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Retired SIUE professor choreographs dance diplomacy with Cuba

Retired SIUE professor dances with Cuba

Calvin Jarrell has visited Cuba 24 times and collected some really neat and unusual items.
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Calvin Jarrell has visited Cuba 24 times and collected some really neat and unusual items.

J. Calvin Jarrell knows Cubans have suffered because of their country’s social, political and economic isolation, but he can’t help but worry how changing tides will affect it.

The retired dance professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has traveled to Cuba 24 times in nine years. He loves its colorful and lively culture and admires the ingenuity and strength of its people.

Most Cubans live in modest brick or frame homes, and few own cars. They seem content with good health and the love of family and friends.

“Everybody is in the same boat,” said Calvin, 63. “No one makes a lot of money. When they can’t fix something or don’t know what to do, it’s like, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’”

What Calvin enjoys most about Cuba is the popularity of dance. In the United States, he has witnessed first-hand men being ridiculed for studying it or making it a career.

“Dance is just part of the culture in Cuba,” Calvin said. “You hear music, and people are dancing in the streets. They dance everywhere. Cubans have a joke that everybody in Cuba dances, except Fidel.”

Calvin has made friends with many artists while studying and teaching in Cuba, mostly in Santiago. In 2013, he brought a Cuban conductor, choreographer, singers and dancers to SIUE to perform “Carmina Burana” (Latin for “Songs from Beuern”).

The show originated as Medieval poems and dramatic texts discovered in a Bavarian monastery in 1803. German composer Carl Orff turned 24 of them into songs in the 1930s.

“The students got to interact with the Cubans at rehearsals,” said SIUE graduate Sierra Smith, 25, of Champaign, Calvin’s research assistant at the time. “We also had a couple of dinner nights, just so we could spend time with them and learn as much from them as possible.”

Dance is just part of the culture in Cuba. You hear music, and people are dancing in the streets. They dance everywhere. Cubans have a joke that everybody in Cuba dances, except Fidel.

J. Calvin Jarrell on Cuban dancing

Getting the Cubans to Edwardsville involved two years of red tape and logistical issues, causing Calvin stress and sleep deprivation. That might have contributed to his on-stage stroke shortly before opening night.

Calvin recovered but retired from SIUE. He recently formed a non-profit organization called Integrated Arts & Media International to organize cooperative projects with Cuban artists in the name of “dance diplomacy.”

“I think it’s great that he’s seeing the arts as a way to bridge the gap with Cuba, especially dance,” said Laura Hanson, director of SIUE technical theater and design. “It’s physical communication. You don’t need language.”

Laura designed costumes for “Carmina,” and Calvin has taken some of her other costumes to Cuba for performances.

Opening of closed doors

The United States has imposed a trade embargo and other restrictions on Cuba since the early 1960s, just after Fidel Castro took power and turned it into a communist country. In recent years, the Obama Administration has lifted some restrictions and restored diplomatic relations.

“I think it’s a good thing, but it’s going to take trust-building,” Calvin said. “Businesses want to rush in, and then they fail because they don’t understand the culture. You’d think they would have learned from Perestroika.”

Calvin spent 30 years at SIUE as a professor and director of dance. Before that, he studied and taught in Wisconsin, Central Illinois, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Calvin and his wife, Ginny, live in Edwardsville. They have a son, Jason, in Washington, D.C., and two Jack Russell terriers, Polar Bear Express and Jack in the Pulpit.

“Ven aca (come here),” Calvin called to the dogs recently while serving tiny cups of strong Cuban coffee. “I practice my Spanish with them. I get really rusty when I’m not in Cuba, and it’s barely conversational when I’m there.”

One room of the Jarrells’ home is filled with Cuban art and knickknacks, including unusual sculptures of an alligator, goat, horse, rooster and lobster carved out of cow horns.

