Review: Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in Casi-Casa/ Mambo 3XXI at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19 & 20 March & touring
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Sunday 21 March 2010

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. Photo: Manuel Harlan. 19-20 March, Sadler's Wells

Reviewed: 19 March

Seeing these Cuban dancers for the first time is a dance experience akin to a new anthropological discovery. From roots put down by Laban, Wigman, Graham, Cunningham and others, contemporary dance spread throughout the globe in the mid-twentieth century: arriving in Havana by way of Ramiro Guerra who founded Danza Contemporanea de Cuba (DCC) in 1959 after an émigré spell in New York, training with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. A half-century later, DCC has evolved a style of dance unlike any other: soaked in the essence of Cuba (heat, music and rhythm in a melting pot-full of African, Caribbean, Hispanic and American culture); based on athleticism, rigorous discipline and infectious charisma; and anchored in a surprisingly casual and unprepossessing attitude.

In some ways, the choreography on display here at Sadler’s Wells – as DCC reaches the end of its UK tour – is almost an antidote to all things Cuban. Despite the mambo, this is light years away from the idealised image of Havana-styled dance with lots of fruit and tail feathers in a Buena Vista setting.

In a last minute switch which caught the flustered announcer off-guard, the programme opened with Casi-Casa, a work commissioned for the company from Swedish avant-garde choreographer, Mats Ek. It’s a typically surreal example of his dance drama, in this case connecting several scenes of tempestuous apartment life with no discernible narrative. The domesticity is referenced by just three onstage items – an oven, a stylish reclining chair and a door. Episodes range from an excellent opening lazy male solo – or perhaps more appropriately a duet with the chair – by the superbly slinky Osnel Delgado; a passionate duet for the “door” couple (Heidy Batista and Yosmell Caldéron); and a totally incongruous but uproariously funny dance for a group of women pushing mock vacuum cleaners, while doing something like a Scottish sword dance to an up-tempo bagpipe skirl.

Ek’s predilection for the bizarre was represented by the truly shocking extraction of a roasted baby from the smoking oven (a moment of theatrical horror that was met by some uncomfortable laughter in the audience but which genuinely upset the woman seated next to me) and – much later – the stretching of red/white/police/accident/incident tape from one wing to the other to be left alone on the stage for a couple of minutes without any human presence. These madcap moments aside (or perhaps even included) there’s no mistaking that this is an intriguing and special work that will reward repeat viewings in terms of its depth and inquiry.

However, it was the finale that really captured, for me, the uniqueness of this special company. Mambo 3XXI was made by company dancer and resident choreographer, George Céspedes and celebrates the liberating and expansive potential of dance, perhaps (although this may be fanciful thinking) even as an allegory of life in Cuba over recent years.

It begins with 22 performers, dressed in plain, old-fashioned PE clothing (white vests and unattractive, long, dark shorts) apparently not knowing what to do; milling around the stage, before suddenly bursting into activity in strict line-dancing formation; performing highly-regimented, aerobic-style movement. Gradually, this gives way to the dancers choosing partners for smooching, rotational dances and then reappearing (now wearing colourful clothing) in a long series of smaller groups (duets, trios, quintets) building into a sequence of prarallel dances. I loved the central duet to an achingly romantic song – Mucho Corazon – by Beny Moré. Partners are exchanged, some duets are passionate same-gender couplings, but the unifying force is an eclectic and cosmopolitan response to the complex rhythms of the mambo, which are manipulated every which way in the outstanding score by Nacional Electronica. Eventually, the group recreates the strict line formations but now retaining their freer, looser-limbed, more casual movement until the whole ensemble leap together into a final ‘glee-club’ photo-pose to end an exciting and innovative half-hour of dance.

On this evidence, Céspedes is a major choreographic talent with the vision to create a meaningful linearity out of non-narrative dance; the intellect to develop many complementary strands of movement from the same musical impulses; and a clear sense of theatre in an ability to control the pace of his work and make it appear not a second too long, or too short, and with not a second wasted. My only complaint is that after such anticipation of a company that is rarely seen outside of Cuba, London received just a two-night residency and the tour’s other programme, including works by Rafael Bonachela and Jan Linkens, never made it to the capital at all. This was a missed opportunity unlikely to be replenished for some considerable time.

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