Body & Soul
The Cherry Blossoms, Mostly at a Distance
Books and Art on the (Hip?) Upper East Side
Richard Selden • April 6, 2016
A National Historic Landmark, the Seventh Regiment Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side made an about-face in 2007.
The one-time drill hall for New York’s aristocracy — with interiors by Tiffany, Stanford White and the Herter Brothers, among others — had become best known as a cavernous venue for high-end antiques shows.
That year, the massive brick castle became the home of Park Avenue Armory, a nonprofit that undertook the building’s restoration and began to program performances and contemporary art installations. The Royal Shakespeare Company came for six weeks one summer and the Merce Cunningham Company danced its last there. Visitors listened in the dark to “The Murder of Crows,” a sound piece by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; swung on giant swings amid dangling sheets at Ann Hamilton’s “The Event of a Thread”; and marveled at Paul McCarthy’s pornographic take on Snow White, “WS.”
Almost singlehandedly, the Armory has made the Upper East Side hip. (The next major installation, “Martin Creed: The Back Door,” opens June 8.) Its avant-garde events have been so successful that last year the New York Art, Antique & Jewelry Show, an annual rental of $300,000 or so, was evicted; the 2016 show will be at Pier 94 in November.
But two of the most prestigious shows of their kind in the world are still Armory tenants. The Winter Antiques Show will return in January 2017. This weekend, April 7 to 10, more than 200 of the top U.S. and international vendors of rare books, maps, manuscripts and ephemera will be at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair.
A short walk up Park Avenue from the Armory is the Asia Society Museum, between 70th and 71st Streets, where “Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan” is on view through May 8. The exhibition focuses on sculpture from the politically turbulent Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when artists and their workshops were commissioned by the warrior class to create Buddhist icons of exceptional realism, power and technical excellence.
Meanwhile, the big news on the Upper East Side is the opening, last month, of the Met Breuer. With the Whitney Museum of Art in a new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District (at the southern terminus of the High Line), the Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken over the old Whitney, at Madison Avenue and 75th Street, a Brutalist icon designed by Marcel Breuer.
The inaugural exhibition at what this writer calls the Metney (until I hear from both museums’ lawyers) is “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” running through Sept. 4. Under the direction of Sheena Wagstaff, named the Met’s chair of modern and contemporary art, a new department, in 2012, the show’s curators selected nearly 200 works — by contemporary artists and by big names from Rembrandt to Rauschenberg — that were never completed or “partake of a non finito … aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended.”
About eight blocks away, at what is now identified as the Met Fifth Avenue, the top-billed special exhibition is “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.” Closing May 15, the display of 80 paintings and pastels is said to be the painter’s first retrospective “in modern times.”
Finally, across Fifth Avenue from the “Big Met,” the exquisite Neue Galerie on the corner of 86th Street is the sole U.S. venue for “Munch and Expressionism,” through June 13. Organized with the Munch Museum in Oslo, the exhibition explores the mutual influences among Edvard Munch and his German and Austrian contemporaries, including Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.
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Spring Shows in Philadelphia
Richard Selden • March 18, 2016
It happened in Philadelphia: 56 men in breeches created a nation.
Then, 51 years later, it happened again. This time, it was 53 men in trousers. And what they created was … a flower show.
Actually, what they created in 1827 was the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The first public show, featuring the poinsettia’s American debut, came two years later. (In 1835, the society admitted women as voting members — long before the nation did.)
The descendent of that historic event, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest and longest-running indoor show in the world, now attracts more than 200,000 visitors over nine days. The 2016 show, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, ends this Sunday.
A Garden of Eden for plant-lovers — with award-winning specimens, lectures and vendors from around the world — the show is also a floral theme park that seems to grow Disney-er every year. Since this year’s theme is “Explore America: 100 Years of the National Park Service,” expect recreations of Yosemite, simulated Old Faithful eruptions and a Denali sled dog team. You can even “create your own Mount Rushmore floral headpiece.”
For details, and to reserve a garden tea or an early-morning private tour (weekdays only), visit theflowershow.com. Families with children should note that on closing day, Sunday, March 13, there will be a Flower Show Jamboree and a Teddy Bear Tea.
Prior to launching their kisses-and-hugs “With Love, Philadelphia” campaign, Visit Philadelphia’s slogan was “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over.” With the Flower Show meriting a full day and three new museum exhibitions, it makes sense to get a room.
