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Revisiting the legacy of dancer-choreographer Lorna Burdsall

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Coincidentally, as America’s relations with Cuba continue to thaw, some shared artistic history was revisited in southeastern Connecticut this past week.

It all came together with the trip here by the son and granddaughter of the late Lorna Burdsall — the Preston native who grew up in New London and was the central force in bringing modern dance to Cuba. She moved to Cuba after her 1955 wedding to a man who went on to become Cuba’s intelligence chief.

Burdsall’s son, Kahlil Piñeiro, and his daughter, Gabriela, are visiting the region and took a tour Monday of Connecticut College’s Palmer Auditorium, where Lorna studied at the American Dance Festival.

Gabriela — who, like her grandmother, is a dancer — has visited before, having traveled a good deal with Lorna. For Kahlil, this was his first time to New London since he was a year old.

Gabriela, who was born in 1989, says about this trip to the U.S., “The first idea was to bring my dad to see all the places Lorna took me to when I was little, especially to come to Connecticut to see the house where she lived.”

They also saw cousins in Lexington, Kentucky, and stopped in New York City.

Kahlil said, in translation though family friend Phil Sussler, that it was wonderful to be in the same place that Lorna grew up and that she had always spoken so highly of. He noted, too, that she had a whale oil lamp from New London at her home in Cuba.

More about the life Lorna Burdsall, who died in 2010 at age 81: Her father, Elijah, was superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, and her mother, Emily, was a lab technician.

As a youth, she became deeply involved in modern dance. In her 2001 memoir, Burdsall writes that it was “a sublime moment” when she read that the American Dance Festival was moving to New London. She was thrilled by the experience of taking classes there with the likes of Martha Graham and Jose Limon and of attending performances.

While later living in New York City and studying at Juilliard, she met Manuel Piñeiro, who was majoring in business administration at Columbia University. Piñeiro was planning to return to his home country of Cuba to run his family’s rum and beer distributing business.

She recalled of that initial meeting that Piñeiro did a mean mambo.

The duo fell in love, wed and, in 1955, moved to Cuba.

Both of them became involved in the Cuban Revolution, with Piñeiro joining Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1957. After the revolutionaries drove Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista out in 1959, Piñeiro — known as Barba Roja, or Red Beard — was vice minister of the interior and eventually one of Cuba’s top intelligence officials.

As he became an important figure in the post-revolutionary government, Burdsall wielded her influence in the art world. She helped establish modern dance in Cuba, where ballet had held sway, and she was a founding member of Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna  (the National Modern Dance Company of Cuba).

Later on, in 1981, she founded Así Somos (which means “We are this way”), which is an alternative dance troupe that melds various art forms, particularly dance and theater.

“She was an amazing woman but especially an amazing grandmother,” says Gabriela, who learned English from Burdsall. “She was a very happy person, very dynamic and intense.”

Gabriela says that one of the things Burdsall liked about living in Cuba was that, because the situation there, she had to create all the time. In the U.S., she says, “everything is invented for people.”

For one of her most famous dances, Burdsall employed a cloth used to wash cars. She was entirely covered by the cloth so that the audience could not see her but rather just the figures she made with her body.

Burdsall received numerous awards over the course of her life, including the Award of Distinction for National Culture of Cuba in 1982 and the medal for 25 Years of Artistic Movement in 1985.

Gabriela carries on her grandmother’s legacy, not only by being a dancer but by adopting the last name Burdsall as a tribute.

Gabriela graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is the foremost school for the arts in Cuba, and she dances with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (The Contemporary Dance Company of Cuba), which is the current name of the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna that Burdsall founded.

Gabriela has traveled a lot with her dance company, mostly to Europe — including for a performance at the Royal Opera House in London. They did a 2011 show at the Joyce Theater in New York City.

Kahlil, meanwhile, was once on the national water polo team. He worked for the Ministry of the Interior, following in his father’s footsteps, and retired when Lorna became ill. He now helps his wife take care of some rental properties, and they take care of her father.

Asked if she’s noticed changes in Cuba in the months since the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations at the end of 2014, Gabriela says they’ve seen a lot more U.S. tourists but, “I work with a dance company, so I’m out of politics a little bit.”

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