Here in Miami, more than in any other city in America, an encounter with Cuban culture is akin to a return to the roots. No matter whether it's dance or art, music or theater, it's the heritage itself that seems to matter most, with the artistic and entertainment elements often affirming a personal connection.
That may seem like a broad-based generalization, but given Miami's population and its sizeable Cuban quotient, there's no denying its accuracy. It's especially true in the case of Geo Darder, the founder and artistic director of the Copperbridge Foundation, an artistic initiative he and a group of partners launched four years ago as a means of facilitating the exhibition and interpretation of artistic works from the Caribbean, Africa, North and South America, and Cuba in particular.
"Art acts as a conduit between cultures," Darder says. "My goal, and that of the foundation, is to build a cultural bridge, uniting people of different backgrounds, religions and beliefs."
He should know. Born in Havana, but raised in Miami since infancy, the former model studied theater at Miami Dade Community College before leaving for New York and subsequently Rio de Janeiro to expand his cultural view. He eventually returned to Miami to reconnect with his Cuban roots and later became involved with the Sobe club scene that first flourished in the late '80s and early '90s. Nevertheless, it was a visit to his Cuban homeland that inspired him to initiate cultural exchange junkets to the island, first focusing on architecture and later expanding into the realms of visual arts, film, and dance.
"When I returned to Cuba, I fell in love with my country, family, culture, and history," he recalls 20 years later. "I wanted to share it with the world."
Last year Copperbridge began offering premieres of several Cuban works that encompassed different disciplines, sharing them with Miami; Chicago; and Louisville, Kentucky. This year, the group's so-called "Cultural Evolution" series kicked off locally with a visit by Havana's MalPaso dance company and a sold-out recital in Wynwood, as well as a master class that attracted a group of local dancers and choreographers. The performance garnered rave reviews, and Darder says his group has further projects planned for later this year and well into next.
"We're growing and enjoying the process," Darder says. "It's all good... even the growing pains. We're young enough that everything is inspirational. It's a wonderful time right now."
Darder notes that Copperbridge initiatives have previously been supported by fundraising and contributions from private donors, but suggests that may be changing.
"People who support us have an interest in what we do and they embrace our mission. As we evolve into the next chapter of our growth, we are working with grant writers and seeking funding from more traditional and long term sources."
Miami's previous experience with visiting Cuban artists has included vehement demonstrations and tempestuous reaction generated from the Cuban exile community. In 1999, Cuban band Los Van Van visited Miami and were met with protests attended by city commissioners. But Darder insists that his is a nonpolitical and nonprofit 501 © 3 organization, intent only on promoting peaceful cultural and educational exchanges.
"Through the arts, we're able to build a bridge that moves people towards a better understanding of each other. We never participate in a political conversation. And we don't engage with any detractors. We would rather focus our efforts on those that support our mission. Besides, our focus isn't only on Cuba, but on other nations and cultures as well. In 2015, we'll focus on Brazil as well as to continue to reach out to other communities in the U.S."
Even so, Darder's forced to admit that these emotional issues have also struck close to home. "Cuba was a sensitive subject in my household," Darder acknowledges, referencing his trip to the island two decades before. "This was probably the hardest thing I ever did. I felt I was betraying my parents, but in my gut, I knew I needed to go."
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Since then, he says, attitudes towards the arts slowly seem to be changing, both here and on the island.
"Artists are probably some of the most privileged people in Cuba, and many have been exhibiting and performing regularly outside of the island, including the U.S.," Darder notes. "I've seen the growth of the Cuban arts scene and it's thriving."
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