Cuba: from the inside out

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Dancing with a professional company on a Caribbean island sounds like a dream for young teenage girls. But it became a reality for four Oak Park Momenta dancers, as they traveled to Cuba to learn from highly-experienced dancers, see cultural sites and bring a bit of home to the island nation through performance.

The trip was open to all advanced-level high school students who train at Momenta in Oak Park. Momenta is "the resident performing arts company of The Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park," according to its website.

Four Oak Park and River Forest High School students and their parents traveled during spring break on a trip organized and led by Oak Park resident Scott Schwar, who has been leading tours to Cuba for 20 years.

Representing Momenta was Sarah Najera, matinee director, who will step into the shoes of Executive Director Stephanie Clemens, who is retiring in August. Clemens, who founded Momenta 36 years ago, will serve as an advisor for Momenta and continue as director of the Academy.

Three freshmen, Bridget Fox, Talia Sigismondi and June Weatherington, and one sophomore, Amalia Najera, daughter of Sarah, had an important job to accomplish before departing: collecting much-needed dancewear.

"In Cuba they don't make or sell pointe and ballet shoes and many dancewear necessities, so the dancers there end up dancing on point shoes that have 'died,' so they are very unsafe," said Amalia.

Distributing the items made the Oak Park teens very happy. "They all rushed in the office," Amalia continued. "One of our classes got cancelled because everyone was occupied — they were running around showing each other the leotards and they were all trying them on."

While in Cuba, the girls attended professional dance school Pro Danza and took classes in ballet and partnering, aka "pas de deux."

"Professional company classes — they're more relaxed, they're less focused on learning and more on strengthening and preparing for the shows," Bridget observed. "We learned partnering; we don't have a lot of boys at the Academy, so we really got a lot out of that experience."

The Oak Park dancers also learned something completely new: Cuban Folkloric Dance.

"It was really fun but also really interesting," June said. "There's a lot of hip movement. It was very grounded, and it had influence of African dance styles in it, but also they mixed in some popular dance that people go out and do."

"Folkloric dance was very different because we don't usually move our bodies that way," Talia added. "We're always supposed to be 'pulled up' for ballet, so that was something we had to learn."

Seeing the country was also part of the experience. Students toured Ernest Hemingway's Cuban home Finca Vigia. Bridget noticed, upon peering inside a window, that it is "covered in books." They also observed students working hard at the arts university, Instituto Superior de Arte.

Wanting to bring Oak Park to Cuba, the dancers prepared a suite of three works they performed at a concert at Teatro Nacional de Cuba. Two of Momenta's pieces were choreographed by Oak Park native Doris Humphrey, an influential modern dancer and choreographer of the early- to mid-20th century. The other was a new piece choreographed by Gina Sigismondi, Talia's mother, using the Humphrey technique.

The performance was staged along with the program of the Laura Alonso Ballet Company, the dance company of Pro Danza. A member of the company, Patricia Hernandez Ortega, is considered one of the best dancers in Cuba, according to Sarah Najera.

"Their dance training at the Academy and their experience at Momenta gave them the tools they needed in this situation and they handled it beautifully," Najera said of the teens. "We danced with their 20-something professional dancers the whole time. They were just thrown in and they did it."

The teens absorbed dance and Cuban culture from the inside out.

"This dance intensive allowed them to be submerged in Cuban culture at another level," Najera said. "They weren't just looking at Cuba from afar."

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