55 Years Cuba under U.S. trade embargo

45 Years Calvin has been studying dance

Calvin also has a T-shirt commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution with images of Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

“This is a collector’s item,” he said. “I don’t even wear it in Cuba. A friend of mine gave it to me. He said, ‘Don’t wear this in Miami.’ A lot of people think Castro is a monster.”

Calvin first traveled to Cuba in 2007 on a conference trip with SIUE faculty. The opportunity to study dance during the Carnival of Santiago de Cuba “fell in his lap” when someone else dropped out at the last minute. It was love at first sight.

Calvin later met Oscar “Mesa” Menzies, an employee of a Cuban arts organization. They became best friends and worked together on projects, including “Carmina.” But Oscar died of a heart attack three months before his American trip.

The show went on, despite Calvin’s stroke and Oscar’s death, thanks to the Cubans and others in the SIUE department of theater and dance.

“I took over what I could with the dancers,” said Kristin Best, 34, of Troy, SIUE director of dance. “And I had my aunt, who is fluent in Spanish. ... She really helped with translating. She housed a couple of the dancers, and she shuttled them around and entertained them.”

Success and challenge

It’s hard for Calvin to narrow down highlights from his Cuban trips. One was choreographing a contemporary modern ballet for the 20th anniversary of Ballet Santiago de Cuba in 2010.

The success of that performance paved the way for him to teach three times at a Guantanamo dance festival.

Earlier this year, Calvin restaged two dances for La Compañia Danza del Caribe, fusing American square-dancing with Cuban rumba for one. A cultural attache from the U.S. Interest Section, now the U.S. Embassy, made history by traveling to Santiago to see it.

“(Calvin) knows that he’s breaking barriers,” Sierra said. “It’s not something that a lot of people have done. Every time he goes to Cuba, it’s one more opportunity for people from different cultures to work together.”

Not all of Calvin’s experiences in Cuba have been pleasant. On his last trip in June, he was infected with the giardia parasite, forcing him to fly home early.

I think it’s great that (Calvin is) seeing the arts as a way to bridge the gap with Cuba, especially with dance. It’s physical communication. You don’t need language.

Laura Hanson on cultural exchanges

Calvin has suffered from food poisoning three times in Cuba. He was hospitalized in 2009 after succumbing to the temptation of fresh-squeezed lemonade, apparently made from unboiled water, in an Italian restaurant.

“It was like going back to the 1950s,” he said. “I was on a cracked-leather gurney, like I was when I had my tonsils out as a kid. The emergency room was the only room that had air conditioning. All the other rooms had fans blowing.

“They just put anybody anywhere. I was in a big room with a communal sink, a communal bar of soap and a communal towel. The base of the IV stand was rusted. I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’”

Cubans face big challenges every day, including limited availability of basic products such as toothpaste and toilet paper. Calvin is sympathetic, but he also believes hardship has made them stronger and more creative and inventive.

Sierra, Laura and Kristin have been inspired by Calvin’s stories about life and art in Cuba and by meeting the Cuban dancers in “Carmina.”

“They are so dedicated,” Laura said. “They don’t have the resources we have here. They don’t have the grand dance studios. They don’t have the technology for lighting and sound. They’re just driven. They’re driven to dance.”

“We definitely made some lasting friendships,” Kristin added. “Two of the Cuban dancers are living and working (in the United States) now. They’re teaching dance.”

Calvin’s tips on Cuban travel

  • Contact an experienced American travel agent who works with Cuban travel agencies.
  • Do your research. Myths include the claim that people can easily use American credit cards anywhere in Cuba.
  • Go with an open mind. Don’t get bogged down with expectations or judgments about Cuba.
  • Be genuinely respectful, courteous, polite and patient. Avoid political discussions whenever possible.
  • Get off the beaten path and meet people, rather than limit yourself to guided tours, but travel with a companion.
  • Beware of scams, especially in Havana, and make sure you’re clear on the prices of products and services.
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