Ballet Folklórico Cutumba Cutumba

November 2, 2002

Adrian Limonota and Jóse Carrión in Cutumba’s Estampa del Carnaval Santiaguero.
(Julia Sewell) 

Ballet Folklórico Cutumba

International House, University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

November 2?3, 2002

Reviewed by Julia Sewell

Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, from Santiago de Cuba, performed for two nights as guests of Philadelphia’s second Festival Cubano. Cutumba was one of the few Cuban companies granted entry visas this year, and Festival Cubano was able to proceed with the group’s performances, workshops, and lectures, albeit later than originally planned.

For over forty years, Cutumba has researched, preserved, and performed the traditional music and dance from the eastern Oriente province of Cuba. The Haitian, French, African, and Cuban traditions are woven together, forming a distinct and impressive tapestry of dance, song, and theater.

The theater’s entryway and interior were adorned with wall-sized images of the twenty-member company, photographed by festival director Laurence Salzmann. In spite of little publicity due to program rescheduling, the small theater was three-quarters full. A beautiful, hand-painted backdrop of a deity filled the middle of the stage.

Philadelphia’s Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble opened the program. The six women, wearing bright purple tops and pants, danced choreography by Artistic Director Dorothy Wilke and choreographer Reynaldo Gonzalez. The piece, called Babalu-Aye after the Santeria deity who owns the world and is associated with diseases and healing, was accompanied by percussion and vocals. The dancers’ clean, fluid movements quickened with the pace of the sacred drums used for ceremonies.

Singers Raphael Cisnero, Berta Armiñán, and Ernesto Armiñán and Cutumba musicians then took the stage to call the Procession of the Kings. The folkloric dances, performed for Epiphany in January, are of Yoruba origin. Selected artists performed dances of the Santeria deities. Whether it was the furious dance of Chango (owner of the sacred drums and lightning) or the playful and teasing dance of Oshún (goddess of sweetness and owner of the river’s waters) the dancers’ movements were agile, emotional, and strong. Yordanka Michel, dancing Oyá, the gatekeeper of the cemetery, was especially fervent; as she twirled in her rainbow-colored skirt, she would suddenly stop and yell as if to ward off trespassers.

After a stirring sacred song to the deity Oshún by Raphael Cisnero, Cutumba danced Gagá, an energetic, folkloric piece with Haitian Vodoun roots once danced in the slave quarters. Dancers blew whistles, waved large flags, and tossed machetes in the air as part of the fast-paced spectacle. Couples flirted and danced sensuously; jealousy ebbed and flowed while the drumming and singing intensified. A table was brought to center stage and Rachel Salas Vega jumped on top of it, dancing and twirling two machetes. Four of the male dancers each picked up a corner of the table in their mouths, with Vega still on top, and turned in a circle. She jumped down and props were added to the tabletop. Reinaldo Babastro lifted the table in his mouth, balancing the towering additions. The audience roared in appreciation as he carried the table offstage.

The second half included tajona, rumba, and cuateros, with a grand finale depicting Carnival in Santiago. Tajona, introduced to Cuba by the Haitian slaves who emigrated with their French masters after the Haitian Revolution, emerged as the slaves’ way of coping with the brutal work conditions involved in breaking down coffee pulp. Though the couples began to move and flirt leisurely, the dance soon evolved into a energetic, friendly competition between two groups joking with each other. It ended with the dancers leaping, turning, and entwining colorful laces that hung from a tall pole.

The company also danced Ciclo de Rumba, which originates from former slave quarters in western Cuba. They performed three rumba styles: yambú, guaguancó, and colombia. Jóse Carrión and Maura Isaac danced yambú, an older and slower version of rumba. In a lively guaguancó, with the thrust of a pelvis, touch of a hand, or wave of a handkerchief, the men attempted to “impregnate” the women, who would quickly turn away or use a scarf or hand to block any such possibility. In colombia, a men’s dance, Adrian Limonota, Sergio Hechavarría and Reinaldo Babastro competed with fancy footwork and a furious shaking of their shoulders. The entire company danced Cutarereos Rítmicos. Wearing wooden sandals, the dancers responded to the drummers’ calls with their own foot-stomping percussion.

The evening climaxed with Estampa del Carnaval Santiaguero, a celebration of Santiago’s July Carnival, when neighborhood ensembles dance and play in the streets. Accompanied by furious drumming, bells, and the Chinese cornet, the men, wearing top hats and large, colorful capes, danced onto the stage and wove around the women. The women, who wore midriff-baring tops, shook their shoulders and made cinturas (literally “waists”), sensuous waist and hip circles. Cutumba eventually filed into the audience to dance with viewers. High-caliber, professional, and heartfelt performances continue to distinguish Cutumba.