Art Triumphant: Our Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence on Cuban Ballet

New York, N.Y. I first met the accomplished South African native Nan Melville about a decade ago through the Indo-American Arts Council where I was on the Board. Nan is a photographer and filmmaker extraordinaire, having won first prize in the Nikon Nissan International Travel Photography, among other photographic awards.

People at National Ballet Company StudiosNan at National Ballet Pressrom 2016 Festival.

Ever fascinated by the Arts and travel, Nan has photographed and filmed dance and other performing arts in many forms in the course of her career. Through prestigious institutional clients such as The Juilliard School, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The New York Times, she has met and recorded an impressive array of outstanding performing artists of all kinds. She has worked with popular subjects across the gamut from Princess Diana, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett to Mikhail Baryshnikov. In her travels she likes to capture both the reality of those downtrodden and the uplifting influence of the Arts.

PAS DE QUATRE by the Ballet de Cuba at the Festival Internacional de Ballet de La Habana 11_2004Grand Pas de Quarte – Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Photo: Nan Melville.

On a New York Times assignment, she was introduced to one of India’s brightest dance stars – Protima Bedi and her Classical Indian dance ensemble, Nrityagram. This resulted in her award-winning documentary, NRITYAGRAM: For the Love of Dance (2010). This insightful film has now been screened at over two dozen international film festivals – including at the Festival Internacional de Ballet de la Habana – and has won a total of six awards.

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International Nikon Nissan Travel Competition – 1st Prize. Photo: Nan Melville.

At present she is working on the most important film of her career, a documentary with the working title Cuban Ballet: Art Triumphant!  This is the dramatic and visually beautiful story of a company that, 70 years after its founding, continues to thrive… and has recently been declared by the Cuban Ministry of Culture to be a Cultural Heritage of the Nation. At first glance it might look like a film about ballet but it is actually a tribute to the beautiful people of Cuba and all involved in dance. This film will also explore the impact of the Festival over the years, and the extent to which it has it contributed to the exchange of talent between Cuba and the world!

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Nrityagram DVD film cover. Photo: Nan Melville.

Having traveled to and experienced dance in Cuba, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Japan, as well as here in New York, I wanted the J. Luce Foundation to do everything in our power to support her in fulfilling her artistic vision, including but not limited to support from our Young Global Leadership Initiative.

The journey of her present film is almost three decades in the making. In 1990, Nan was invited by Dance Magazine to photograph the International Ballet Festival of Havana and Alicia Alonso, prima ballerina assoluta and director of the Cuban National Ballet. That sparked a great interest in Cuba, the dance and music there – and the generations of dancers, trained by the company, that have landed on the stages of top international companies.

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Cuban Beauty. Photo: Nan Melville.

She was invited back by the BNC and has made several subsequent visits to the Festival and for her solo photographic exhibition in Havana sponsored by the Cyprus Mission there in 2015. With a level of access given to few other members of the Western media – she returned many times to capture the beauty and the sweat of the dancers at work, and the deep devotion of Cubans to the iconic Alicia, who performed well into her seventies. Her film is as much about the passion, ferocious determination and world class talent of the company’s founders, notably Alicia and her then husband, Fernando Alonso, as it is about ballet.

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Alicia Alonso in Swan Lake 1991. Photo: Nan Melville 

At age 97, Alicia continues to devote herself entirely to the company. The Cuban National Ballet and contemporary companies like the very popular Acosta Danza, and Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, tour worldwide and the company continues to build its repertoire of choreography and dance techniques.

Alicia Alonso y Nan Melville, at stamp cancellationBallet officeNan Melville (right) with Alicia Alonso at the Stamp Cancellation Event –
Cuban Ballet 
Festival in 2016. Photo: Nancy Reyes. 

Since first setting foot in Cuba almost thirty years ago she was hooked – at something as beautiful as the ballet flourishing in the poverty – exacerbated by embargos – of the people and city. Cuba is famous for its arts and its capital has steadily improved with buildings being renovated. Incomes are low by comparison, but the state takes care of so many essential needs that comparisons often paint an exaggerated view of the Cuban economy. As a photojournalist Nan fell in love with the stimulating vibrancy and rhythm of the Cuban people and the colorful surroundings. Endeavoring to look beyond the dilapidation, she saw the Cuban character – enthusiastic and passionate in whatever they do, whether restoring ancient cars, or dancing. Nan told me over a cold beer at my recent birthday party “They are survivors with panache!”