After a controversial legal and financial intervention, the Barnes Foundation galleries relocated from the suburban residence of Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951) to a new museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. The move’s approval hinged in part on the exact reproduction of the unchanging salon-style display found in leafy Merion by the relatively few visitors who made it out there.
Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien created a large and spacious modern building for the Barnes in which the tiny recreated rooms are encased. In accordance with Barnes’s eccentric theories of art appreciation, African, Native American, Pennsylvania German and other sculpture and artifacts, including miscellaneous wrought-iron objects, share the walls with frame-to-frame masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Modigliani (to name a few of Dr. Barnes’s favorites).
It is one of the most astounding museums in the world, now with the additional reason to visit of special exhibitions. Through May 9, the Barnes (which has 22 paintings by Pablo Picasso in its permanent collection) is hosting “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change.” The show’s focus is the period surrounding and including World War I, during which Picasso — the “High Priest of Cubism” in the words of curator Simonetta Fraquelli — abruptly returned to a naturalistic style, continuing to alternate between Cubism and Neoclassicism.
A video illustrates how during the war Cubism was portrayed as anti-French (though the style’s co-creator, Georges Braque, was as French as could be and served at the front) and associated with the despised Germans.
Several blocks up the parkway from the Barnes, “International Pop” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 15. All the American stars are represented, of course: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman, Ed Ruscha. But what makes the show an eye-opener are the works by what the text calls the “British forbears of Pop,” notably Edinburgh-born Eduardo Paolozzi and London-born Richard Hamilton, whose collages date to the 1950s (earlier, in Paolozzi’s case), and by artists from throughout Europe and from Argentina, Brazil and Japan.
Finally, across the Schuylkill River, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is the exclusive U.S. venue for “The Golden Age of King Midas,” on view through Nov. 27. Of the 100-plus objects on loan from Turkish museums, many were excavated by Penn archaeologists from an eighth-century B.C. royal tomb, believed to be the resting place of Midas’s father Gordios.
Whether you hear the clatter of gold or of your muffler when you think of Midas, this exhibition is another example of the remarkable things to be seen this spring in the City of Brotherly Love.
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Winter Travel: 6 Continents, 6 Destinations
Georgetowner • November 19, 2015
Winter travel has its advantages. Aside from the peak holiday-travel dates, airfares are low. You can trade cold and snow for warmth and sun. And even if you choose a place as frosty as where you came from, you’re likely to find yourself in the midst of winter festivities.
For this article, The Georgetowner decided to limit the number of destinations covered to six: one for each continent (not counting Antarctica). As different as they are, the vacation spots we came up with — Alaska, Machu Picchu, Istanbul, Cape Town, Hong Kong and New Zealand — share the qualities that make travel worth the time, expense and occasional inconvenience, even in the troubled times in which we live: natural and cultural riches, unforgettable settings and that “je ne sais quai” that makes you feel more intensely alive.
North America: Alaska
The Northern Lights in Alaska are something you never forget witnessing. What starts out possibly being a car-dealership spotlight across town turns into a writhing kaleidoscope of color, leaving those looking upon its beauty speechless. Cruising up the Inside Passage through magnificent glaciers and Gold Rush towns is fascinating; everything is gigantic in a way that makes humans feel downright small. Shoving off from the Homer Spit in a fishing charter isn’t particularly grand, but returning from sea with a cargo hold of halibut — while watching pods of whales, puffins and otters play beneath the snowcapped peaks and glaciers — is absolute magic. And meeting Alaskans is a bonus; the folks who have chosen to make Alaska their home are hearty folk, and they know how to tell stories. You’ll return from this trip with plenty of photos, footage and tall tales to share.
South America: Machu Picchu
Nestled high above the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the small settlement of Machu Picchu (in what is now Peru) served as the estate for Inca emperors for roughly a century. Despite its location near Cusco, the Spanish never found it. Reports of a fabulous ruined city in the Andes cloud forest began trickling out as early as the 1870s. But it wasn’t until 1911, when Yale historian Hiram Bingham (possibly the inspiration for Indiana Jones) was led there by a local guide, that the world found out about the so-called Lost City of the Incas. A trip there, even today, is not as much a vacation as it is an endurance test. The gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,152 feet above sea level, so you should plan on spending two days acclimatizing. The actual hike, which takes 4 days, is easier. While the hike offers stunning views, nothing compares to looking down from Machu Picchu on virgin forest vistas. Note: Peruvian authorities continue to place restrictions on visits to Machu Picchu, so plan your trip sooner rather than later.
