Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was enjoying the high life of an unexpected business trip to New York, it was left to me to spread out over our two seats at the Milton Keynes Theatre for the return visit of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba after their first UK tour in 2010. I’d heard largely good things about this company and was keen to see where they fit in the modern spectrum; and the answer, I’m pleased to say, is at the high end, with inventive, humorous, gymnastic choreography performed by an engaging company to exciting (if recorded) musical scores.
There were three individual dances, decently interspersed by two proper intervals. First was Sombrisa, choreographed by Itzik Galili, and created for this tour. Set to a thrilling drum soundtrack (Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1), it takes its inspiration from the world of boxing, so the dancers are all dressed to fight and all wear boxing gloves. Simply staged but with complex lighting, visually it’s very effective. The lighting uses both bright white spots and coloured spots in a variety of combinations that constrain individual dancing areas; and when the dancers come close to the front of the stage they’re in some kind of half-light which gives them a slightly sinister air of mystery. For the course of the dance, what starts as general work-out, develops into individual battles and then into a boys’ team versus a girls’ team and then, curiously, into courtships, so that by the end, when the music takes a turn into what sounds like lilting African choirs, it’s become a dance of love. I really enjoyed its progression, and it was danced with great intensity and warmth throughout, even though I thought one or two of the dancers were slightly under-rehearsed on this one. This didn’t matter though – if there were occasional lapses it just helped the impression of one contestant in a boxing match being a little stronger than the other.
The second dance – Carmen?!, choreographed by Kenneth Kvarnström – has been in the company’s repertory for a decade now, and takes some of Bizet’s best tunes and manipulates them into a clever construction for this left field look at the well known opera. The seven guys performing it all did a great job, taking on various aspects of the Carmen story and interpreting it in their own way for this light-hearted piece. Its strength is the juxtaposition of the essential silliness of the choreographed work with the deadly serious macho attitudes of the performers – it nicely subverts them and makes them look gently ridiculous. You get the sense that they’re largely playing anyway – playing at being toreadors and bulls, playing at being coquettish cigarette girls and vamps; they transform the stage into one big Sevillian playground. Again, the whole company were excellent throughout – I loved the wry facial expressions of Yosmell Calderón, he’s probably the best actor of the company; and also the magnificent technical prowess of Abel Rojo, for me the most fluid and energetic dancer of the company. Mario S Elías is a great dancer but unfortunately he had a disobedient trouser zip that wouldn’t stay up, and the sight of scrunched up red shirt emerging from his fly slightly detracted from the macho image he was otherwise creating – Wardrobe take note. Another side issue – the recorded sound was of quite poor quality, which, whilst it didn’t spoil the performance, was nonetheless a shame.
The last piece – Mambo 3XXI, choreographed by company member George Céspedes, who was one of the dancers in Carmen?! – was part of the 2010 tour and a major reason for their Olivier, TMA, and National Dance Awards nominations. It’s an examination of Cuban music and dance, that questions its role within the country and how the country and its people can move forward in the world using music and dance. If this sounds difficult and cerebral, think again. It’s the most vivacious and enchanting contemporary dance I’ve seen in a long time. The progression from its uniform and repressed opening to its self-confident expressive finale is a joy to behold. Some of the choreography reminded me of my “dance hero” Christopher Bruce, in the way the dancers wrap around and roll over each other, reminiscent of Ghost Dances and Swansong. There’s a wonderful sequence towards the end where dancers form two groups lining the sides of the stage and then move towards the centre to meet each other and pass, whilst leaving behind two dancers to interact together, before the two sides return, gather up those two dancers and leave another two behind. It’s compelling stuff that really makes you want to get up and join in. Again Abel Rojo was spectacular in his precision and power, but also Yaday Ponce and Carlos Blanco really shone in this performance. It got a well deserved huge reception at the end. This was the penultimate night of its tour – just one show left in Salford on 9th June. Catch it if you can.