Potrait image by ETIAN ANTUCHE ALMEIDA
All other images by DENISE DIAZ
Sitting on one of the wooden benches of Wagamama, alongside two of his friends, is Cuban Dancer and Choreographer, Etian Antuche Almeida. Located a short stroll from Camden Town underground station and significantly less pedestrian-populated, the Japanese chain is the eatery of choice for the group, as they recover and refuel from a day of rehearsals for the Westend’s The Lion King. Amidst a lively conversation, Etian pauses to warmly welcome me like a friend he’s known for years, introducing me to his friends and fellow Dancers. As the meal draws to an end, I ready myself to hear the story which has so far lead Etian from Pinar del Rio in rural Cuba to the Lyceum theatre in London.
How did you first get into Dance?
This is really interesting because when you’re in the Caribbean, there’s something with music and dancing that is in the DNA. You can’t take it out. You will learn to dance on the street. I have two very important experiences with dancing in my life. One was at Kindergarten, where we were going to do this piece, but only the people who could make the costume would be able to perform. So I needed to find a piece of fabric. It was very simple costume. It was a poncho, so a square piece of fabric, a hole in the middle and boom! But we’re talking about Cuba in the late eighties, 1989 probably. I said to my mum “I really want to dance but I need a costume”. I didn’t have fabric to make the costume, so my mum said “use the mosquito net!” So I gave away my mosquito net in order to perform. The other experience was at six years old when me and my best friend put our names into a dance competition. It was a Lambarda competition and we won. I went back home with the prizes they gave us and the first question my mum had was “where did you get that from?!” I told her that I hadn’t stole it, but won it by dancing. So those two experiences, and eventually further down the line, are when I started to take it seriously.
You went to the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte, how was that experience?
Yes, I went to Escuela. Ah! If there was a frame in my life that I would go back and repeat again, it would be that one because it was special. A lot of revelations happened on a human level and on a professional level. In the very first years you don’t realise what you’re getting into. It’s later on that you start thinking “wait a minute…” Especially, when you can see that your platform will allow you to not just dance but travel. The first time I travelled was at fifteen and went to Amsterdam, just because I was performing. When I experienced that I was like “wow, I can make a living out of this!” So I can travel, get the chance to work with different people, choreographers with different styles and get to know the world.
So what type of style did you do?
I did contemporary, in between you have all the basic stuff. You need three or four classic sessions of ballet a week. You need physical conditioning like cardio, resistance and stamina because there’s a lot to handle. The way it is structured is that you do six years and then five years at university. If you want to do a masters or doctorate degree, you spent your whole life studying. That wasn’t my case. I wanted to be on the stage and perform.
In the first year, they teach you Scandinavian dances. Second year is European dances. Third year is Latin American dances. Fourth year is the very early Cuban dances, like the dances that were brought from Spain and developed in Cuba. Finally, in the fifth year, you start getting into the popular dances like the Cha Cha Cha and Mambo. In between all of that, you have the African inheritance dances from three main groups who emigrated to Cuba: Kongo, Lucumí and Arará. You learn the dances and the music of each group.
Somehow all blends in. The Cuban dancers are have very solid classic training which is a strong base [in terms of posture], but at the same time you have these Afro influences so you’re stiff, but not stiff. You can move. Cuban dancers definitely stand out. They have something very particular and very unique because of this training.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from that whole experience?
Time, don’t waste it. If I went back now, I would spend an extra four hours— doing extra training, doing extra stuff. I didn’t. I would finish class and shut down. I think in my experience I could have done a lot more. I taught kids at the same school in Cuba for three years, I would tell them just what happens in the studio is not enough, is never enough. Someone said to me once, “the time you lose is lost forever, you will never get it back”. So that’s the biggest lesson I learned.
You’ve danced all of the world, where is your favourite place to dance?
England because it is more receptive. I feel so relaxed performing here. I came in 2007 touring with a dance company from Cuba, came back in 2008 for another tour and decided to move here in 2009.
How was the experience of moving here from Cuba?
Okay this is a funny story. When I travelled for the first time and I travelled to Europe— as I said to you earlier I grew up with Hello! magazine in my hands. European culture was there in the back of my head, so when I landed in Europe it was indifferent to me. Somehow I knew it. The funny story is that Cuba in the Nineties was a very special period because that was when the Embargo with America started. I was talking with my Grandma about the royal family of Monaco: “have you read the magazine?” “yeah, you know the King just kicked her out because she was having an affair with the bodyguard…” “And have you seen Diana? She’s running away…” So that was my chat with my Grandma, discussing the content of those magazines. That was also my first encounter with Alexander McQueen, how I got know what is Haute Couture and what is Prêt-a-Porter. Traveling the very first time was natural to me. I had never stepped into a plane before, but when I did felt like “yeah, this is where I need to be, this is where I belong”.