On the eastern edge of Europe — Asia is just across the magnificent Bosphorus Strait — the city formerly known as Constantinople is the largest in Turkey. Its incredible history under three empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, is displayed on a grand level. Meanwhile, the city’s modern lifestyle expresses a passion for food, shopping, entertainment and, of course, raki, Turkey’s sambuca-like national drink. First stop, Sultanahmet Square, where a number of obelisks reach for the sky to mark Constantinople’s Hippodrome. A few blocks away are the stunning Blue Mosque, named for the 20,000 Iznik-style tiles that line its interior, and the incomparable Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Christian basilica, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became a mosque when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. Other landmarks include the Topkapi Palace, the primary residence for the sultans, and the Basilica Cistern, a location in “From Russian with Love” and the Dan Brown novel “Inferno.”
Oceania: New Zealand
Do you consider yourself an adventure traveler? Then New Zealand’s South Island should be on your bucket list. Queenstown is the island’s main adventure hub, situated on the crystal-clear blue Lake Wakatipu. The town, reminiscent of a skiing village in the United States, has a number of outfits offering skydiving, bungee jumping and other high-adrenalin activities. Scenery bombards the senses on the trip to the island’s west coast, where you can take a cruise around the Milford Sound, ride a helicopter ride to the top of the Franz Josef Glacier or explore breathtaking coastal inlets and otherworldly rock formations in Punakaiki. Farther north, enjoy pristine beaches in Nelson, or hop over to Christchurch, which has come back strongly from a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in February 2011, or Dunedin, which offers not only Victorian and Edwardian architecture but colonies of albatrosses, seals and penguins.
Asia: Hong Kong
One of the most densely populated cities on earth, a human ant farm of more than seven million residents, Hong Kong — officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China — is an ethnic kaleidoscope of hustle and bustle. The tantalizing beat of this urban financial center, the gateway to China, will draw you in and make you a part of it no matter how brief the visit. A trip across the harbor in the Star Ferry, dinner at the Peninsula watching the laser show, having a suit made for you, people-watching in the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong — these are just a few of the reasons to jump ship here. Watching the massive octopus-like cranes load and unload the cargo destined for and coming from places around the globe is a mesmerizing reminder of the magnitude of Hong Kong’s port, busiest in the world from 1999 to 2004 (when it was overtaken by Shanghai).
Africa: Cape Town
Cape Town is at southern tip of the African continent, cradled by one of the most unique and spectacular mountain vistas in the world, Table Mountain. Visitors can take a gondola up to the flat surface of the mountaintop for an unforgettable view of the entire city and the sea beyond. A short boat ride from the harbor is Robben Island, the now-defunct prison where Nelson Mandela spent nearly thirty years of his life. Back at the harbor, the best of current-day South Africa is on display, with delicious waterfront cafes and open-air boutique markets. A daytrip out to the quaint Cape Dutch village of Stellenbosch, the center of South Africa’s breathtakingly beautiful and highly underrated wine region, will run down your camera batteries with its views and windswept architecture. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is nestled at the eastern foot of Table Mountain, preserving the country’s unique flora and cultivating indigenous plants. Its Boomslang is a footbridge walkway into the tree canopy. South Africa still suffers from a great deal of poverty, so any conscientious traveler would do well to take a guided tour of Khayelitsha, a township that houses nearly 400,000 of the country’s displaced and underemployed citizens. The experience, while sobering, is also inspirational.[gallery ids="102385,123328,123321" nav="thumbs"]
Still Life in Philly
Richard Selden • November 5, 2015
Portraitist of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton and other figures of the American Revolution, Charles Willson Peale raised a family of painters in Philadelphia, naming his sons Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Titian and Rubens and his daughters Angelica and Sophonisba (not a complete list).
One of the major works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life” (on view through Jan. 10) is Peale’s group portrait of his family: nine peaches-and-cream-faced Peales, including himself; the children’s nanny; and his dog Argus. On the green tablecloth is a still life — a tray of fruit next to a paring knife and a curled apple peel (pun no doubt intended).
