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Originally published Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:00 PM

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Dancer's dream of Havana ballet school runs into resistance

Ballet star Carlos Acosta's dream of founding a dance center in one of Cuba's most storied but neglected revolution-era buildings has touched off a bitter squabble with the original architect that has divided Cuba's cultural elite and attracted the attention of architects the world over.

The New York Times

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HAVANA — It has the ring of a modern Cuban fairy tale: A handsome ballet star returns to his native land and discovers an abandoned dance school, which he vows to restore to life.

Yet Carlos Acosta's dream of founding a dance center in one of Cuba's most storied but neglected revolution-era buildings has touched off a bitter squabble with the original architect that has divided Cuba's cultural elite and attracted the attention of architects the world over.

With the island's socialist model gradually changing shape, the quarrel echoes a broader debate over the legacy of the past 50 years and how Cuba's future should be defined, and by whom.

"This is our national heritage, and it's going to be lost," said Acosta, 39, who is principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet in London but was in Havana this month to dance at the International Ballet Festival.

He plans to retire to the island in the next few years and envisions the proposed center as a magnet for students, performers and dance lovers in Cuba and from around the world.

"It's important for the new Cuban generation to help," said Acosta, one of 11 children born to a working-class family in Havana. "By setting an example, maybe others will follow."

Acosta's plan for the ballet school's future, however, has clashed with its unfinished past.

The building, designed by the Italian architect Vittorio Garatti, is part of a complex of five National Art Schools commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961 and built in a frenzy of revolutionary optimism on the lush grounds of a former country club.

The architects — Ricardo Porro, a Cuban; Roberto Gottardi, an Italian; and Garatti — created a serpentine maze of buildings intended to epitomize "the utopian aspirations of the revolution," according to John Loomis, whose book about the schools, "Revolution of Forms," inspired the 2011 documentary "Unfinished Spaces."

But as Cuba shifted toward pragmatic, Soviet-style architecture, the sensuous structures became viewed as indulgent and elitist. Construction was halted in 1965, leaving the incomplete complex at the mercy of floods, encroaching vegetation, squatters and scavengers.

Porro went into exile in Paris, and Garatti left Cuba in 1974. Only Gottardi remained on the island.

Despite their neglect, the buildings became celebrated. The World Monuments Fund, based in New York, put the National Art Schools on its list in 2000 of the 100 most endangered sites, and Cuba submitted the structures in 2003 to UNESCO's tentative list of World Heritage sites.

"These buildings have been loved, hated, spurned and reaccepted," said José Antonio Choy, 62, a Cuban architect who studied under Garatti. "They are a testament to the cultural history of the revolution. This is a debate not only about architectural ethics, but about the revolution's legacy."

Garatti, now 85, has for decades nursed the hope of completing the ballet school, a series of interconnected, domed terra cotta pavilions, derelict and littered, surrounded by grass and areca palms. But he has said he feels sidelined by Acosta and opposes plans to alter parts of the building's interior.

Acosta, for instance, wants to adapt the circular dance "laboratory" so that it can function as a public 530-seat theater. He would turn existing schoolrooms into guest accommodations or studios. Garatti opposes those moves.

"I have authorship regarding any changes or adaptations," Garatti said by telephone from Milan, where he is involved in other off-again, on-again efforts to finish the school.

A group of Cuban and international architects rallied behind Garatti after Foster & Partners, the firm of the British architect Norman Foster, carried out a feasibility study at the ballet school in late 2011 and built a scale model.

"This is a colossal ethical issue," said Belmont Freeman, an architect based in New York who has written about modern Cuban architecture. "It's unheard-of for an architect to take over the completion of a project — or alterations — when the original architect is still alive and actively involved."

Foster's involvement fueled a swirl of rumors, irate emails and open letters, including one in which Garatti said — inaccurately, it turns out — that Acosta wanted to start a "private" school, which is a contentious concept in Communist Cuba.

Among some Cuban architects, the mere mention of Foster provokes wide-eyed looks of disapproval and talk of hubris.

"I think that neither Acosta nor Foster appreciated the hornet's nest that they were walking into," Freeman said.

Acosta said that Foster offered his services, free, to help raise money for the project and is not redesigning the building.

Acosta and Garatti signed a memorandum of understanding with Cuban authorities in December 2011, stating that the project would respect the original design and keep Garatti in the loop.

A representative of Foster & Partners said in a brief email that the firm had "completed a full feasibility study" but was not engaged in further work.

Vilma Rodriguez Tapanes, the government official in charge of restoration and construction at cultural sites, said the values of Garatti's design would be respected. "But architecture is not static," she said.

Nobody can touch the National Art Schools without the approval of the National Commission on Monuments, a body of several dozen intellectuals.

Mario Coyula, a prominent architect who serves on the commission, said it was unlikely to approve any project unless Garatti was on board.

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