Do you see yourself going back to Cuba?
On a holiday? Yeah of course! But to live, I don’t think I will. The way I see life going in general, it fits this, my environment here. It has to be England. I’ve been to many places, but it’s not any of them. Here, there’s a connection. When I go to Cuba, I don’t see that. I’m only connected to Cuba because I was born and raised there. I love nice long sleeve shirts, I love a tie and a nice coat. I can’t wear that in Cuba, for simple reason that the climate is not appropriate. I can’t live for the rest of my life in flip-flops and shorts, it’s not for me. So I don’t see myself going back, unless it’s to see relatives, family and friends. It is a really inspiring and exciting and very energetic place to be. I love the whole fact that Cuba has been trapped in a capsule. But I like now. I like modern. I like evolution. I like moving forward.
Overnight you have Obama and the next day you have The Rolling Stones and Karl Lagerfeld doing the Chanel Cruise show. It is going too fast! That’s why I have my reservations.
What do you think about the recent discussions between Cuba and the US?
It is technically great, but no one knows where this is going. Who’s going to benefit the most? Will it be the whole population of Cuba? Or is it going to be a few companies? Or the government? Who? These are all questions in my head, but all we can do is wait, sit and watch. I’m always scared when things happen overnight. I would rather it go slow. Layering, layering, don’t rush me, two years, two years. But in two years, it is going to be something solid with consistency. Compared to overnight you have Obama and the next day you have The Rolling Stones and Karl Lagerfeld doing the Chanel Cruise show. It is going too fast! That’s why I have my reservations about this. Hopefully it goes right for them. They need to be open to the world. But at the same time, it’s very ironic that we don’t want to lose that charm of being so special, so isolated— possible but impossible. It’s turning into accessible. Everyone goes there now. It is a trend. It’s fashionable to go to Cuba.
How do you feel about it becoming fashionable to go to Cuba?
Do you want me to be honest? I don’t care. I’ve got a lot of friends who work in the fashion industry, really great make-up artists and they are making some coins. They need those coins. Fast and Furious 8 is going to be shot in Havana, so a good friend of mine has been picked up for the film and another friend of mine is going to be on the creative team. It’s good! As I always say Cuba for me is my friends and family. If they are okay, if they are good, for me the world is good. If I didn’t have family in Cuba, I wouldn’t bother to go. I went to my town and started asking for people and nobody is there anymore. Everyone has gone abroad. It was a “what am I doing here then?” moment. I had no one to have a chat with. Your country is the people. Whenever they go or you go you carry your country with you. It’s not the place. It’s the people who make that place.
With Capitalism, you work, you have the opportunity to dream. If you want something, you work for that and you will get it.
How does you Cuban background influence the way you work or interact with people?
Massively! We got that from the communism and socialism. You need to work extremely hard to get things. Nothing is given to you. You need to earn it. You need to respect the people who work with you. That sense of equality. We are all in the same boat, you are not better than me and I’m not better than you. I will respect you and I expect from you the same.
However, often the Cuban citizen has lost motivation over the years. With Capitalism, you work, you have the opportunity to dream. If you want something, you work for that and you will get it. In Cuba, and in some countries in Latin America, you work, you work, you work and at the end of the day go home empty-handed. So it doesn’t make any sense. It’s really really sad. They work extremely hard from dawn to dusk, everyday. That sort of drive we have is what makes Latin people— well most Latin people— successful in the Capitalist world because we are used to working really hard. That sort of drive most Cubans have it. The ones who don’t have it is because they have lost motivation.
Often the motivation is not so much a material motivation, but it’s an emotional motivation. If it is material, it is because that thing will trigger an emotion that will be enough to drive them. The ambitions are to live abroad, that’s the motivation: to one day live abroad and be able to come in and out. They know that no matter how many hours they work, it will be the same. Whereas over here, you work extra hours and you get paid for those extra hours. That is a motivation. I’m going to work an extra 5 hours because I know I will get extra money. There, if you work an extra 5 hours you would get exactly the same. So what’s the point?
How has Cuba been able to produce such great talent in the Arts?
That’s an interesting question. Over here, people who have access to the Arts are people who can afford it. In Cuba, it’s a different system because it’s free. Only the people who really want to do it and are really talented will get it. That’s how we go through castings. You’re not here because your mum can pay for the lessons. We look for the talent.
talent is everywhere. It’s not just in the big cities.
