How Do You Keep Cultural Identity Without Falling Into Cliché?

May 17, 2011

I don’t know, but I can say that Danza Contemporánea de Cuba’s first program was way more successful at this than its second one.

I was so happy that the company managed to transport the spirit, rough edge, and individuality that I saw at their studio in Havana to the Joyce. But as Roslyn Sulcas points out in her NY Times review this company falls into “choreographic traps.”

I think thats’ true for two of the three pieces on Program B.

But Program A was pretty terrific:

George Cespedes’ Mambo 3XXI begins with isolated, almost mechanized gestures in strict rows (a deconstruction of the mambo?). There’s a delicious moment when the 21 dancers break away from strict rows into solos. You suddenly understand that, not only can these dancers project the joy and precision of being part of a group, but they are also colorful individuals—each shown to us in a tantalizingly short glimpse. Oozing shoulders, surprising flips and twists, sudden starts and stops—yet it’s all organic. They really get into it. I suspect each person made up their own material. And from there, the duets were gorgeous—especially the same-sex duets. Was I reading into it, how brave they were? Didn’t gay people get arrested in Cuba until recently? Or maybe they were frankly saying, This happens in the open now in Cuba.

By the time they get back into their drill formations, we know them as individuals, each with different hair and skin and energy. They loosen up and now their mambo is really delicious. Seeing the whole pack of individuals together hits you as both a great accomplishment and a great joy.

Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa takes the company completely outside its Hispanic roots. The place is a domestic setting, with a guy slumping on a chair and a woman puttering around the house. But this is Mats Ek, so everything is surreal. His sequences juxtapose urgent galumphy strides striving for something, with short bursts of finger wiggling worrying about something. The dancers totally invest in every movement and then change on a dime. You feel their rawness and their precision simultaneously. They don’t have the rarefied look of “dancers;” they look like people on the street, on a street in Havana, who happen to be doing these odd things. It’s a good way to see Ek’s work.

One sequence of three men held me rapt. I don’t remember a single movement, but I know that it pulled me along and made me love it. And it wasn’t easy cuz it came right after a horrid moment when the woman takes a roasted cloth baby out of the smoking oven. After that, I thought I would gag on the whole rest of the ballet. But then this male trio of caring and wit and soft surprises came along and I was hooked.

However, as mentioned, a portion of Program B succombed to stereotypes. Only the third piece (hang on a minute) escaped this.

I can see why Danza Contemporánea included Eduardo Rivera’s Sulkary from 1971, but it was almost embarrassing in its primitivism. The three women were African sculpture-goddesses and the three men, bare-chested and staff-carrying, were like Graham guys in her Greek period. I was momentarily intrigued by the strong oppositional shapes being the intersection of African and Graham; both were part of the company’s cultural heritage. But the dancers seemed constrained by the rigorously primitive shapes and ceremonial pace. Sulkary did nothing to illuminate who these glorious dancers are today.

The premiere, Pedro Ruiz’ Horizonte, was wonderfully fluid and consistent, and the water-colored dresses were lovely. But it looked like a Ballet Hispanico piece: well crafted, with polished technique and a measured balance of sensuality and seriousness (what Sulcas called “tame”). Although it had nice wave-like motifs, it became sort of homogenized—and even the music by Aaron Jaffee and Rodrigo y Gabriela was kind of medium ground.

Now for the last piece: Demo-n/Crazy by Spain’s Rafael Bonachela is so strident and combative that it’s hard to watch. And yet one of the most brutal sequences, a duet for two guys (Osnel Delgado Wambrug and Edson Leonardo Cabrera Veitía), was the highpoint of Program B. Dancing to a recording of Nina Simone singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (that anthem of co-dependency), they grab, drag, snap, and even yell at each other. They seem condemned to treat each other badly—whether out of jealousy, anger, or self-hate. And yet there’s enough tenderness and wit that you still care about these two guys.

At the end of this marathon piece, all the dancers are in headstands with their legs waving like wheat in the air (does sugar cane wave?)—for a long time. It was somehow moving, suggesting the patience of these dancers to do what they do, for years on end, without the things we take for granted like bottled water or band-aids.

Just dreaming: What if Danza Contemporánea had been able, financially and spatially, to bring their drummers and singers with them. Both times I visited their studio in Havana percussionists were drumming away and the dancers got caught up in their energy—a sizzling celebration of hard work and art. Live music is part of the experience. (Septime Webre says that visiting them in their studio can change your life.) If they’d brought that part of their art from home, maybe the audience would have been more immersed in their world and the “tame exoticism” Sulcas accuses them of would not have been so tame.



Mambo 3XXI, by George Céspedes. Photo by Gerardo Iglesias, Courtesy Danza Contemporánea