We were invited to observe a class and rehearsal by Danza Contemporanea de Cuba at their home in Teatro Nacional de Cuba in Plaza Revolucion.
The class began at 10am and we quickly followed some dancers walking up stairs to find their studio and office. When we arrived it seemed that we were expected and we were given a warm Cuban welcome and given seats to observe the class. Soon after a group of African drummers arrived and seated themselves next to us as they were to accompany the class.
The class began with a warm up sequence which linked together forward bends and simple stretches to open and loosen the body and progressed on to more advanced stretches then footwork, balances, centre work and jumping. The whole class was structured by long sequences, which the company seemed familiar with but were guided by their teacher. The studio was very humid despite the numerous fans and open windows. Plaster seemed to be falling from the ceiling and at one point a dancer used a prop from the later rehearsal to push a loose big piece back into place.
The dancers positioned themselves with the most experienced dancers at the front of the class and indeed at the front of the class were three dancers I instantly recognised from their memorable performances in El Cristal at Teatro Mella last week.
The Company Manager later told me that they thought it was important to use the African drummers regularly in classes as it gives a sense of culture and history to the movements in their class. The exercises were a complete mix of contemporary techniques. They linked together Limon, Cunningham and Graham technique but with this particular class every exercise had an African flavour. They do take other classes but the company do like to mix contemporary techniques while giving things a particularly Cuban flavour. This, they believe, is what makes this contemporary dance company distinctive.
Next, we stayed and watched a rehearsal for a new piece using music from Carmen featuring eight male dancers. There is an emphasis on creating new work with this company and they work with choreographers from around the world. After having watched a technical class this rehearsal was great to see as the piece had a strong comic element and showed off the playfulness of the performers.
In June the company go to Columbia to perform and in May they travel to London to perform with Carlos Acosta at the Royal Opera House. The show with Carlos will be rehearsed separately from the main dancers and then the different elements will be put together when in London. This will be something definitely not to me missed!!!!
Photos by Monster Cat Pics
Hotel Nacional de Cuba was opened in December 1930 and was a favourite destination amongst Americans before their embargo against Cuba. It was an incredibly glamorous destination and attracted some celebrity guests such as Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. Nat King Cole was invited to perform in Cuba in 1956 but was not allowed to stay at the Nacional because of being black but his trip was such a massive success that he returned the next year and the Nacional now have a permanent tribute to him on display.
During the crisis 1962 Cuban missile crisis Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters at the Nacional to prepare the defence of Cuba from aerial attack. The hotel suffered when tourism disappeared from Cuba after the revolution but had a big renovation in 1990s.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba is now hosting the Cabaret Parisien where guests sit at traditional cabaret round tables and you have the option of having dinner at your table served just before the show. Included in the ticket price to the show is a cocktail to sip on and although the room is pretty cramped there are no shortage of waiters waiting to take your order.
The Cabaret Parisien promised to celebrate the origins of Cuban culture such as the Indo-American, Hispanic and African cultures. These cultures were all reflected in the elaborate and colourful costumes and the different dance and song styles presented. However, it was difficult to find the Parisien element to this cabaret as it was more a 1950s Hollywood meets the Eurovision Song Contest than Moulin Rouge. The stage was often cramped full of performers and the costumes so colourful that it as all too much to take in and would have been improved by a smaller cast and more variation in scenes.
There was just one section that stood out for me and that was the tango scene that consisted of just two dancers dressed simply in black who took hold of the stage and kept the attention of their audience. The couple had a real intensity in their dancing and an emotional connection that was lacking in the rest of the show.
This show was clearly aimed at tourists as there was an offer of a post-show salsa lesson and the selling of a show DVD but to be honest after an hour I was watching the clock and I was pretty relieved when it was over.
Nevermind, back to Danza Contemporanea de Cuba later today for class.
Photos by Monster Cats Pics
Every morning during the week at Hotel Habana Libre a pianist plays during breakfast. The trouble is the piano is so out of tune and this lady plays the popular classics with such ferocity it is as though she has done the job for so long that she no longer hears the bad tuning. Admittedly, it does sound more bearable the further away from the piano you sit but I still gaze open-mouthed at the other guests who are able to enthusiastically applaud the daily rendition of Carmen.
