Cuba invites Royal Ballet and New York Philharmonic to perform in Havana

Visits will be among most high-profile cultural exchanges since Fidel Castro took power in 1959

Cuba has blended diplomacy and art by inviting two flagship western cultural institutions, Britain's Royal Ballet and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, to perform in Havana.

The visits will be among the most high-profile cultural exchanges with the west since Fidel Castro's guerrillas seized power in 1959, turning the island into a communist outpost which has outlasted the cold war.

Royal Ballet dancers are due tomorrow to start a five-day programme which the Cuban government has billed as a landmark cultural event. Tickets are sold out and at least three of the performances will be shown on big screens outside the Gran Teatro in central Havana. Officials from the New York Philharmonic visited the city in recent days to investigate performance venues and logistics following an invitation from the culture ministry, a rare opening to a high-profile US institution.

"With these invitations the Cuban leadership is indicating a desire to expand the field of contact with musical and cultural leaders from the US and EU, which may lead to greater diplomatic contact down the road," said Dan Erikson, author of the Cuba Wars and an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue.

The Obama administration has responded in kind by granting the orchestra an exemption from the draconian US embargo, a four-decade old policy designed to isolate the island. Vice-president Joe Biden said the proposed trip was a "wonderful project", Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's president, told the New York Times.

That marked a departure from the Bush-era policy of "squelching" cultural contacts and could presage further relaxations, said Erikson. "There is likely to be a reopening of cultural exchanges as occurred during Bill Clinton's presidency. Obama will certainly be more open to initiatives with 'ping-pong' diplomacy, and we may soon see the administration support basketball diplomacy."

Cuba, once an international pariah, has been welcomed back into the diplomatic fold by Latin America and has been courted by Chinese, Russian and European governments and corporations, not least because of its offshore oil reserves.

Since succeeding his ailing older brother last year President Raúl Castro has mooted economic reforms and cultural openings to break the Caribbean island's sense of stagnation. Economic reforms have stalled and renewed austerity mean less fruit, vegetables and electricity for an impoverished population.

But European diplomats in Havana said there was marginally more cultural tolerance. "It's a bit more relaxed," said one. Despite the financial crunch arts subsidies still support selected performers and keep opera, cinema and theatre available to almost all. The irony is that Fidel Castro has a tin ear and is one of the few Cubans who cannot sing or dance.

The Royal Ballet's 150-strong team of dancers and technicians is reportedly the first ballet company to visit Havana since the Bolshoi, emissaries from the government's Soviet ally, performed almost three decades ago.

The shows, three in the Gran Teatro, two in the Teatro Karl Marx, are part of a tribute to the legendary grand dame of Cuban dance, Alicia Alonso, who at 88 remains head of the National Ballet of Cuba.

Carlos Acosta, Cuba's globetrotting ballet star, helped broker the visit and will perform alongside his British colleagues. The programme will include Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Wayne McGregor's Chroma and Kenneth MacMillan's Manon.

With Havana and Washington both giving the green light the New York Philharmonic said it hoped to accept Cuba's invitation within weeks after inspecting concert halls and nailing down details such as budgets and equipment storage.

Mehta said there were provisional plans to perform on 31 October and 1 November at the 900-seat Teatro Amadeo Roldan, with the philharmonic's incoming music director, Alan Gilbert, conducting.

The institution made history last year by performing in Pyongyang, one of the most striking examples of "orchestra diplomacy".

Relations between the US and North Korea did not then improve - actually they nosedived - but the visit continued a tradition of classical music leaping political barriers.

In 1956 the Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first major US ensemble to visit the Soviet Union during the cold war. The New York Philharmonic, under conductor Leonard Bernstein, followed three years later. London's Philharmonic Orchestra brought Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Haydn to capacity crowds in Mao's China in 1973.

• This article was amended on Thursday 16 July 2009. We named the president of the New York Philharmonic as Zubin Mehta. Rather, it is his brother Zarin Mehta. This has been corrected.


Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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