Cuban dance star fights to pull arts school from the ruins

Carlos Acosta, who is set to retire from the Royal Ballet. Picture: TSPL
Carlos Acosta, who is set to retire from the Royal Ballet. Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

A BALLET star’s multi-million pound plan to rescue the ruins of an architectural masterpiece left unfinished five ­decades ago has ignited controversy in his native Cuba.

Carlos Acosta has run into resistance for trying to realise the architect’s original vision for the crumbling Havana ­ballet school.

Last week, Acosta, 39, was in the Cuban capital for meetings with culture ministry officials to raise the profile of his fund-raising campaign. But he admits he is frustrated by critics of his plan, which is intended to give something back to his homeland as he prepares to ­retire from the Royal Ballet in London.

“I don’t need flowers anymore. I came from nowhere and I have so much,” said Acosta. “What I can tell you right now is: I look at this building, it’s nothing. It’s been like that for decades, and one day it’s going to collapse to the ground.”

Set in leafy western Havana, the school is a labyrinth of ­corridors, graceful arches and majestic domes. It was ­designed by Italian Vittorio Garatti as one of five adjacent arts complexes ordered by ­Fidel Castro, who dreamed of building the world’s finest art school on the golf course of a country club seized during the revolution.

Construction began in 1961, but as Cuba embraced Soviet-style communism and its ugly prefab architecture, the project was criticised as bourgeois and elitist. Work was halted in 1965, with the school lacking only windows, doors and floors. “That would have taken 15 days, because the material was all there,” Garatti said in a 2011 documentary, Unfinished Spaces. “And then, well...”

In the mid-1970s the main theatre became a circus school, but mostly it has been left to decay. Then in 1999, Castro said he regretted halting construction and vowed that the five art schools would rise from the ruins. But funds fell short after the campuses for painting and sculpture and for modern dance were completed, and the schools for ballet, drama and music were in ­limbo once again.

Today, weeds sprout from the ballet school’s brick rooftops. During storms a nearby stream cascades through the cave-like halls, caking them with mud. Wrappers and cigarette butts litter a bathroom with no fixtures, most of the tile stripped from the walls. “I love you, Angel,” is scrawled on a high wall.

Enter Acosta, who enlisted British architect Sir Norman Foster to help raise money from private donors for the project. A benefit last month yielded some $320,000 (£200,000) and enough promising leads that Acosta’s people feel they can hit their $10 million (£6.25m) target.

But the involvement of ­Foster has alarmed some who fear Garatti’s design could be overwhelmed. Foster is famous for his glass-and-steel reimaginings of historic structures like the courtyard of the ­British Museum.

Garatti reportedly wrote to Fidel and Raul Castro complaining that the project risked “privatising” the school in a ­society where for 50 years the state has been the patron of the arts. Garatti has defenders in Havana’s cultural community who debated the plan in public forums and private email chains.

“I would be very happy if there were a work by Foster here in Havana, but not sitting on top of the work by Vittorio,” Cuban architect Mario Coyula said at a July debate. “There is also talk of a new building, but there is no image of that. The main worry is an ethical problem, which is, to be clear: is Foster going to take over the project, or will it continue to be Garatti’s?”

He called for a definitive plan to be made public so ­people can judge for themselves. He also urged Garatti to recognise that, 50 years on, some change was inevitable.

In town for the Havana Ballet Festival, Acosta emphasised that he and Foster were ­committed to remaining faithful to Garatti’s design, and said the centre would support 80 to 100 jobs after construction finishes. The masterplan has not been finalised, but Acosta said the modifications are minor, like using classes as dorms and expanding the theatre’s capacity from 200 to 540 in a bid to make the centre self-sufficient.

Acosta and his partner on the project Rupert Rohan say the facility would be run by a UK registered non-profit body in partnership with Cuba, which would retain ownership of the building.

If that differs from the Communist regime’s traditional role as the main supporter of the arts, Acosta noted that the culture ministry has already signed a preliminary agreement. “It’s common sense. Someone has to pay. And [the government] can’t. So the money has to come from somewhere,” Acosta said.

Tensions remain. While giving an interview on Friday, Acosta was interrupted by a man who engaged him in a heated exchange about ­respecting Garatti’s creation.

Timothy Hyde, an architectural historian at Harvard, said unfortunately the debate has been framed as a stark choice – leave the school as it is or bring in Foster to create something new.

“Both kind of fix the building in amber,” he said.