On each side of this canvas, nearly seven and a half feet wide, are two small still-life paintings by Peale family members; nearby are classic still lifes by Raphaelle, one of the first American artists to specialize in the genre. His father, like many artists before and since, considered flowers, fruit, cheese, cutlery, serving ware, wine bottles, dead fish and the like more a subject for artistic training than for finished works, despite the still-life obsessions of Dutch Golden Age painters (excluding Rembrandt and Hals).
Grouping outstanding examples, many unfamiliar, in roughly chronological order under the thematic headings of Describing, Indulging, Discerning and Animating, the exhibition — the first of its kind in three decades — aims to make the case that, in the words of curator Mark D. Mitchell, “the story of American still life is the story of American life.”
At several points, context is provided in inventive ways. Plate 26 from John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” depicting now-extinct Carolina parakeets, is accompanied not only by several of the huge folio volumes but by four specimens collected in 1843 and owned by Audubon, their colors — orange, yellow and turquoise — still bright.
In the Indulging section, visitors can explore the language of flowers at “You In Flowers” interactive stations, which generate personalized (sort of) on-screen bouquets from self-submitted adjectives.
Velvet curtains evoke the Gilded Age setting of William Harnett’s largest trompe-l’oeil (trick the eye) painting, “After the Hunt” of 1885, painted for the Paris Salon but purchased for Theodore Stewart’s extravagant New York saloon. Trained in Munich, Harnett was a genius at depicting feathers (dead game birds), fur (a dead rabbit), metal (two firearms and a hunting horn) and the life-size green door — with rusty ornamental hinges, a keyhole escutcheon and a dangling key — on which these and other precisely rendered objects appear to hang.
The superb selection of trompe-l’oeil works in the Discerning section includes “Reminiscences of 1865,” the movingly subliminal tribute to Lincoln painted in 1904 by Harnett’s contemporary John Frederick Peto, which shows a black-and-white portrait of the president and various forgotten scraps of paper tacked to a wooden panel in which ABE and his birth and death dates are carved.
The later works under the theme of Indulging (which overlaps with Discerning) show the influence of Japanese art, both directly — as in Robert Blum’s virtuosic “Flower Market, Tokyo,” of 1891–92 — and indirectly, by way of the French Impressionists.
Finally, the galleries featuring 20th-century art give example after example of modernism’s embrace of the genre. By including works by modern masters with distinctive personal styles — Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe, Stuart Davis, Paul Cadmus, Andrew Wyeth, Jasper Johns — the curatorial team compels us to ask “How does this work fit into the American still-life tradition and what does it add to it?”
Several of these works are sculptures, such as Andy Warhol’s seemingly trompe-l’oeil “Brillo Boxes” of 1964. Screen-printed on three wooden cubes, the piece actually proclaims its artifice through the imperfections of its handmade process.
One of the most beautiful works in the show is by an artist, like Peale, with Philadelphia connections: Alexander Calder. “The Water Lily,” c. 1945, constructed from sheet metal and wire, is black with a gray base, as far as could be from the colorful flower canvases in the preceding galleries. The flat piece of metal representing the lily’s seed pod, punched with holes, would never trick the eye, yet it is instantly recognizable, a triumph of observation to rival Audubon’s.[gallery ids="102346,125538,125533" nav="thumbs"]
Tour Philadelphia Like a Local
Jenice Armstrong • October 28, 2015
Yo, the next time youse come to Philly, you’ve gotta do more than see the Liberty Bell and buy a cheese steak.
Excuse the stank Philly addytude as well as the vernacular but the City of Brotherly Love has a whole lot more going on than what you see in a Rocky movie. So, while it may be fun to make like Rocky Balboa and run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, that’s only the beginning of what all there is to do here.
Begin a leisurely fall weekend with a trip to one of Philly’s newest and best attractions, the Barnes Foundation. Originally located in a Philadelphia suburb, the impressive art collection opened in downtown Philadelphia in 2012 – which was an exciting thing for fans of the eclectic collection of paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso that once belonged to the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Tickets are required. You could easily spend a whole day taking it all in. But why? A whole city awaits.
Grab a late lunch on the run at the Reading Terminal Market, Philly’s famed historic farmers’ market. You’ll be dazzled by the sights and smells and have so many food choices you won’t know whether to get a freshly baked pretzel or one of the city’s famed hoagies. (The turkey hoagies with provolone cheese at Salumeria are a personal favorite.) For some Pennsylvania Dutch flavor, slide onto a counter stool at the Dutch Eating Place. Their open-faced turkey sandwich is a classic choice. You can’t go wrong with that. Same thing with the apple dumplings.
