A Nearly Unbelievable Story Of Spies, Bombs And Dance, Set In Cuba : Goats and Soda A fairy-tale romance between a dancer from Connecticut and a young Cuban studying at Columbia turned into a political thriller — and resulted in the unlikely birth of a new art form in Cuba.
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Stranger Than Fiction: Cuba, Spies, Bombs And Dance

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Stranger Than Fiction: Cuba, Spies, Bombs And Dance

Stranger Than Fiction: Cuba, Spies, Bombs And Dance

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Our next story is about an unlikely romance that's become part of modern Cuba. It starts with a man and woman and a Halloween party in New York City. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas stumbled across this story on a recent trip to Cuba.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: I was going to Havana on a reporting trip to cover a contemporary music festival. And I needed a translator. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I met Gabriela Burdsall. She's a member of Cuba's National Modern Dance Troupe, a company co-founded by her grandmother.

LORNA BURDSALL: I was the little girl of the family. So I spend most of the time with her. I was living in this apartment, where she did her own theater. She - when she didn't find any space to make her performances, she did it in her house.

TSIOULCAS: Lorna Burdsall was just about as non-Cuban as you can get.

BURDSALL: She was born in Connecticut - Preston, Conn. Then she went - like every dancer, wanted to go to New York to try to have an experience with other dancers. So she received classes at Juilliard School with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon - very important dancers in that time.

TSIOULCAS: And here's where this family story starts turning into the stuff of fiction. In 1953, Lorna saw a guy at a Halloween party.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEREZ PRADO SONG, "QUE RICO EL MAMBO")

TSIOULCAS: She wrote about it in her 2001 autobiography, read here by an actor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Reading) I wondered what country he was from. And I commented to my friend that the fellow was surely not North American. But he said impossible. Can't you see he has red hair and freckles? He's probably Irish.

TSIOULCAS: He was Cuban, and his name was Manuel. They met again a couple of months later. They fell for each other and got married in New York. She followed him back home.

BURDSALL: And he was involved in the Cuban revolution. So my grandmother didn't know that until she came to Cuba.

TSIOULCAS: He kept that from her?

BURDSALL: He kept her from her.

TSIOULCAS: His full name was Manuel Pineiro, and he was Raul Castro's right-hand man during the revolution.

BURDSALL: He went to the Sierra Maestra to fight with Fidel. He was part of El Segundo Frente, the Second Front. And after revolution, he became the vice-minister of Cuban intelligence.

TSIOULCAS: His nickname was Barbara Roja - Red Beard. And his wife - perhaps naively - joined the cause. In her autobiography, Lorna Burdsall writes of carrying a bomb that she was supposed to set off at one of Havana's most famous tourist spots.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Reading) The bomb I was carrying in my handbag was small. And I justified my bellicose action by assuming that without killing anybody it could serve to make the tourists know that things were not as serene as depicted in the travel brochures.

TSIOULCAS: In the end, she didn't set off the bomb. After the revolution, Manuel Pineiro became one of the most influential figures within the Cuban government. He played a role in fomenting violent revolution in other parts of Latin America. And when he died in 1998, the headline in his New York Times obituary called him the Spymaster for Castro. Meanwhile, his wife became a founding member of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

TSIOULCAS: Lorna Burdsall and director Ramiro Guerra went beyond European and North American ideas about modern dance to incorporate Afro-Cuban elements.

MIGUEL IGLESIAS: We put pieces for "Orfeo," but "Orfeo" in the Caribbean.

TSIOULCAS: Today, the company is led by Miguel Iglesias.

IGLESIAS: We put "Medea, but "Medea" with the black men, in the Caribbean, too. We have a new content. We need a new form. And we mix something about the Afro-Cuban root with the Graham technique.

TSIOULCAS: As in Martha Graham. This blending of cultures was a big deal in a country that had generally tucked its complicated and painful racial history out of sight. And it was a young blonde women from the U.S. who helped put African culture front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Lorna Burdsall eventually left the company to found an even more experimental dance troupe. She also divorced her husband, but her granddaughter Gabriela says Lorna chose to stay in Cuba.

BURDSALL: She said that she decided to live in Cuba because in the United States everything was invented. And here in Cuba, circumstances had to make you invent all the time and look for alternatives to make things work.

TSIOULCAS: Things worked out pretty well for Gabriela's grandmother. Fidel Castro gave her a palatial apartment in Havana, where she lived and worked until her death in 2010. Her romance started at a fairytale and morphed into a political thriller. But it was danced account for the birds of life in motion. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

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