Cuba_w_035 (1)Early morning on the Malecon – Havana. Photo: Nan Melville.

One of the aspects of Cuba that Nan finds most enchanting is that “The spirit of the dance is inseparable from the human condition” – Alejo Carpentier. Cubans never miss an opportunity to dance, whether with street musicians around every corner, or even restaurants. Dance is like another language in Cuba, through which people express themselves. It is an escape from the drudgery of everyday life into a world inspired by music and movement.

Cuban ballet has a special kind of energy – almost mystique – that is recognized worldwide. The soul of the dance, of whatever style, is expressed through a natural ability coupled with learned technique. Passion for the art form, temperament from Moorish roots, flexibility and rhythm from the Afro-Caribbean heritage and an ability to absorb dance styles from English, French and Russian traditions have all come together to make Cuban ballet  unique. The passion to jump higher, spin faster, float on air, leads them to a prowess which is inspirational.

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Street festival in Havana. Photo: Nan Melville.

Nan has made many friends there, in and out of the ballet world. The dancers have a passion for their art that carries them through. Their passion is infectious and she has long wanted to do a documentary about the spirit of the dance there, and to bring attention and interest to the dance companies and dancers in Cuba.

Nan brings a unique combination of professional experience, personal involvement – and unprecedented access to the major players at the heart of the company and in the Cuban ballet scene for nearly three decades. She feels an intense connection with the place and has a deep understanding of the people. She aspires to make a documentary that is deeply engaging and cinematic, and worthy of the Cuban people. 

Nan is building an international documentary film team to help create Cuban Ballet: Art Triumphant! including two award-winning luminaries in their fields; Cuban cinematographer Roberto Chile and film writer, director and editor Raúl Santos.

People at National Ballet Company StudiosNan and Roberto Chile.

Roberto Chile’s best-known film works are the documentaries Desafío, On the slopes of the Himalayas, In my eyes you shine, Let there be light, Elogio de la Virtud, Ode to the Revolution, SimplyKorda, I am Tata Nganga and Essencias (La Colmenita in the U.S.). As a personal cameraman, he accompanied Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution, on his trips from Cuba and around the world from 1984 to 2006. Throughout his life he has received important recognitions for his artistic and/or journalistic work, among them Replica of Machete del Generalísimo Máximo Gómez, the Condition of Important Men and Women of the Society, and the Distinction for the National Culture.

Eaul SantosRaúl Santos is an award-winning film writer, director and editor.

Raúl started his career in advertising, working for almost a decade as a creative director in Madrid, London, Paris, and Berlin. In 2011 he graduated from his Master of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York and received the Paula Rhodes Memorial Award for deeming his work exceptional. His first feature film, The Rock, about the love and hate relationship between Spain and Gibraltar, won the Golden Award for Best European Documentary as well as other recognitions in festivals in Russia, France, Argentina, Uruguay, U.S., U.K. and even a special screening at the United Nations in New York.

There are other great photographers and filmmakers in our circle who we would also like to support over time, including Annie Watt, François Bonneau, and Shaun Mader – many of whom I have written about in my Huffington Post column. But this year, it is Nan Melville and her film Cuban Ballet: Art Triumphant!

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The author and Nan Melville at Orphans International & J. Luce Foundation’s
Nineteenth Annual Summer Soirée. Photo: The Stewardship Report.

The J. Luce Foundation stands for honor, intelligence, benevolence, and integrity. Because of her rare talent, as well as embodying these critical characteristics, we have named Nan Melville J. Luce Foundation Artist-in-Residence 2018. We are proud of Nan’s commitment, commit ourselves to support her important work, and call on our friends around the world to support us in bringing her vision of Cuban ballet to the big screen.

Online donations to support Cuban Ballet: Art Triumphant can be sent here (nanmelville.com/cuba/support-donations/).

Checks payable to Logtv, Ltd. can be sent to Slawomir Grunberg/Logtv Films at 1155 Warburton Ave, Suite 5S, Yonkers, NY 10701. Donation of $500 or more is tax deductible.

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The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org) supporting young global leadership is affiliated with Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW), raising global citizens. If supporting youth is important to you, subscribe to J. Luce Foundation updates here.

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The J. Luce Foundation is proud of its support of The Arts. In 2014, the foundation awarded Iraqi dancer Aadel Qies Aadel its Award for Young Global Leadership. Tragically, this gifted dancer was killed in a bombing shortly thereafter.

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.