When it is time to walk off all that food, head east on Market Street in the direction of Independence Park. Skip the line for the Liberty Bell and head over to Independence Hall, the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution. You’ll need a free ticket to tour it. Afterwards, the President’s House is a short walk away and well worth it. This open-air exhibit plays tribute to Presidents George Washington and John Adams and the nine slaves who served at that house under Washington. You don’t need a ticket to walk around and imagine what it would have been like to have been owned by a man who fought the British to ensure freedom for Americans.
Since you’re already steeped in history, walk past the Betsy Ross House at Second and Arch streets. The house is open March through Nov. 30 from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Cost: $5 per adult.
For dinner, the historic City Tavern, 138 S 2nd St., is a classic pick. It’s a replica of a former spot where many of the founding fathers once dined. In keeping with that historical heritage, the servers wear period clothing and you can order 18th century-esque dishes such as mallard duck sausage and colonial turkey pot pie. But this is Philly and good food is everywhere. Whether you’re talking an authentic Philly cheese steak from Jim’s Steaks on South Street (this is where I would go if I still ate cheese steaks) or one of Stephen Starr’s popular restaurants. My favorite? Continental because of the lobster mashed potatoes with red wine reduction sauce and fried calamari salad. There’s a Continental in Old City as well as Center City.
Day two in Philadelphia could start with a brisk walk around picturesque Rittenhouse Square, Philly’s most fashionable address. Think high-end stores, stately homes and condos and a peaceful, in-city park setting. Afterwards, rewards yourself with a hot cup of coffee. But skip Starbucks in favor of Philly’s own La Colombe at 130 S. 19th St. You won’t find a lot of extras there like soy milk and sandwiches, but the coffee is soul satisfying. Enjoy it there or take it with you as you stroll along Walnut Street, Philly’s ritziest retail strip. Shopping in Philadelphia is changing as big-name, major retailers such as H&M, Zara, Theory and Apple have replaced home-town stores which had been long-time staples on Walnut Street.
Since Philadelphia is known as the city of neighborhoods, make sure you take time to explore at least one.
Northern Liberties is the buzziest thanks to new development that includes a European-style piazza surrounded by cool restaurants and funky boutiques. It’s a popular space for concerts, festivals, and screenings. This past summer, Brooklyn’s famed flea market began opening at the Piazza on Saturdays. You can’t go wrong with going where the locals dine. We hang out at P.Y.T. for burgers or Darling’s Diner for an old-fashioned diner feel that’s open 24 hours.
The doors to Philadelphia’s first casino opened in 2010 and since then, SugarHouse Casino, 1001 N. Delaware Avenue, has become a fun hangout for gaming fans.
But if you’re looking for something more seasonal, catch a night-time Terror Behind the Walls Tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Formerly the most famous prison in the country, this time of year, it’s the top Halloween attraction in Philly. The final date for the haunted house is Nov. 9. Purchase tickets online at easternstate.org for the best deal.
End your getaway with a Sunday brunch at Green Eggs Café (there are three locations) with an order of red velvet pancakes and layered with strawberry mascarpone cheese. Yes, that’s a calorie-laden dish, but with all the walking you’ve done around Philly, you’ll have more than earned the treat [gallery ids="101515,150878" nav="thumbs"]
Take a Trip to the Washington D.C. Travel & Adventure Show
Linnea Kristiansson • March 11, 2015
The 11th Annual Washington D.C. Travel & Adventure Show, a perfect event for travel lovers to get inspiration, information and interaction with other travelers, comes to town this weekend. The show is part of the largest series of consumer travel shows in the U.S. and takes place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on March 7 from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. The event is also open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.
At the Washington D.C. Travel & Adventure Show, you’ll discover thousands of authentic travel experiences and speak directly to the travel experts who can get you there, give you the inside scoop, and save you money on exclusive travel deals.
The show will feature speeches from some of biggest names in the industry, including Rick Steves, Pauline Frommer and Travel Channel personality Samantha Brown, will be featured speakers at
Back by popular demand, the Destination Theater will feature location-specific seminars where travelers can draw inspiration and get information about the world’s most sought-after travel destinations like New Zealand and Alaska.
