to capacity on the first night of ABT in Havana. The theatre is called the Teatro Carlos Marx, or Karl Marx Theatre. I liked to think that American Ballet Theatre was performing at the Karl Marx Theatre, but I think the irony is kind of lost on most Cubans. Anyway, the theatre is this enormous, terribly designed building. 70s styling inside, very "modern" looking with its angles. By contrast, the curtain is really classical looking and over the top--think major velvet drapes.

We got into this performance for free. A friend of Alejandro's supplied us with bootleg tickets that had been duplicated from some real ones. I thought they looked pretty much like everyone else's, and so did the ticket lady at the front door. We were sent to the second balcony, the way-way-way-up-there nosebleed seats. You could hardly even see center stage because of a huge spotlight that was mounted right at the edge of the balcony.

When the program began, I immediately knew something must be wrong. The orchestra just sounded terrible. It was all muddled and gave me the impression that everyone was playing at different tempi. At first I was horrified that the orchestra could be that bad. And after seeing two live orchestras, two nights in a row, I'm not impressed with either of the conductors. But then I realized what I was hearing was terrible acoustics. The orchestra could more than easily carry into this huge theatre, but they had decided to amplify everything. So I was hearing the delay between the live orchestra in front of me and the speakers that were positioned over my head in the balcony. And all that sound was bouncing around that terribly designed theatre with all those weird angles. Definitely the worst sound designed performance I have every been to. I thought I was going crazy. And this is at an historic performance at an international ballet festival, that people have come from all over the world to see (and hear!).

To be honest the sound problems ruined the experience of seeing ABT. I don't really remember anything from the first two pieces other than me wishing I could strangle whoever placed those microphones in the orchestra. There were some other minor flaws that bugged me about the staging--the lights, for example, kept flickering. How Cuban, I thought. The dancing, of course, was incredible. The first work was "Theme and Variations," by Balanchine. It was quite impressive seeing the whole company of ABT performing this work. But again, I felt like the music and dancing were just not matching each other in quality. And sometimes it seemed the dancers themselves couldn't hear the music clearly either and were searching to feel the pulse.

The second half followed a really nice long intermission in which I had a beer and got some ranting about the acoustics out of my system. We ran into our friend Nev again, the one from New York, and chatted.

"Seven Sonatas," choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, promised to be a really exciting work. The dance is focused on a series of seven piano sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which I spent a lot of time listening to and a lot of time playing when I was 12-15. But after listening to the famous Vladimir Horowitz recordings, nobody's performance is going to meet my expectations, and the pianist who performed live on stage was not quite up to snuff. In fact, I was more worried about her messing up the difficult passages of the music than I was worried about paying attention to the choreography. Also distracting was that the piano, too, was amplified very badly. It sounded really tinny and fake. Not to mention the awful reverb, which muddied up Scarlatti's beautiful, clear, delicate music and exacerbated the pianist's mistakes. This music is HARD to play for the very reason that everything you do is so exposed--every little mistake gets heard since there are no thick chords to hide around.

For the second half we snuck down into the first floor orchestra section to find empty seats. Even down there the acoustics were bad, which proved to me it wasn't just the weird nosebleed balcony seats that sounded awful. I'd love to see "Seven Sonatas" again, with a better pianist, and without microphones. The choreography looked good--the last sonata stood out because it was in the form of a fugue, and Ratmansky did a good job creating a dance that looked like a fugue.

The last piece was "Fancy Free," a true American classic by Jerome Robbins. It was the first time I saw it live after watching it in on film in dance history class. I was amazed by the performance the dancers gave when considering that the piece began at 11:00 pm. The program started at 8:30 and didn't finish until 11:30! I kind of wish I had been less sleepy--I definitely nodded off a couple times. But overall, quite impressive seeing these American themes in Cuba. The sailors, New York, the war--it made me wonder what Cubans think of the work.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Havana Ballet Festival part 2

Tonight I saw Giselle performed by the Cuban National Ballet. It was in the Gran Teatro, the theatre where I saw them perform back in September.

The dancing was impeccable, as expected. There was a live orchestra, which for the first half seemed great. For some reason the second Act was different. It seemed like they turned on a bunch of microphones in the pit and people kept banging into them noisily throughout the second Act. And when things started getting out of tune in the middle I started wondering if I was hearing the effects of instruments that aren't as expensive as the ones heard in the states. You can get pretty far with technique, but I guess having a 300 year old violin really does make a difference.

I was lost through the second Act of Giselle because it took me a while to figure out what was going on. It seemed kind of like a dream sequence for a while, but eventually the prince actually dies. So I guess that was real, huh.