I guess, however, a job is a job and throughout Cuba from the barely road-worthy cars to the dilapidated buildings, which look barely able to stand and yet may still house several families, there is a sense of inventiveness in working with what materials are at their disposal. You also see this in the amount of art that is made from recycled materials. This is the essence of the charm of Cuba. There is an air of positivity and making do and as one Cuban barman said with a shrug of shoulders, “well no-one has any money but the climate is nice.” and after all the old cars and buildings are part of what makes Cuba such a distinctive place.
It is in this environment that dance has flourished to become so distinctive of style and of such high quality that Ballet Nacional de Cuba and Danza Contemporanea de Cuba as well as many other smaller dance companies go on regular international tours and receive such respect around the world. The Cuban dance education has developed such a high standard of physicality in its dancers that Cuba is producing dancers who are able to find work in dance companies around the world. In Cuba entrance into ballet school is based on a test of the necessary physical qualities and potential ability and, if successful, is free.
On counting through a theatre listings brochure, I reached a total of 27 theatres in Havana. Castro clearly valued the arts and after the Revolution the grants that were given to develop theatre, dance and music have clearly paid off and given this country its vibrancy. It feels like every other Cuban person is a skilled musician, an intellectual, a dancer, a skilled linguist or a trained doctor even though they may work as a taxi driver, a mechanic or a barman.
The great thing about dance is it is not heavily reliant on equipment. The body is the instrument of dance and therefore the only tuning it needs is to be exercised and taught the techniques in which to develop the ability of what the body can do. Dance is all about hard work and dedication and the best studio in the world will not produce a great dancer if these qualities are lacking.
And they are not lacking here.
Photos by Monster Cats Pics
Last night we were invited to Teatro Mella in Vedado, Havana to see a performance by Danza Contemporanea de Cuba to celebrate their 56th anniversary. They were to perform two pieces El Cristal and Matria Etnocentra. I really had no idea what to expect from this company before last night but wow we were in for a treat.
The 1,400 capacity theatre alone was worth the visit with its modernist style interior and design that meant every seat was a good one. Luckily the audience were all directed to sit in the stalls downstairs and the manager allowed us to sit on the first circle where Andy had free reign to move around to photograph the show.
The audience seemed to consist of dance students, young people, friends of the company and Havana’s dance/theatre network. It was all very relaxed as the audience were in no rush to take their seats, there was a lot of socialising going on and after the bell rang for a prolonged third time, eventually the lights going down seemed to be the signal that the show would now begin.
From the start of the show until the end the most striking thing about this incredible company was the physicality of the dancers and the high standard of the direction. The moments where the company performed the choreography in unison were completely flawless and the sections which were solos and small groups displayed such a high level of performance that I was left just wondering what this magical Cuban dance training consisted of.
The first piece El Cristal was performed for the first time in 2014 by a young Cuban choreographer Julio César Iglesias and has received a lot of critical success. It definitely played to the physical strengths of this company as well as showing the performance talent as there are some memorable individual performances and an effective use of voice.
Matria Etnocentra was a world premiere by renowned Cuban choreographer George Céspedes and is the sixth new piece by the company this year. It was 35 minutes long but that time flies as you are drawn into the dance. This piece is the last part of a trilogy by this choreographer about identity and being Cuban and is inspired by Cuban music.
The opening of Matria Etnocentra consisted of the whole company stood together like an army in t-shirts with a star on the front and moving completely in unison while staying in tight formation. The shapes they made as they moved from one formation to another while maintaining their unison dance was visually stunning. The clever use of costume changes helped develop the piece as it moved from this opening into the main body of the piece and then to the more colourful final section with more weaving patterns and formations.
It must have been good as we have changed our plans to go back again tonight!
We are going to an African dance technique class and rehearsal next week so hopefully more on this company and the contemporary dance scene in Cuba soon……
Photos by Monster Cat Pics
The above quote is Alicia Alonso describing her recovery period after her operation for a detached retina.