Attending Washington D.C. Travel & Adventure Show is like walking through a living guide book with thousands of world experts to talk to. You can spend countless days and hours searching the internet or thumbing through a book for this information or just make a trip to the Washington, D.C. Travel & Adventure Show/
For full event information about speakers, stage and seminar schedules, exhbitions, prizes, giveaways and more, visit travelshows.com/washingtondc.
Septime Webre’s Cuban Dreams
Gary Tischler • January 29, 2015
Back in December, when the Obama administration announced it would be normalizing relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba after 50 years of severed relations, the news sparked a renewed interest in All Things Cuba—cigars, music, tourism, food, baseball, history, culture—as well as flashes of old political battles.
For one Washington cultural leader, it could mean the fulfillment of a journey that began before he was born.
The son of an American sugar planter and his Cuban wife, Septime Webre has been the artistic director of the Washington Ballet for 15 years. Throughout his life, Cuba has been at the root of his coming to terms with a complex personal identity.
Sometimes, he seemed to imagine it in his head, even as he grew up in multicultural, often exotic, places: New Orleans (briefly), where he was born; the Bahamas, where his father conducted business; and Brownsville, in South Texas, just across the border from Mexico.
“I was the seventh son in the family. When my parents had to leave in 1959, all their property, including a sugar mill, their family home and all their financial assets, were taken after Fidel Castro toppled the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“For a long time, I’d often wondered who I was in terms of my culture, because, growing up, I’d had all of these different influences, long before I got interested in dance in a serious way. Mexican food and music, the rhythms of the Islands and all those stories I would hear from my family, my mother and father, my sisters and brothers, cousins, about Cuba: the music, the land, the big ocean wall at Havana.”
To Webre, Cuba was part of his dreams, part of the way he thought and created.
“Some of my relatives in Miami, my brothers, cousins, they would say I had this Mexican way about me, from growing up in school in Texas,” he said. “And I’d think about the ocean in the islands and the music.”
By the time Webre had come to New York to begin a career in ballet, first as a dancer, then as a choreographer, he’d had plenty of time to think about it. When he became artistic director in Washington, he had his first opportunity to visit the country he thought of, in some sense, as home.
In 1999, he traveled to Cuba and met Alicia Alonso, the legendary cofounder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The meeting resulted in a historic trip to Cuba in 2000 by Webre and the Washington Ballet to appear in Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 17th International Festival.
Webre brought the whole company, as well as then Mayor Anthony Williams and other officials, local arts leaders (including theater directors Molly Smith of Arena Stage and Joy Zinoman of Studio Theatre) and Washington Ballet founder Mary Day, who was in her nineties.
“That trip, that experience of performing there, bringing my company, that was a big thing for me,” he said. “It wasn’t until then that I really discovered how Cuban I really was, how much everything about Cuba was in my soul, in what I did, how I approached dance and ballet.
“It was a moment, a true moment—not just for me, but it was also a time were people were taking an interest in Cuba again. . . . This was the time when ‘The Buena Vista Social Club,’ which was about a number of great Cuban musicians, was very popular.”
Everywhere he went, he took in the sights, the sounds “and the smells. Cuban music is very lively and colorful, it’s soaked in all sorts of traditions: salsa, island rhythms, Latin American strains, the Spanish guitar and the music of Africa from the days of slavery here. But always, it’s about movement, everywhere.
“They say a Cuban child learns to dance before they can walk,” he said. “It’s in the soul of people, they walk in a very musical, stylized way.”
He recalled the strong visual impact. “I loved seeing the city and the countryside in detail for the first time. In those days, economically, things had been stale for a long time. You saw and still do a lot of old American cars, there was rust and decay, rusted old Chevrolets and Cadillacs, that sort of thing, those colors on the side of buildings. I love the colors of rust, what rust does to material.”
Cuba, said Webre, is “in the blood and soul. You listen to that music, the languages, the style.” He remembers the palm trees, the experience and sound of the ocean and how the sounds of the oceans infiltrate the music. “Some of that style, I think, has crept into my choreography, into my identity as an artist, no question about it.”
“To me, in spite of years under the economic and political hardship of Communism, the island, the people had retained their soul, their culture, their hearts. That’s what I responded to.”
During his tenure with the Washington Ballet, Webre has had several Cuban dancers in the company. This past year, two new members arrived, under quite different circumstances.