A couple things I did notice about the dance. The corps de ballet is really really solid. There were so many of them! And they all looked to be of identical height. It was especially eery in the second act with all the green light that made their white dresses glow. It was quite beautiful seeing them all there, so many perfect painted bodies all dancing in unison. Doll-like came to mind more than once.

After the performance there was a film montage honoring some Soviet ballet star who danced the role of Giselle with Alicia Alonso. After watching clips of him spinning for 10 solid minutes they included a clip of the climactic closing sequence of Giselle. It it you can see how old Alicia looks compared with him. She could've been 60 by the looks of it. And so, so thin.

Then we saw the Soviet dancer in real life, looking like someone who has been enjoying his retirement and his blond hair. He got huge applause from the crowd and seemed to enjoy this too. Finally the curtain is raised to reveal Alicia, framed by the soloists of the Cuban company. She's wearing her traditional outfit: greenish blue blouse and matching skirt, with a headscarf of the same color. She looks really wobbly and fragile on her little heels. Isn't she like 90 or something? She still wears heels, and with that turnout of hers she really does kind of waddle when she takes a step.

The crowd goes crazy for Alicia, again and again. She's old and frail, and almost completely blind from what I've heard. There are two strapping young company dancers with their arms on her shoulders, seemingly protecting her and framing her between them. It was quite moving to see her up there, with all that fanfare, and her tiny little curtsy that she finally bestowed upon us as we waited for her to do something other than just smile and clap. She has a knowing smile, but an appreciative one. And I get the sense she knows this could be the last time she comes out at the Ballet Festival. It really feels like the end of her era.

What this could mean for ballet in cuba, I'm not sure. One thing I am sure of is Americans have a surprising presence here at the festival. Like I mentioned last night, the New York invasion is really kind of arresting. I talked to some ladies as we were exiting the theatre. One of them, Cheryl, was from Chicago. She has been here four times and she came to the festival last year as well. We talked about NYCB the other night and how refreshing it is to hear such enthusiastic applause in the audience (especially for Wheeldon's Liturgy). Interesting to me is that this festival is on the cultural radar of Americans interested in dance. I had no idea. I guess it's one type of "cultural tourism" that the Cubans are happy to have as a source of income.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Havana Ballet Festival part 1

Last night I saw the New York City Ballet at the Havana International Ballet Festival.

They did excerpts from:
Stars and Stripes (Balanchine)
Liturgy (Christopher Wheeldon)
Chaccone (Balanchine)
Into the Night (Robbins? Balanchine?)
*some American suite with a selection of songs by Gershwin (Balanchine?)
There was an injury in the company so the program was shortened by two pieces. It was about 2 hours long with two little intermissions.

There was a very enthusiastic applause, especially for Stars and Stripes. The friend of a friend (who is a Cuban ballet enthusiast) praised the Wheeldon choreography (which happened to me favorite, very modern-looking duet with music by Arvo Part) but he said it was very badly danced.

Allison, my friend from NYU who came with us to the performance, made a good point: Cubans equate technical virtuosity with "good". Thinking back to the works that I saw from the Cuban National Ballet, it was evident that their technique was in top form and the pieces they chose to perform displayed it to the greatest degree. Allison expressed how glad she was that we have these type of cultural exchanges for the very reason that the Cubans can see our differences: that, at least by Cuban standards, American ballet is less oriented towards technical brilliance and more oriented towards "artistry". Please forgive me, because I'm really not a ballet critic and I'm trying hard to remember my ballet history class. But I think she has a point. The Cuban we talked to, somewhat of an authority on ballet in Cuba, was not especially impressed by the Americans.

I think it speaks to Cuban artistic culture in general. In order to be successful, you have to be the best. You have to have the best technique in order to be good enough to leave! They're creating monsters of technique rather than creative artists. That could be the reason that our cultural "expert" Fernando told us that the biggest disadvantage facing Cuban dance is its real lack of distinguished choreographers.

In any case, it was very moving being in a crowd of Cubans enthusiastically applauding something as American and nationalist as Stars and Stripes. I really did get a sense of the historical nature of the moment. Whether people intuited that in the crowd or not, I'm not sure. What I am sure of is the large contingent of bejeweled upper-west-side NYCB patrons/fans who came to the performance. It was SO bizarre seeing NYC in Havana. It has a distinct look. And it was pretty shocking to encounter mixed in with the cultural-consumers of Cuba. Who, by the way, bought tickets to see the NYCB for 20 pesos Moneda Nacional. That's about 75 cents. And that's what yours truly paid, too.