A revolutionary idea

One day, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were knocking up a couple of golf balls at the abandoned Havana Country Club in a western suburb of the city. It was 1961. This bizarre moment of relaxation from the aftermath of the recent revolution may simply have been their way of mocking Eisenhower, who was rumoured to have missed a meeting with Castro in order to play golf. Whatever the reason, they appear to have talked about culture because they decided that a complex of five national arts schools should be built right on that course, exchanging the bourgeois cosiness of a private members’ club for a centre that would reach the new youth of Cuba. Ricardo Porro, a Cuban professor of architecture at Caracas University in Venezuela, was appointed to lead the project, and he involved two other prominent architects, the Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.

This was an extraordinary project replete with revolutionary fervor. The idea was to create a style that was distinctly Cuban and in keeping with the revolution. Sadly, for various complicated reasons, only two schools were completed: the plastic arts and the contemporary dance schools, leaving the drama, music and ballet schools unfinished. One of them was even used for circus training, and most of them are now in a sorrowful state of disrepair. Today, 50 years on, I am helping a project, which has the Cuban government’s blessing, to create a new ballet school in this beautiful piece of architecture. The project is the brainchild of Carlos Acosta, currently the principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet and who was an outstanding student of the National Ballet of Cuba, housed in one of Havana’s historic buildings.

Che Guevara, with Fidel Castro behind him, on the golf course in Havana

This was the school that I particularly wanted to visit when I first went to Havana nearly 20 years ago (to set up my cigar company) because the school, which has flourished into one of the best in the world, was founded by the legendary Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso as early as 1948. When the revolution came in 1959, she, as a great supporter of Castro, became the beneficiary of precious government funding. That funding, even more precious today, has continued and is a testament to the uninterrupted support that Fidel Castro had undertaken for 50 years to provide arts to all the Cuban people. In practical terms, it means that tens of thousands of young people from all over Cuba are able to audition for the few hundred places at the school, directed by Dr Ramona de Saa. This legend of the dance world is dedicated to finding students with “musicality, good body proportions and the ability to follow simple steps”. Carlos Acosta was one of them.

In that hot afternoon of my first visit, de Saa laid on for me a performance by the students. The school’s grand theatre, with a ceiling reaching up to the sky, had a central marble staircase that was exceptionally delicate and almost translucent. In a sparse classroom, I began watching the best of Cuban youth dancing the finale from The Sleeping Beauty. I was enthralled. Then suddenly and abruptly, the sound stopped. There had been a power cut. Without missing a beat, the teacher picked up the music by humming loudly and beating with her hand and feet so that all the beautiful dancers simply carried on and finished the performance with superb exuberance. It was a very moving moment and one which made me fall in love with all of these dedicated artists in the room, proving what art could do despite material privations.

The auditorium of the original arts school

So when Carlos Acosta, whom I first met in Shanghai 13 years ago while he was touring with the Royal Ballet, talked to me about his dream of an international contemporary ballet centre in Havana to complement the National Ballet of Cuba, I had already appreciated the extraordinary talents and dedication that existed in his homeland. And since then, I have watched, together with many others, his artistry and dedication – a Latino version of Billy Elliot. “I want to provide a platform and focus,” says Acosta, “for young people to explore hidden talents and develop their skill and help them make positive choices in life, while raising both the awareness and quality of dance to a new level.” This proposed dance centre in Cuba will perpetuate its strong tradition of dance, and in particular choreography, which will be inspired by that Cuban magical sensuality with the European tradition of the classical ballet.

The domed roof of the auditorium

Extra excitement comes from the fact that Acosta had identified precisely the abandoned arts school, once dreamed of by Castro and Guevara but never fully realised, to be his dance centre. He is determined to complete this unfinished architectural masterpiece, and has the full support of the Cuban ministry of culture. Indeed, in recent years, the Cuban authorities have carried out restoration works, and the building is reported to be structurally sound. Civil engineering works are also being undertaken to widen and deepen the river along which the buildings were first constructed to prevent future flooding. The whole of this sublime structure is made from local materials, mostly bricks baked from the warm russet earth of the area, and locally produced terracotta tiles. This approach was driven by two considerations: a deep sense of connecting the building to its surroundings – and the embargo of foreign materials. The aim of the new scheme is to continue this tradition of using local materials, in order to preserve the fabric and character of the original design.

Last year I gave a dinner in London for Acosta to launch this ambitious project. The international architect Lord Foster and his wife, Elena (Prof. Dr Elena Ochoa), were guests. They generously offered to complete a full feasibility study for Acosta’s foundation. This would bring Foster’s expertise of restoring landmark buildings such as the British Museum in London and the Reichstag in Berlin; but critically, in order to demonstrate the sound basis of this project to potential philanthropists, they offered to provide a professional study on the tasks ahead. Foster, in a recent visit to Havana after the completion of the feasibility study, has already expressed admiration for the original design of the ballet school by Garrati, and stressed that all the past plans will be respected in the new architectural enterprise.

Lord Foster's model of the proposed dance centre

“The Carlos Acosta Centre for Dance will complete the legacy of the arts school campus in Havana to inspire future generations of performers,” he told me.

Acosta’s vision for this dance centre is to open it not only for the Cubans, but for people from all over the world. They will learn many forms of dance disciplines from tango through to ballet. It will be a place for workshops and masterclasses, for academic learning as well as short courses in the summer and winter, thereby providing inspiration for all the artists in the world. It will become a beacon of artistic excellence in the region, where the provision of education is never taken for granted, unlike most of the western world.

This project is ambitious. Its funding will inevitably have to come in phases. US$3.5m will be needed to restore the existing buildings, and of course there are plans to build new extensions and facilities, as well as rehabilitate the existing theatre. Like all fundraising, there has to be a decent beginning, and the aim is to raise the first US$3.5m with which to kickstart the venture. Meanwhile, Acosta and his team are working on how to ensure that the dance centre becomes self-financing, in order to ensure its long-term survival.

Clearly, this whole project requires the support of a great cross-section of people from across the world, not only in terms of funding, but also in that spirit of making a difference to so many of those, especially of the younger generation, who would not otherwise have had the chance of clutching that straw of difference in their lives. I hope to be able to play a part in lending my full support to this project. On September 19 at London’s Royal Opera House, I will be hosting a fundraising dinner to launch this dream project, and at which Acosta will perform. I am hoping that serious benefactors will turn up en masse, for this is a project not only for Cuba, but for the world.

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