Gian Carlo Perez, from Havana, a member of Ballet Nacional, toured Spain with the company on its 70th anniversary. Emigrating legally with a work visa, he is now a member of the Washington Ballet.
Miguel Anaya, also a Ballet Nacional dancer, came to the U.S. and the Washington Ballet the hard way. Touring with the company in Mexico City, he took a bus to the Laredo border and walked across the bridge, seeking political asylum.
“They’ve certainly added a lot to the company, a rich flavor,” said Webre. “You saw that in how male dancers in Cuba perform. They have some of those classic moves you see in matadors. Both of them will be dancing leading roles for us, in the upcoming ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ for instance.”
Back to the Latin Playground?
Born March 2, 1917, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III became the symbol of America’s love affair with Cuba, the country from which his wealthy and prominent family fled in 1934.
Ironically, the original TV run of “I Love Lucy,” in which Desi Arnaz played bandleader Ricky Ricardo, nearly coincided with the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who led the revolt that sent Arnaz’s family – and many others – into exile in Miami.
During the Desilu decade of the 1950s, Cuba was the “Holiday Isle of the Tropics,” 90 miles from Key West. Havana was the Latin Las Vegas.
An earlier wave of Cuba tourism lasted from the 1920s through the early 1930s, the Prohibition years, when famous and infamous Americans went to Cuba to drink, gamble, golf, fish and perhaps sin. After a few visits, Ernest Hemingway bought his winter retreat, Finca Vigía, in 1940. It is now a museum, a mandatory stop along with his favorite Havana bars, La Floridita (for daiquiris) and La Bodeguita del Medio (for mojitos).
But since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro – now aged 88 and ailing, having stepped down from Communist Party leadership in 2011 – Cuba became known as a police state rather than a vacation paradise. Along with others, the politically powerful Cuban exile community in the United States made sure that economic sanctions, including a travel embargo, remained in effect.
Then, on Dec. 17, President Obama announced a move to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, following negotiations (with the assistance of Pope Francis) that led to the release of American Alan Gross, imprisoned since Dec. 2009, in exchange for three Cuban agents.
Unimpeded travel to Cuba from the U. S. will require Congressional approval. However, several regulatory changes will make things easier. For instance, U.S.-based credit and debit cards will now be accepted in Cuba, and U.S. travelers will be able to bring home up to $400 worth of Cuban goods.
The U.S. government will also issue what are called general licenses, for citizens who wish to travel for humanitarian reasons, to perform or compete and for other specific purposes. Currently, only special licenses, requiring an arduous application process, are available. Americans who travel to Cuba without a license or through a travel provider that is not licensed by the Department of the Treasury are breaking the law and risk substantial fines.
The regulatory amendments putting these changes into effect are supposed to be issued “in the coming weeks.” More information may be found online at treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/cuba.aspx, where there is a link to sign up for Cuba Sanctions email updates.
In the meantime, the easiest, if expensive, legal option to visit Cuba is through a “people-to-people” group tour organized by an authorized travel provider, either open to the public or under the auspices of a university, a museum or another nonprofit.
The Cuban government has been investing in tourism since the 1990s, restoring sections of Old Havana and building resort hotels with foreign, but not American, partners. Capacity is limited, and most facilities have not been modernized.
By far the largest source of international visitors to Cuba – nearly a million per year – is Canada, whose citizens tend to go to Varadero, about 14 miles east of Havana, for inexpensive beach and nature vacations. While around 650,000 U.S. citizens visit annually, the vast majority are Cuban Americans with visas to visit family members.
Over the next few years, there will be a strong curiosity factor. Americans will seek to feel the aura of Capone, Hemingway and Sinatra, gawk at the vintage cars, visit unfamiliar beaches and see for themselves what the country and the people are like.
After a few years of opening to America, and, presumably, a surge when the ban is finally lifted, the place that Cuba will come to occupy in the panoply of Caribbean destinations is unknown.
But wouldn’t it be nice to toast Desi’s 100th birthday with rum and cigars in Santiago de Cuba, where both his father and grandfather were mayor?
A Sunny Christmas in the Turks and Caicos Islands
Famous for its salt production in the 1600s, now it’s the potcake-puppy culture, pirate shipwrecks, pink flamingos and Keith Richards that all thrive on the powdery white sands that make up the Turks and Caicos Island chain in the British West Indies.
