There’s a certain poetic justice in the fact that Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (DCC) was founded the same year as the 1959 Revolution. It has since become the nation’s flagship contemporary dance troupe with a hybrid, hothouse style that is a pungent blend of Afro Caribbean rhythms, jazzy American modernism and inflections from European ballet.
The company headquarters are in a few studios and cramped offices tucked inside the National Theatre, a large, streamlined edifice looming in one corner of Havana’s vast Plaza de la Revolucíon. This is, of course, a key location in Cuban history. Despite its own long and varied history, DCC was mainly known in Britain for having performed with ballet superstar Carlos Acosta in his 2003 autobiographical production Tocororo. Circumstances changed emphatically, however, when this company of vitally charged young dancers embarked on its first major UK tour in 2010. Warmly received by audiences and critics alike, DCC scored a decisive hit. One of the surest measures of its success was the hat trick of nominations it garnered from the Olivier Awards, the TMA Awards and the National Dance Awards (bestowed by the nation’s professional critics). Although in the end the company didn’t bag any of these glittering prizes, such generous and by no means undeserved recognition was quite an achievement. All of the nominations cited above were pinned to Mambo 3XXI, an exhilarating ensemble dance by DCC’s resident wunderkind George Céspedes. In this smartly subversive crowd pleaser Céspedes uses the familiar rhythms of Cuban popular music and dance to question his country’s culture and, without resorting to worthiness, point a potential way forward for its youth. ‘My intention was to break the cliché of what Cuba is in music and dance,’ he explains, ‘and to present mambo in a way that maybe a new generation would like to see it. This is evolution.’ The dance’s aural springboard is the big, bouncy beats of the mambo king Perez Prado, cleverly deconstructed by the contemporary duo known as Nacional Electronica. Starting out like the unsure, grim faced members of a militaristically rigid gym class, a 21 strong cast gradually discovers spectacularly vibrant, gloriously tactile new ways of moving, communicating and being. By the finish there is the sense of a new social order having been established; the dancers’ very bodies seem to shout freedom. Céspedes might call it evolution, but inside this sensational work there is also a distinctly revolutionary spirit.
Mambo 3XXI is one of the three dances that DCC is bringing to Britain this spring as part of its second national tour. Even bigger news is the new and, at press time, as yet unnamed piece inspired by boxing and set to Steve Reich’s composition Drumming Part 1. Co commissioned by Newcastle Theatre Royal and Sadler’s Wells, with support from Northern Rock Foundation, Arts Council England and the Gillian Dickinson Trust, the work’s sporting theme is a neat tie in with the plethora of national cultural activities surrounding London’s hosting of the Olympics. It’s being crafted even as I write this by Itzik Galili, a masterly and prolific Israeli born, Netherlands based choreographer whose raucously sexy, red hot A Linha Curva was one of the highlights of Rambert Dance Company’s 2009 season. DCC’s mixed bill, an excellent marker of the company’s dynamic range and international reach, is rounded out by Carmen?!, Finnish choreographer Kenneth Kvarnström’s cheeky take on the famous tale of the titular cigarette factory femme fatale. Originally made in 1993, this robust and witty all male septet entered the company repertory nearly a decade ago but still looks and feels fresh. Much of this is down to the sparks that fly off DCC’s dancers in everything to which they set their bodies and minds. As Galili confirms, ‘They’re open for anything. Their experience is their culture. They live in a simple manner, but they’ve developed fantastic adaptation skills and they’re hungry for the new. I don’t know if I’m new to them, but they have shown me great respect, love and commitment. Together, I hope we’ll get to a place where…’ Here his words temporarily trail off, but he quickly picks them up again.
This year Galili has really come into his own in the UK, giving Rambert the rights to stage one of his pre existing dances as well as creating three world premieres: one for National Dance Company Wales (his second commission from them and first seen this past January), another for English National Ballet (on a bill shared with NDCW and Scottish Ballet and due to be unveiled in June) and DCC’s boxing piece. ‘Coming to Cuba has been a shock,’ Galili remarks. ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done maybe because I was predicting something that became different. It didn’t make sense; it felt as if I were stepping fifty years back in time into a colour movie that should be black and white. I feared it. I experienced pain that reflected on my childhood. And I loved it. For me, Cuba feels like a painful home. ‘I see my work as stories traveling in time,’ he continues. ‘It’s an emotional and physical experience as each one of us travels through his or her own story. For me it’s not about functionality, but about how someone wants to travel this road. It’s a journey of discovery for the dancers, the viewers and me. Anyway, I don’t guarantee we’ll make anything good, but for sure it will be a journey to remember.’
March 2012 Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.