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By Wendy Perron
Down the street from the massive Revolution Square in Havana, with its monuments of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, is a small upstairs studio at the side of the Teatro Nacional. It’s surrounded on two sides by windows that barely keep the palm trees out, and the infectious sounds of Cuban drumming and singing fill the space. When the dancers get excited they burst into song too. In Cuba, music and dance always go together.
Danza Contemporánea de Cuba is a crew of about 60 gorgeously diverse dancers with the rare combination of polished technique and raw abandon. They throw themselves into their work, whether taking a rigorous technique class—a combination of modern, ballet, jazz, and Afro-Cuban—or rehearsing Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa. Their sheer physicality and joy in movement are exciting to witness. They are not striving for perfection, but for emotional connection.
This month, for the first time, they come to the U.S.—thanks to the Obama administration’s loosening of travel restrictions between the two countries. They perform at the Joyce in New York May 10–22 as part of the city-wide festival ¡Si Cuba!, and also travel to Boston, Philadelphia, and Virginia Beach.
Founded in 1959 as a largely Graham-based group, the company has been led by Miguel Iglesias Ferrer for 25 years. He infused it with other influences (including contact improvisation), stretching it artistically into a group that travels internationally and causes excitement wherever it goes. Last year the company was such a hit in London that it was nominated as Best Foreign Dance Company by the National Dance Awards Critics’ Circle.
With repertoire ranging from homegrown talent George Céspedes to the Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela and Sweden’s Mats Ek, the company dances many different styles. Their newest choreographer is familiar to Joyce audiences: the Cuban-born, Bessie Award–winning, former Ballet Hispanico dancer Pedro Ruiz, now an independent choreographer. He returned to Cuba in 2009 after 26 years away. “The first day we arrived at the studio, I heard the percussion going and the energy of the Afro-Cuban rhythm; my heart started to pound. Seeing these amazing dancers moving, their bodies, their energy, passion, technique, the way they use the torso—I was overwhelmed. Then I started crying.”
When Iglesias asked him to teach, Ruiz decided to give a ballet class with Cuban music. It went so well that he came back later in 2010 to work with 16 dancers on a new piece. “I wanted to do something that is inspired by Cuba, by me looking at the horizon.” The title is Horizonte.
Ruiz raves about the dancers, saying they are open, hard-working, and creative. In describing the piece, he says, “I like fluidity mixed with passion. The skirts of the women remind me of the water of the ocean. You will see how the horizon changes colors during the day, and you can see the dancers change from calm to storms.” When Horizonte premiered in Havana in January, it was met with a standing ovation.
In some ways Danza Contemporánea is more representative of Cuba than its more famous counterpart, Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Both are supported by the government and enjoy huge audiences, aided by constant television exposure. The dancers of both are highly trained (Danza draws dancers from the National School of the Arts, a Juilliard-style conservatory), and both companies travel around the world. But Danza has its roots in Cuban culture and reflects a span of skin colors true to Cuba’s people. Iglesias calls them “a group of people with different opinions, different physiques and mindsets, who are all moving in the same direction.”
Pedro Ruiz’s Horizonte. Photo by Thom Kaine. Courtesy DCC