When I last visited Havana I stayed at the Hotel Inglaterra next to the Gran Teatro de La Habana where Ballet Nacional de Cuba would perform. I have a lasting memory of this time of waking up in the morning to the patter of feet and a teacher shouting instructions and as I stepped out on to my balcony I could directly see into a studio in the theatre where a dance class was taking place. I was certain I had the best room in the hotel and, perhaps, in Havana.
Over ten years ago I bought tickets for Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s production of Swan Lake and was charged a very little and placed in the middle of the front row. That experience of the ballet in Cuba has always stayed with me as it was such a contrast to watching a ballet in Britain. Firstly, in the theatre there was a real buzz of excitement about seeing certain ballet stars on stage and when one of these principals made their entrance there were cheers and yelps around the theatre. The audience were more vocal about their appreciation for great performances and the whole experience felt more interactive.
Secondly, I remember the love and respect for Alicia Alonso that night as she entered the theatre to take her place in the audience. As she is partially blind, Alicia was escorted to her seat by two young men and the rest of the audience stood up, turned to face her and clap her. Alicia had an operation for a detached retina in 1941 but the operation was not a success but it didn’t stop her from dancing. Her entrance at the theatre that night had real dramatic style. At the time I didn’t quite understanding what was going and it felt as though Fidel Castro himself had entered the theatre.
Alicia is a beloved Cuban prima ballerina who established a dance company, which later on became Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It is thanks to her and her husband, Fernando, and his brother, Alberto, (who was a choreographer) that Cuban ballet was able to develop. After the revolution Alicia stopped touring in America and was given full funding by Castro for the ballet company in Havana and in 1960 she established the ballet school.
On returning to Gran Teatro de La Habana I find that it is closed and, like the city’s Capital Building, is in the middle of some much needed restoration and the outside looks like it has been cleaned up. I hear that Ballet Nacional de Cuba are now based in a temporary home in Plaza de la Revolucion (Resolution Square) in the Teatro Nacional but I haven’t managed to chased them down yet.
Photos: Stock images
My only plan was to take it easy in order to recover my swollen ankles and jet lag. We had had 23 hours of travelling in all due to delays and a stopover in Madrid.
We were tired but the sun was shining and there was a ‘Welcome Meeting’ in Old Havana with our travel company, which we thought would be useful. So off we go to Old Havana where I stayed over ten years ago when I last came to Cuba.
After our meeting we head to Obispo Street to look for a CADECA, a money exchange place, and inevitably ended up stopping for a quick drink in one of Obispo’s buzzing bars. As we sip on our drinks a band started to play and before too long gathered a bit of a crowd of both tourists and locals. The lead personality in the band was performing some Latin dance steps while playing different percussion instruments.
After a few numbers a couple of women in the bar were encouraged to join him in dancing a few steps and despite the jet lag, the swollen ankles and the feeling of being heavily pregnant I was persuaded.
The performer was performing the Cha Cha Cha and getting me to mirror his steps, which ranged from simple steps to hip circles and ending in pelvis thrusts!
The Cha Cha Cha originated in the 1950s by Enrique Jorrín, a Cuban composer and violinist. The steps begin on the second beat of the bar to the count "two, three, cha cha cha.” This performer’s dance steps definitely had a Cuban flavour as they were more bouncy and elaborate the ballroom version I was familiar with.
Further along the road we come across a street performance group made up of musicians and dancing girls on stilts in carnival costumes. This group are regulars on these streets performing for the tourists and earning tips. There are now two regular big street carnivals every year in Cuba; one in Havana and the larger one in Santiago de Cuba. The carnival in Havana is being expanded every year and is not a big tourist attraction since Mid August is a low point in the tourist season and a time when it gets very hot!
The whole of Obispo had something of a carnival flavour on this ‘quiet’ Sunday afternoon as Latin rhythms poured out of every bar and along the street encouraging everyone to dance.
Photos by Monster Cat Pics
Choreographer of Baby (2016), The Legacy (2014) and She Walks in Beauty (2011). Dance artist and community arts practitioner.
You can also check out Rhiannon's blog of her trip to Namibia here.
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