September 5 , 2007

Cuban dancers crazy for democracy

By Michael Voss. BBC News, Havana.

Cuban dance ranks alongside rum and cigars as one of the island's most famous exports.

It seems curious, then, that a UK-inspired dance initiative is causing such a stir in Havana.

Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela is artist-in-residence at London's South Bank Centre.

For much of this year he has been flying back and forth to Havana, producing a work he wrote especially for the Cubans as part of an exchange organised by Ipswich-based Dance East and sponsored by the British Council.

However, working in Cuba has provided Bonachela with some unexpected challenges.

It was not the challenge of choreographing dancers from one of Cuba's foremost dance outfits, Dance Contemporanea, which proved to be the problem.

Rather it was the name of the work - which was originally called Arsenal of Democracy.


The choice of name was a pure coincidence.

The dance is based on music by an American composer Julia Wolfe, from her album Arsenal of Democracy.

Communist Cuba has a long history of both classical ballet and modern dance, art forms that have been fully supported by Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the revolution.

On arrival in Havana, though, Bonachela discovered that the Cuban dance company's managers were not too happy about the name.

In the end a compromise was reached, and "Democracy" became "Demo-n Crazy".

The music is fast, furious and powerful - and so is the dance.

It is physically demanding, at times almost acrobatic, yet with all the soul and rhythm you would expect from Caribbean dancers.

International acclaim

Despite the sweltering heat of a Caribbean summer, the dancers rehearsed without air conditioning in their studio as they prepared for opening.

Danza Contemporanea is well known outside of Cuba and has been winning international acclaim for years.

Earlier this year, two of the company's hottest talents were flown to the UK to give workshops to up-and-coming dancers.

Bonachela describes their style as a mix of Graham technique, Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences.

Cuban dancer George Cespedes was one of the dancers who led workshops in Ipswich. Now a student again, he describes Bonachela as a "tough choreographer".

"It's hard work but really interesting because he shares his thoughts with you. It's been interactive. We take Rafael's ideas and then we develop them in our way."

Petite, feisty, and with a large tattoo on her back, Alena Leon is one of the lead female dancers.

"It's always interesting working with different choreographers, they have something we don't have and we have something they don't have," she says.

Originally from Barcelona, Bonachela has spent most of his working life in London - as a dancer, then a choreographer, for the Rambert Dance company. More recently he has found fame for his collaborations with singer Kylie Minogue.

He has found the Cuban dancers receptive to his ideas.

"They are the most amazing, trained, passionate, dedicated dancers.

"What they need is the outside vocabulary and influence of other choreographers - a different way of working."

Cultural elite

Many of Cuba's cultural elite - musicians, dancers, artists and writers - were among those attending the world premiere at Havana's historic Grand Theatre.

The guest of honour was Abel Prieto, a tall long-haired author who is also a Politburo member and Cuba's minister of culture.

"Our culture is always open to such exchanges," he said, adding that he really enjoyed the performance.

Between the US embargo and travel restrictions many Cubans feel isolated from the outside world. This is a communist island adrift in a world hostile to its revolution.

Having a western choreographer come to Havana is seen as a major breakthrough.

Now there are plans for Danza Contemporanea to take the newly-named Demo-n Crazy to Europe in the New Year.

"Coming here meeting these wild, amazing, half-crazy Cuban dancers, one thing led to another," said Bonachela.

"It actually made it a better title for me."

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