Review: Ballet Rakatan in Havana Rakatan at Peacock Theatre

Performance: 23 May - 23 June 07
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 30 May 2007

25 May

I’ve never witnessed a performance where members of the audience have had such scant regard for normal theatrical conventions. It was as if we were seated in a bar in downtown Old Havana rather than watching a show under a Proscenium arch. People randomly wandered in and out; completely oblivious to the sightlines that they were obscuring in a performance that was a good half-an-hour old before the majority were seated. Given the overwhelming informality of the affair, it hardly seemed worth having an interval – just let everyone choose their own – particularly since the return from the bar for Act II was just as randomly observed as the start time.

I want to say that the effervescent performers of Nilda Guerra’s Ballet Rakatan deserved more respect but the fact is that the audience’s unrestrained attitude gelled perfectly with the loose Latin cool that permeated every sinew of Havana Rakatan. My initial (typically British) irritation at having my view of the stage continually disturbed eventually succumbed to a climactic desire to leap to my feet and join the mêlee.

The show is a casual history of the rhythms and dances that underpin Cuban culture: the first Act takes a journey through several centuries of imported dance, starting with the movement based on legends of many African cultures (such as the Eleggua and the Yoruba Gods) which were brought to the Caribbean by generations of slaves; followed by the colonial influences of the Flamenco and Bolero; and culminating in the hybrid development of indigenous dance such as the zapateo (the national dance of the Cuban peasantry). Although the anthropological aspect of this dance evolution was interesting the several overlaid tribal sequences were simply too long.

The second Act was much more enjoyable, demonstrating how these influences fused into the mambo, cha cha cha, rumba and salsa, which came to typify Cuba’s reputation as ‘the Island of Music’. Dance was regularly punctuated by song and Latin jazz from the heydays of Old Havana, including well-worn favourites such as the peanut song (El Manisero) and ‘Guantanamera’ delivered by the treacle rich voices of the resident singers, including the irrepressible Geydi Chapman (tightly poured into satin frocks, she could certainly give Dolly Parton a run for her money).

It has to be said that there were frequent periods where the incessant percussion of bongos and maracas became too monotonous for a western ear, a hangover feeling worsened by the relentless clashing of unsubtle colours under nuclear bright fluorescent lights. Ear plugs and sunglasses would have helped at times, but nothing could dampen the infectious, energetic climax which brought everyone out of the bar and most to their feet (including me!). Quibbles apart – and the balance of Act I could usefully be restructured – this is just the show with which to start enjoying the summer.

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