Artists often use their work to open doors of understanding. Zenon Dance Company of Minneapolis plans to leap right through one when it travels to Cuba next month.

“The arts are such a personal, authentic way to tell stories that promote connection,” said Heidi Zimmer, Zenon’s board chair. “It doesn’t matter how well you know each other’s language. The way art affects understanding goes beyond words.”

Zenon is joining a wave of arts groups from the Twin Cities that is embracing a culture as artistically fertile as Cuba’s soil. The American Composers Forum just returned from its second excursion to the island. Minnesota Youth Symphonies recently announced a 2016 tour there by its student musicians, spurred by the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic trip this past May.

The Minneapolis-based U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange has co-curated a painting exhibit at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And individual artists of all stripes, like the Latin band Charanga Tropical, are booking gigs in Cuba and jamming with musicians there.

Sage Lewis, a California-based, Minnesota-bred composer who helps American arts groups travel to Cuba, says Minnesotans have been at the forefront of establishing new cultural ties there since President Obama altered U.S. policy a year ago. “Arts groups all across the country are very interested in going to Cuba, but Minnesota is strong on follow-through,” he said. “They’re making it happen.”

No one expects artists alone to repair a half-century of hostilities. But government representatives on both sides are showing interest in the arts connection.

“The exchange of people and ideas between Cuba and the United States makes a difference in our diplomacy and is a key part of our policy,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Caitlin Fogarty. Arts exchanges “help us build bridges and strengthen ties between the American and the Cuban people.”

Interaction gains traction

Minnesota artists have been hustling to arrange some idea exchanges of their own, obtaining donations from sources as varied as foundations and crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s triumphant trip was a significant jump-start.

Orchestra President Kevin Smith called Cuba “a highly sophisticated cultural society” and noted that orchestra musicians seemed much more affected by their experience in Havana than by other international tours they’ve made.

“The most exciting component was how much our musicians interacted with students and other artists there,” Smith said. “It was an environment that inspired joy in being a musician. It was a revelation for our classically trained musicians to see how for Cubans, the music comes from movement and dance. They would tap their feet on the offbeat.”

The Minnesota Youth Symphonies had been discussing a European tour when co-artistic director Manny Laureano, who is the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trumpet, marched into a board meeting to say the youth group simply had to go Cuba — the musical interaction had been so intense and fruitful.

Zenon’s weeklong trip starting Jan. 16 long has been a dream for the troupe’s director, Linda Z. Andrews. The modern-dance troupe’s path has been paved by choreographer Osnel Delgado, whose residency in Minneapolis resulted in a baseball-inspired work, “Coming Home.”

American-style baseball is Cuba’s national sport, so for Delgado it has poetic associations. “It’s a common meeting ground, a passion shared by both cultures,” said his manager, Fernando Sáez.

Zenon will perform the piece, along with American modern and jazz works, for three nights at the prestigious Teatro José Martí in Havana.

“Delgado uses movements from the game that fit in really well with modern dance,” Andrews said. “He was also just a great presence to have around, kissing everyone on the cheek as a normal greeting like they do in Cuba. Definitely not Minnesotan.”

Music in the blood

For Minnesota arts groups, Cuba represents a sort of “Lost Horizon”-like paradise, frozen in time by the 1959 revolution that made the country largely off-limits to Americans.

Walker Art Center Director Olga Viso, who is Cuban-American, says that while Cuba’s artistic culture has been very vibrant since the 1980s, “U.S. audiences are just finding out about it.”

Local bands such as composer Mary Ellen Childs’ percussion-heavy Crash are now exporting their acts to a country where the arts get the attention that pro sports do in the U.S. Arts training is an integral part of the free education that Cubans get, all the way through university.

“That the arts are an essential part of everyday life is just a given there,” said Childs. “Not like here.”

Charanga Tropical bandleader Doug Little, who has made several trips to Cuba for research as well as music-making, said the Obama administration’s relaxed travel guidelines have made trips more affordable.

“We used to have to book everything through a travel agency, but now arts groups who qualify can tour partly on their own, dramatically cutting costs,” he said. Charanga Tropical’s latest trip there, in June, cost under $40,000 — less than half the cost of a previous visit.

Many artists hope to visit before the country becomes more influenced by the Western cultural juggernaut.

“Things are changing there so quickly,” Childs said. “Two years ago it was rare to see cellphones, and when you did, they were flip phones. Now everyone on the street is glued to their mobiles, and I saw a big J. Lo poster in a shop window. It’s an important time to make connections that go both directions.”

Cuban artists are just as eager to resume “a cultural conversation that has been interrupted,” said Sáez.

In mid-November, the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum was invited to bring a group of members to hear their works performed at one of Cuba’s most prestigious music festivals. Cultural attachés from the Cuban government and U.S. embassy attended the Nov. 17 concert, which the group hopes to release as a recording.

“Being that they’ve been living in a closed society and subject to censorship, I was struck by how open the people were and how overtly political a lot of the artistic work was,” said Peter Rothstein of Theater Latté Da, who recently returned from a tour by directors and actors organized by the Theatre Communications Group. “The arts are how a culture best defines itself. So exchanges like these seem like a logical first step toward two neighbors making sense of each other.”

The Walker’s Viso sounds a note of wariness, calling artistic censorship in Cuba “still a potent reality,” noting that performance artist Tania Bruguera was detained by the Cuban government in 2014, then freed after more than 1,000 artists from around the world called for her release.

“It is a land of opportunity and many, many contradictions.”