This week sees the return of Carlos Acosta’s hit show Cubania to The Royal Opera House – a mixed programme, in which Acosta dances alongside Veronica Corveas – Principal Dancer of Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Royal Ballet Principal Zenaida Yanowsky and contemporary dancers Alexander Varona and Rambert’s Miguel Altunaga – and also with dancers from the acclaimed Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. The evening features a wide range of dance styles from Afro-Cuban to classical to contemporary. Rhiannon Brace writes about her experience of seeing the company at home in Havana…
In May this year I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Havana and watch performances by Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, as well as observe them rehearse and take class. My photographer partner was given free reign to photograph the company both in performance and in the studio.
Since my last visit over ten years ago, I was able to observe the changes in Cuba and witness the strong sense of optimism from the locals about the thawing of the relationship with the United States. It was a time when French President, François Hollande, was making a historic visit to Cuba and there were talks with the US about the possibility of re-opening embassies in Havana and Washington, which has more recently been achieved.
Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta is now approaching his final season with the Royal Ballet and recently discussed his plans to establish his own dance company in which he will transition to performing more contemporary dance and developing his own choreography. He also plans to spend half the year in Cuba and half in UK because he wants his company to be rooted in Cuban traditions while delivering a much more modern interpretation.
It’s not surprising that Acosta has again invited Danza Contemporanea de Cuba to be part of Cubania. They are Cuba’s leading contemporary dance company and are based in Havana’s Teatro Nacional. Since they were established in 1959 they have developed a distinctive contemporary Cuban style of dance, which fuses impeccable technique and athleticism grounded in a strong sense of cultural identity. The company also have a focus on producing new work by international choreographers.
We attended their 56th anniversary performance in Teatro Mella in Vedado, Havana where they performed two pieces: El Cristal by Cuban choreographer Julio César Iglesias first performed in 2014 and George Céspedes’ Matrio Etnocentra – the last part of a trilogy about the Cuban identity, inspired by the country’s music.
Throughout the performance the most striking thing about this incredible company was the physicality of the dancers and the high standard of direction. The moments where the company performed movement in unison were completely flawless and the sections consisting of smaller groups and solos were utterly engaging. We were so amazed by the high standard of the evening we postponed our plans for the next day and returned to watch the performance again.
A few days later we were welcomed into a studio at Teatro Nacional to observe the company take class and rehearse. The studio was extremely humid and plaster was falling from the ceiling. One dancer was opening all the windows of the studio, while another dancer was using a prop from a later rehearsal to push a big piece of loose plaster back into place.
A group of African drummers arrived to accompany the class and Company Manager Jorge Brooks explained that using the drummers give the dancers a sense of their cultural history. The exercises were a complete mix of contemporary techniques linking together aspects of Limon, Cunningham and Graham but in this particular class the drummers’ rhythms gave everything an African flavour.
For my partner it was an unusual experience to be photographing performers in an intimate studio setting without anyone distracted by the camera, as the dancers were so committed to the movement. An absence of vanity and a sense of privilege for their place within the company was also evident.
The company were preparing for a performance in South America before joining Carlos Acosta in London – travelling opportunities beyond the means of the average Cuban.
The country’s free education system does mean that every Cuban child has the opportunity to explore their potential in dance. It is a principle which Acosta believes should be at the heart of discovering new talent, not just in Cuba but worldwide – and as his career develops he intends to create more opportunities for dancers. This week’s Royal Opera House performances of Cubania are perhaps a glimpse of what we might expect from Acosta’s future dance company but, more importantly, they display an array of talented artists who have already emerged from Cuba.
Cuba’s dance is not just about Latin and ballet; it also is a country producing uniquely strong contemporary work, through nurturing its dancers and choreographers. With re-established diplomatic ties, Cuba is entering a new phase in its history. Hopefully this will create wider opportunities for touring and the exchange of artistic ideas for the wonderful array of Cuban artists.
Carlos Acosta’s Cubania is at the Royal Opera House until Sunday 2 August.
Rhiannon Brace is a physical theatre practitioner and choreographer. A version of this article first appeared on her blog: www.rhiannonbrace.com/blog. Find her on Twitter:@Rhiannonbrace