Review: Danza Contemporanea De Cuba at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 29 May - 1 June 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 30 May 2012

 Danza Contemporanea De Cuba 'Sombrisa' Photo: Bettina Strenske

Sombrisa / Carmen?! / Mambo 3XX1
Performance reviewed: 29 May

The last visit of Danza Contemporanea De Cuba to these shores (in 2010) led to well-deserved award nominations at the Oliviers, the TMA and the National Dance Awards and so it was a surprise that this mixed bill didn’t hit the heights of my expectations until the last piece, which was the one work reprised from that earlier tour. Unfortunately, in the opening work, some dancers looked tired, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this was already the eighth city of a tour that began earlier this month.

The biggest disappointment was Itzik Galili’s Sombrisa , which was co-commissioned by Sadler’s Wells for this tour. The quirk of it is that for much of the 20-minute performance, all 18 dancers wore boxing gloves, which made for some interesting partnering challenges. Strangely, one became so accustomed to the gloves that their disappearance at the very end goes largely unnoticed (as a quick straw poll in the interval revealed). I once came across a large, glossy coffee table book in a charity shop that contrasted the Cuban love of both ballet and boxing, with photographs of both types of athlete on opposing pages, their beautiful, semi-naked, bronzed bodies glistening with sweat. Making a work about boxing on a Cuban dance company seemed appropriate, except that it quickly became obvious that the gloves were the only tangible reference to the noble art. There were sundry references to other athletic endeavours as dancers appeared to throw and lift weights; flex mighty bows to aim arrows; swing their legs around in high, straight lines as in a taekwondo contest; and one even plunged elegantly head-first through the encircled arms of a colleague, as if a Cuban Tom Daley diving through a hole in the ice! But boxing remained an enigmatic and incongruous allusion represented only by the tools of the trade.

Perhaps I’m becoming immune to Galili’s large scale ensemble pieces, which he has done so well in the past (notably in the pulsating A Linha Curva for Rambert ), but it was hard to retain any enthusiasm for these laboured activities much beyond the half-way point, especially since the choreography seemed to be saying very little, while drowning to the sound of many drums in the thumping, monotonous beat of Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1.

The bar was raised only marginally in Carmen ?! , which on the face of it was a potentially interesting interpretation of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (his interpretation of Bizet’s score as a ballet for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya) given that it was performed by an all-male septet. It had some amusing interludes and contained a broad panoply of references to the Carmen story but the recorded music was butchered by poor sound quality and I was left with the inescapable conclusion that the attempt at originality via the addition of ‘?!’ in the title did not achieve much of a ‘+’ for this ubiquitous tale.

The evening was significantly boosted by Mambo 3XX1 , made by company dancer and choreographer George Céspedes in collaboration with the other dancers, which was even better than I remembered it from 2010. It is a work with a fascinating, kaleidoscopic structure, beginning with the full ensemble of 21 dancers – dressed in simple, vintage gym gear (the girls’ white vests, long black shorts and plimsolls were almost St Trinian-ish) – repeating simple staccato movements in formation and sequence; then moving through a long flow of softly romantic, same-sex duets; and onto dynamic groups flash dancing under spotlights. In the finale, the ensemble regroups in modern-day casual wear, dancing in a freer style, faster and less formal than at the beginning. Dancers who had earlier seemed laboured now moved with distinctive rhythms and a new-found energy. They were having fun to the revamped, restyled music of their island and it showed.

A slow and sometimes monotonous beginning transformed into an upbeat ending in which the vitality of the material at last brought out the very best in the skill, musicality and athleticism of these outstanding dancers.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Friday 1 June
with tour continuing to Milton Keynes & Salford

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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