The popular but uncrowded beach town of Providenciales, TCI’s largest city, where I stayed in December at the Ocean Club Resort, seemed to have the perfect ratio of condos, resorts, restaurants, and shopping venues, with just the right amount of nothing thrown in. Nobody tried to sell me anything on the beach once.
The original Turks and Caicos Islanders lived in peace for 700 years until the European arrival in the early 16th century eradicated the population through the introduction of disease and slave recruitment. After a vacant period of 150 years, the salt industry, and later cotton, demanded the use of slaves who, after being emancipated in 1834, really formed the basis of the population there today. Americans form the majority of tourism now, and many snowbirds from Canada and the East Coast spend substantial parts of the year or retire here. Tourism, offshore banking and fishing account for most of this British Overseas Territory’s industry.
Thanks largely to an extremely comprehensive talk and music demonstration at Ocean Club West by Turks and Caicos Islands Culture Director David Bowen, I felt like I understood for the first time some of the challenges associated with historically interrupted areas like TCI, when it comes to recognizing, defining and promoting its own culture. Bowen demonstrated “Ripsaw” music, indigenous to TCI, which is made from scraping a bent saw with a knife or screwdriver. He has personally collected poetry and stories from the Islands’ elders and can recite them at will, which was mesmerizing. I valued this immensely and believe it is this type of undertaking by native locals that will distinguish and elevate the travel experience in a part of the world that seems in danger of becoming too homogenized.
The night of my arrival I had an almond-crusted fried grouper with coconut sauce right on the beach at the resort that was phenomenal. A dinner at the resort’s signature restaurant Opus was also a culinary bull’s eye, where I gleefully inhaled the crudo fish tasting and coconut curried conch.
Since Ocean Club has two locations a mile apart on Grace Bay, both of whose amenities were available to guests, I had an extremely pleasant dinner at the Seaside Café West location as well. The resort was three for three in the kitchen department. The two-location set-up works well. The east spot was nice and quiet, while the west one was closer to downtown shops and good for my ADHD loud fixes.
Off-campus dining favorites included Da Conch Shack, an open-air compound devoted to showcasing the conch from the water to the table in every way possible, and the weekly Wednesday night Island fish fry. With at least 20 restaurants there hawking their chewables, I spent a small fortune wolfing down grilled spiny lobster, varieties of jerked chicken and pork, enough plantains to fill a Fiat, and some little red pepper things that were great. If you suddenly find yourself needing a hand-painted tin gecko of any size or a chiseled coconut face, this is the venue where your tchotchke thirst can be quenched. A TCI-style Junkanoo featuring “The Conch Man” was fun, while attempts at an open-mike type format served as a reminder why you went on vacation in the first place. The three dentists I golfed with swore that Coco Bistro was a landmark eating establishment not to be missed, but I did.
The Provo Golf club was an expensively watered oasis on the limestone island, and I ended up playing two rounds of golf here during my short stay. A first for me was a golf course that had pink flamingos on it that were there by choice. Conversations with club pro Dave Douglas were representative of the interactions I had with almost all activities management in Providenciales: friendly and story-abound, affirming of the small island’s obvious network of friendships. While it may be the only game in town, it was clear from talking to other golfers that it was a focal point activity for many of the repeat travelers and condo owners on the Island. A second first was the introduction of Moringa to me by Douglas. Moringa is the newest protein leaf on the rise that he swears will soon be in every North American supermarket. He and his sons have planted them on the course. I can’t tell if my glass of Moringa Tea helped me hit the ball any farther than usual, but it tasted good.
Jumping at the chance to go saltwater fly-fishing with the resort’s game-fishing partner Silver Deep, I was channeling Hemingway, while whipping line back and forth from the skiff’s bow, but the elusive bonefish remained elusive and I had to settle for a small barracuda in its place. Shark sightings in crystal clear water and the countless bird species abound were amazing. An afternoon sailboat excursion was beautiful and the snorkeling colorful. I spent a relaxing evening touring the mangrove flats with a knowledgeable tour guide who showed me how to pick up jellyfish at rest and told good glow worm stories. I had a locally hand-rolled cigar each evening on the porch, while I listened to the warm winds blow through the palm trees. I had a really good time.
More information about this resort can be found at www.oceanclubresorts.com. Maps and facts about the Turks and Caicos Islands can be found at www.gov.tc.
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