While Cuba is known for exporting sugar and tobacco, photographer Rebekah Bowman reveals in her new exibition that the country also produces plenty of world-class ballet dancers.
In “Portrait of the Cuban School of Ballet,” which opened last week at Foothill College and runs through March 21, Bowman captures the dancers and their teachers in a series of photos featured in a book of the same name published in 2014.
Bowman traveled to Cuba 10 times, starting in 2012, to document the Fernando Alonso National Ballet School in Havana.
She said the idea evolved from asking herself, “As a photographer, what can I shoot in Cuba that has not been shot before?” Then she stumbled across professional dancer Jennifer Homans’ book, “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.” While it’s known as the definitive history of ballet, Bowman said there was no mention of Cuban dancers in it.
“Some historians and dance critics say there is a recognized Cuban school and there are Cuban dancers and all of these companies, and yet this ballet history recorded by a New York Times best-selling book did not even recognize it,” Bowman said.
So the Berkeley resident set out to reveal Cuba’s reputation for producing world-class ballet dancers such as Jose Manuel Carreño, Rolando Sarabia and sisters Lorena and Lorna Feijoo.
Through a connection in the film industry, Bowman met Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s personal documentarian, who helped her secure permission to photograph the teachers and students at the school. Known for its Latin sensibility and aesthetic, Fernando Alonso incorporates teachings from European, French, Danish, English, Italian and Russian ballet schools.
“Cubans are known for their strong and fast footwork,” Bowman said. “There’s a Latin flair which has its basis obviously in their cultural heritage and their Spanish and Afro-Cuban cultural inheritance.”
Bowman described Cuban ballet as group oriented, which she noted is representative of Cuban culture as a whole.
“It doesn’t feel like this competitive environment,” she said. “They’re easy with one another. The atmosphere is light – it’s not as heavy or serious because there’s less emphasis on individuality.”
Bowman considers herself a documentary photographer. In her 25-year career, she has traveled the world – from India to Kenya to Mexico – to photograph people and nature.
“There’s something more poetic going on behind the scenes,” she said.
Bowman’s work found its way to Foothill thanks to Ron Herman, a professor at the college who also serves as chairman of the photography department. Herman – who shares Bowman’s affinity for Cuba – said he discovered her book through a friend of a friend and invited her to display her photos on campus.
“The story that she is telling is of dedication and hard work of the teachers and students who are operating with very, very little resources in conditions that most ballet companies are not working in,” said Herman, who has been at Foothill for 21 years.
Herman took a group of his students to Cuba in 2010 and brought ballet shoes and materials to print photographs to the Fernando Alonso school.
“The Cuban art revolution is taking hold,” he said.
The exhibition is located in the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill, 12345 S. El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. Hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Fridays and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. The closest parking is in Lot 4; disabled parking is in Lot 4-B. Parking is $3.
For more information on the exhibition, visit cubanschoolofballet.wordpress.com.
For more information on Bowman, visit rbowmanphotographer.com.