Here you would have to go to the venues, like the Royal Ballet Academy to audition, whereas in Cuba we don’t. We used to have a whole four weeks, each day we had auditions. There was a schedule. At six o’clock in the morning there was a bus waiting at the front of the school. So you had dance teachers and musicians all jump on the bus, going school by school for castings. The most remote locations. We would go there because talent is everywhere. It’s not just in the big cities. It’s everywhere. I have found amazing dancers in the most remote places We go everywhere, every day for a month. Searching, searching, searching. So when you put that together, then you have got the best of the best.
Arts in Cuba is accessible to everyone. It’s not elitist or preserved for a tiny group of people. You go to the Opera and you have people from every single profession— you have a lawyer, an actor, a doctor, your best friend, a painter, an electrician. It’s the same price for everyone. Everyone has the same access. That is what makes it really amazing. There’s a sense of one community and equality. It’s not a society that is divided, everyone talks with everyone.
Do you think that is something that is lacking in cities like London?
Here is different because you have different classes. From the moment you say “where do you live?” In Cuba, it doesn’t make a difference. It has nothing to do with your persona because the best violin player in the national orchestra can live in a one bedroom flat next to whoever. That doesn’t take away from who they are.
We don’t have that sort of propaganda from the media. Women in Cuba wear the lycra leggings with a tiny top and a pair of flip-flops, literally almost naked. Even if they have three muffin-tops, they don’t care. They love themselves exactly the way they are.
So it gives people the opportunity to define themselves, rather than have circumstances define them?
Oh yeah! It’s amazing. We don’t have that sort of propaganda from the media. Women in Cuba wear the lycra leggings with a tiny top and a pair of flip-flops, literally almost naked. Even if they have three muffin-tops, they don’t care. They love themselves exactly the way they are. We don’t have a model to follow. You just learn how to love yourself and accept the way you are.
In that sense, there’s a lot more freedom?
Yes, there is freedom and no judgement. There’s no pattern that you need to fit into. If you go to Miami, everyone looks like this and that is the role model to follow. You have to look like that in order to fit into the society. In Cuba, you don’t have to. There’s no obsession with boobs or six packs. Those tags don’t exist. There are references and people know they exist, but they don’t live by them. That sort of stuff we have stuffed in our face over here all the time, they don’t have it.
When I came to Europe was the first time I heard the term ‘bully’. In Cuba, kids call each other the most horrendous names, but it doesn’t go further than the parent saying: “the next time someone calls you this, call him back!” You can’t let anyone bring your confidence down, so from a very early age you start growing a very tough skin. I did. Over here, someone calls you something parent goes to the teacher to headmaster… and it escalates to a level that it didn’t have to go to. That’s how kids grow up here with that sense of fear, not knowing how to stand for themselves in that way. If someone says something to them, they panic, they crumble. I’m not just talking kids. In Cuba, you need to survive. You need to be a survivor.
It’s a very politically-correct society. When I started teaching I would speak my mind, I had to tone it down because everything was taken as so rude. In America, it would be “I’m sorry but I don’t agree”. Over here, it’s “with all due respect…” or “looking from a different angle…” Just tell them you disagree. It’s so much easier. Otherwise, you have to dress it, do all these acrobatics to say the same thing, but in a way that doesn’t hurt their feelings. It’s okay if you hurt my feelings, I will get over it in the next half an hour.
Would you want to do more musical theatre in the future?
I don’t know. Let me get to the end of my contract and then we can talk again. The reason why I’m doing courses in fashion is because I’m not going to be dancing all my life. I want to do a transition into fashion, but serving the theatrical side. Costume design is where I would like to head, especially for dancers. Having this knowledge of movement, gives me an understanding of what could work and what doesn’t work. With a dancer you can say “yeah this fabric is great” or know how easy it would be for the dancer to move. It’s different perspective. I would love to design costumes.
What would be your ideal production to design for?
I would love to work for the Netherland Dance Theatre. They have very interesting stuff. Also, the Sydney Dance Company and Wayne McGregor. Why not? Those sort of modern productions like Karl Wilhelm Alexander Ekman. New, modern and current productions.
Is that where you see yourself in the next five years?
Oh yeah! In ten years’ time, I will have my house with a front yard and back yard. Lots of dogs. Probably, two kids probably. And a workshop in the back of my house for collaborations and stuff. I would like to do cinema too. I don’t have to be the person who creates the costume, I just want to be involved. I just want to be one of those tiny little pieces who keeps the machine going.