Danza Contemporánea de Cuba review – a fierce call for revolution

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The company’s three works explore hothouse machismo, private headspace and colliding forces in Cuban society with power and urgency–a review by Judith Mackrell for London’s Guardian.

Is Cuba finally about to emerge from decades of political and cultural isolation? If the island is poised for change, so are its dancers. Danza Contemporánea de Cuba may be presenting three very different choreographers in its programme, but all the works come with a subtext of lively self-questioning.

In Reversible, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa imagines a world of Cuban dance that’s been freed from the conventions of gender. The work opens with a man and woman, identically dressed in simple white trunks, whose powerful, burnished and very equal duet is like an image of prelapsarian innocence. It’s only when the woman becomes conscious of her naked breasts and attempts to cover them, that the serpent of sexual stereotyping enters the choreography.

As other couples begin to dance, the stage is suddenly a hothouse of machismo struts and feminine fluttering of hips; one man looks down at the skirt that he – like all the men – is wearing and his face is a picture of comic dismay. But Lopez Ochoa doesn’t labour her message. The piece rapidly moves into more teasing or combative duets, and the choreography evolves into a place where the women can assert a more full-bodied strength; the men risk the trace of a shimmy. If the ending comes too pat, with the sexes merging for a rather dutiful, unison ensemble, this is still a dance of thoughtful intent, and joyous, fearless physicality that plays marvellously to its cast’s strengths.

Theo Clinkard’s The Listening Room takes the company into a more conceptual space. It’s a silent disco of a piece, in which the 22 headphone–wearing dancers perform easygoing moves to an inaudible soundtrack, while we listen to the music of Steve Reich. The work’s charm lies in its seeming spontaneity. It is rather like watching the weather as we see the dancers drift into a quietly private headspace or clump into riotous choruses whose music we can only imagine. Yet as clever and charming as the work’s premise may be, the choreography feels stuck within a single groove and its ideas are too soon exhausted.

George Céspedes’s Matria Etnocentra also feels overextended, but it is a powerful work that tackles the unique collision of conformism and subversion within Cuban society. It opens with a fiercely drilled ensemble, its 24 booted and stamping dancers a throwback to Castro’s revolutionary army. Yet as hips start to swivel and shoulders loosen, another dynamic creeps in, and the dancers start to break for freedom, dancing alone in angry questioning solos or recombining in dense, folding, organic formations. The message might sound simple, but Céspedes mostly choreographs it with class. And the work ends superbly with the dancers performing virtuoso salsa duets to drill parade music, and doing so with a seriousness and urgency that signal a very 21st-century call for revolution.

At Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 28 February to 1 March. Box office: 029-2063 6464. Then touring.

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