Some people run away to Cuba for the sunshine. Some people run away to Cuba for the rum. And some just run away with the circus.
There are Chilean balancing acts, Mexican gymnasts, Russian acrobats, Chinese trapeze artists. A man who calls himself the Great Throwdini, from New York, arrives at the tropical heat in a full tuxedo with tails, soon drenched with sweat, ready to throw knives around scantily clad women.
Behind the scenes, large troupes of Cuban dancers and jugglers rub talc on their hands, arms, feet, to ready themselves for the show.
To the American eye, the scene is jarring. Underneath the aging tents, much of what is expected from modern entertainment seems just slightly off. The usual barrage of wall-to-wall big name refreshments and toys for sale in the States has been replaced by communist-produced ersatz goods; children sip on beverages designed by what one imagines to be an unnamed clerk who, based on the taste of his products, put together a soda recipe using the recollections of a prerevolutionary colleague who fondly — but only faintly — recalls the taste of Coca-Cola.
A man dressed as not-quite Mickey Mouse walks through the aisles, posing for pictures with children for fifty cents. When asked, he cannot name the character he is portraying, and can only provide an (incorrect) guess.
The show, in spite of the technical difficulties of putting on a top-notch circus in a third world setting, is excellent. The performers, in open competition with one another, are visibly impressed by their colleagues; a pole-dancing gymnast rebounds from her pole bending, and then breaking, on stage with poise.
The crowd screams every time the American knife-thrower, the first American to ever attend the festival, just barely misses the young woman against his target board, again and again. It is the first time since 1959 that such an act has been allowed in this country, for security reasons: one suspects that those in charge fainted at the thought of some dignitary in fatigues being brought up into the act only to get too close a shave.
While the usual litany of antique cars waits in the small, dusty parking lot outside, within the tent one performer after another, night after night, in total almost thirty acts come up and juggle, swing from the sky, and hang from silks before a crowd of two thousand, who pay ten dollars a ticket in a country where the average salary is only twenty five dollars a month.
At the end of the show, an elaborate salsa act with two dozen beautiful people swings out onto the stage in a rousing, seemingly endless dance number backed by the eleven-person latin band that performs throughout the night from the balcony. It’s hard not to notice the standing-room-only crowd smiling in the dim risers and aisles- the children, the mothers, the beefy young guys there to meet girls, the old ladies clutching their purses as the trapeze artists fly through the air and yes, in the back, leaning against a wall with his mascot head removed, even Mister Mouse.
About the author: B.A. Van Sise is a frequent contributor to the Village Voice and is also one of the world’s busiest travel photographers. In addition to being a Nikon/AFAR travel photography ambassador, Van Sise has been a staffer for Newsday and AOL CityGuide, has been featured on both the cover of the New York Times, on PBS NewsHour, and on NPR. A number of his portraits of notable American poets are in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.