“I feel a little magic,” is how Joan Fernández Cabrera describes his transformation into his clown alter ego, Cantaleta — a hyperactive blend of mischief, athleticism and a hapless romantic (think Pepé Le Pew). His presence is impossible to miss. He’s here, there and even 30 feet in the air. “I’ve seen video footage of my performance and I can’t believe the things I do,” he says. “I think, ‘wow, that guy is crazy.’ He even mimics the Ringmaster,” he laughs. “I don’t try to be funny. You have to be in the moment, because the children know if you’re telling the truth.”
It was in Playa, Havana on the island of Cuba where his father Jorge would spark that “little magic” that would eventually lead to Joan’s career in clowning. “Everywhere we went, my father was the funniest guy in the room,” says Joan. “So, like most boys, I wanted to be like my father. I liked the reactions he got from people, and I wanted to do that too.” In addition to his dad’s comic flair, as a child, Joan was mesmerized by clowns. However, sports and martial arts were his primary passions — at least for the moment.
During secondary school (high school), he attended theater classes but was always given small roles in school productions perhaps due to the fact that he was always late to class when coming from sports or martial arts. Yet, much to the surprise of many, perhaps even himself, Joan would be the only student from Habana del Este to be accepted into the theater program at Havana’s highly regarded Eduardo Garcia Delgado Arts Instructors School.
He immersed himself in his studies so much so that his colleagues gave him the moniker, “Stanislavsky,” after the influential Russian actor and director credited with developing the concept of “method acting.” However, according to Joan, “I was drawn to the comedy, not the drama.” Following a year of required military service, a friend convinced him to try his hand at clowning in the circus. Reluctant, he’d eventually acquiesce, reigniting the “little magic” he once reveled in at his father’s knee.
I’ve known my share of great clowns, and the story is all too familiar. Clowning is a compulsion. The pull of clowning is inescapable. So it was for Joan Fernández Cabrera. At the behest of his friend, Joan would embark on a career that would garner him high honors in the Edwin Fernandez Memorial — International Clown Contest. The funny man of Havana, who grew up in a small house with a family of seven, whose mother Judith worked tirelessly to give her children a better life, would now be sharing his comedic gifts with companies the world over, including the Belarusian State Circus and the Metropole in France. Cabrera would also tour his beloved Cuba with an ensemble of performers. It was during his travels in Cuba when he met and married Yadira Hernández Diaz, also a circus performer.
The journey of Joan Fernández Cabrera and the making of Cantaleta continues at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®. “Being at Ringling Bros. ® and in the United States are the best things to ever happen to me. I am the first Cuban clown to perform with The Greatest Show On Earth®,” Joan states proudly. As for what his first comedic idol thinks of his son’s endeavors? “My dad brags about me to everyone but me,” he laughs.
For Cabrera, there’s never been any doubt in his mind about how much his family supports and loves him. He knew this growing up as an asthmatic in that tiny house in Playa, when during a most terrible episode his mother hoisted him on her shoulders, ran out into the street, and waved down a car to get her and Joan to a hospital. They lacked in many material things, but according to Cabrera, his home was certainly rich in love. “My parents were very supportive. No matter what it is I wanted to do. They never discouraged my ambitions, even when I had no idea what I was doing,” he smiles.
The historic reconciliation between the United States and Cuba offers much promise. Perhaps, the return of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to the shores of Havana is not such a far-fetched reality. After all, with Cuba’s funniest import in tow,it’s sure to give Jorge much to brag about.