Cuba is a place that is very close to us.Â It is closer to Florida than Angelenos are to Santa Barbara.Â During the first half of the 20th century, American and Cuban culture shared a very close relationship.Â George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Ernest Hemingway, Walker Evans, and two members of the I Love Lucy company, Desi Arnaz and Marco Rizo, were a few of the many Cuban and American artists who used to travel back and forth and collaborate together.
Today, however, people call Cuba “the Closest Farthest Away.” After 50 years of political and economic warfare, Cuba has become one of the most distant islands on earth.
When I first went to Cuba, I found an important cultural capital with educated people and a vibrant art scene.Â Â I had known about salsa and the Buena Vista Social Club.Â But when visiting the island, I discovered thriving communities devoted to film, circus, ballet, classical music, modern dance, political theater, graphic design, animation, conceptual art, hip-hop and literature.Â With the scarcest of resources, Cubans produce an unprecedented level of creative expression that has remained a deep part of their cultural pride and identity.
After learning about the tragic political history that has completely destroyed America and Cuba’s relationship, I realized how important it is to organize new collaborations between artists from the two nations.Â If politicians and businesses have stopped communicating with each other, it would be a huge professional mistake for artists and cultures to do the same.
Performance seemed like the most important artistic medium to work in because it directly challenges the specific problem that Cubans and Americans encounter with each other — we’re not allowed to share the same physical space.Â And because we can’t occupy the same space, it’s impossible to do theater together.
My colleagues and I thought that we would challenge this problem head-on.Â With creativity and today’s technology, we can do almost anything if we can dream hard enough.Â One of the biggest changes that the 21st century has brought us is an ability and habit to exist in virtual spaces. Â If we could combine virtual and physical spaces, then we could share a stage together.Â And the act of doing so would create an emotional metaphor to express problems that arise when borders are created between friends, families, communities and lovers.
In 2005 a small group of Cuban and American artists and I devised a project called Por Amor.Â The Americans would periodically “sneak” to Cuba through Mexico, and when we weren’t there we’d communicate over email.Â We wrote a play called The Closest Farthest Away (La EntraÃ±able LejanÃa). And we figured out how to use cinema inside theater to bring actors from both countries onto the same stage and tell a love story across the Florida Straits.
The work premiered in December of 2007 at the Havana Film Festival and was a historic first for American and Cuban theater.Â Three months later we performed the US premiere in Miami.Â Audiences, institutions, and journalists on both sides applauded, declaring the work “artistically, politically, and technologically groundbreaking.”
I received the Sherwood Award from Center Theatre Group for “innovating theater,” and with that award I decided to do a similar project with children from both countries.Â I interviewed the National Children’s Chorus (Los Angeles) and Coro Diminuto (Havana) about their ideas of nationality and friendship. Â Their answers became a libretto that I used as I composed a piece of choral music.
I filmed and recorded both choirs singing their parts on beaches in Santa Monica and East Havana.Â The footage would be used to project the “far away” choir onto the live choir. Â The piece, entitled Far Away, would investigate the relationship between our countries through the perspective of the future generations. The National Children’s Chorus premiered Far Away at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage last December.
This week, MALDEF (the Latino legal rights organization) will, for the first time, present the work in the form of a gallery installation.Â In this case, both choirs are virtual, standing together in a room singing as life-size projections. Â The exhibit is coinciding with the Theatre Communications Group National Theatre Conference in downtown Los Angeles, where I am a panelist speaking about “What if the Future of Theatre were in the Hands of Today’s Artists?”
On July 17 and 20, Coro Diminuto will perform Far Away live in Havana at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Teatro Mella to celebrate National Children’s Day.Â The project’s long-term goal is to have the two choirs be able to visit each other in both countries and perform the work live without needing projections.
Last January President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba so that artists, academics, and a few other special groups can travel again for the first time since the ’90s.Â But after being separated for so many years, there are now much larger problems to be solved: Â How do we open up communication between two cultures who don’t understand each other and don’t communicate with each other?Â This is a problem that policy changes can’t solve.Â But I hope that the artists can.
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Far Away (Lejos), a video installation by Sage Lewis, will be open from June 16 – 18 from noon – 8 pm and June 20 from noon – 4 pm. Â The exhibit is presented by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) at its headquarters, 634 Spring Street, downtown Los Angeles. The duration is 14 minutes and entrance is free to the public. More information: www.maldef.org/about/events/far_away/index.html
Sage Lewis is an emerging Los Angeles-based composer who writes for concert, theater, film/video and new media. Â He integrates music composition and media design to explore concepts of borders and space. Â His work has been presented byÂ the Prague Quadrennial,Â Havana Film Festival,Â REDCAT, TheatreForum, Miami Light Project, Centro Cultural EspaÃ±ol, the National Children’s Chorus, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He won Center Theatre Group’s Sherwood Award. For more, visit www.sagelewismusic.com