Get ready for a Cuban invasion! Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is heading for Birmingham to showcase its awardnominated take on the sexy mambo dance at the city’s international dance festival. Diane Parkes has a sneak preview in Madrid.
There are 21 dancers on stage all perfectly synchronised. Facing forwards and moving in a uniform stylised manner one moment, the next they suddenly break free, giving vent to their own expressions.
It is like watching a form of street dance and yet a street dance which is somehow balletic – blending strength with gentleness, power with submission and individualism with a group mentality.
These dancers are actually performing a piece called Mambo 3XXI but it is not mambo as we traditionally see it.
That is not so surprising as its choreographer, George Céspedes, wanted to ensure his Mambo 3XXI was anything but traditional.
A rising star with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba (DCC), George was commissioned to create a new work by a group of British dance houses – Dance Consortium, DanceEast and Sadler’s Wells. They originally wanted something “typically Cuban”, but Céspedes was unwilling to be pigeonholed.
“Originally they asked me to make a piece for them,” he recalls. “I said yes and I started to find my own ideas, my own music and my own stuff.
“Then, one day they sent me an email saying they would like to have a piece to Cuban music with Cuban rhythm.
“But I said, ‘I am not the guy for this. We have so many clichés about Cuba – salsa, black guys, whatever – and I am not the right person to do that, but I can put you in contact with someone who could do this kind of show, who could represent our culture in the way you would like it to be represented’.
“But they said no, they liked my style and they wanted me to work with them. So I said, ‘Yes – but under my terms’.”
George decided to blend something typically Cuban, the sexy mambo dance, with something new.
“I did a lot of research and I found mambo. When I found the music I didn’t want to perform it like that, so I went to see a friend who makes electronic music and they made new pieces with the style of mambo.
“Then I went to the studio and I took the real dance of mambo and I developed it and made it into my own way. My idea was to present our rhythm and our culture, but in a different way.
“I am really tired of the clichés. Cuba is a cliché for the whole world.
“I am a Cuban but I don’t like what people think Cuban culture is. Cuba is more than salsa. People only know what happens in Havana, but Havana is not Cuba. It is just a small per cent of what Cuban culture is.”
The score takes music from the “King Of Mambo” Perez Prado, but cleverly remixes it, even blending an excerpt from one of mambo’s best-loved singers, Beny Moré, in a piece which offers changes of direction, speed and mood.
Premiered in the UK two years ago, Mambo 3XXI was nominated for both Olivier and TMA Awards and has become a popular part of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba’s repertoire.
This May, Birmingham audiences will have the chance to see the work when DCC performs it as part of a triple bill at the Hippodrome Theatre during International Dance Festival Birmingham.
The programme will also feature a sideways look at Bizet’s popular opera in Carmen?! by Dutch choreographer Jan Linkens and a new work currently being created by Israeli Itzik Galili, which will be premiered on the UK tour.
Dance has always been part of George’s life. Growing up in Holguin in north-east Cuba, he began training at the age of ten. He studied dance and choreography at the National School of Dance before joining Danza Contemporanea de Cuba.
The company, which was founded in Havana in 1959, has gradually developed to become one of the leading contemporary dance players, not just in Cuba, but internationally. With tours of the United States of America, Asia, Australia and Europe under its belt, DCC has built up a firm following on a global level.
Now in his early 30s, George remains a member of the corps, having danced in more than 20 of DCC’s works. But he is also keen to keep progressing as a choreographer, creating works for companies including Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as for television.
“I am a dancer and a choreographer – I think each one is part of the other and they come together,” he says. “If you are a dancer and then you become a choreographer then you already have an idea of where to start to work.
“As a choreographer you are aware of what it is to be a dancer. One is part of the other and each makes you understand each other. The inspiration for my choreography is inside me. I do take it from outside all the time, but normally I take it from people, rather than places.
“Sometimes places give you an idea, but I take what I have in my hand. I take the tools. I take people’s feelings and then we do it.”
George injects plenty of humour into Mambo 3XXI, a humour which also breaks through when he talks about his methodology in terms of choreographing.
“When I was creating Mambo I was looking at the dancers and trying to see what they could give me, what they communicated to me and I used that. I have an idea, but it is very global. I go there and then I do what I can with the dancers.
“Normally I break them – mentally and physically! That way it is easier to work with them.”
George’s talents have brought him international recognition and three years ago he took part in a choreography exchange organised by DanceEast.
“There was a project where one choreographer, Rafael Bonachela, went to Cuba, and me and another dancer from DCC came to the UK to Ipswich to run some workshops,” he says.
“We were working with 11 girls, but only three were from England. The rest were from round the world.
“But we didn’t want to just do a workshop, we wanted to make sure the dancers could do something with it so we did a piece for them to perform.
“We didn’t show it in any theatre but it was good. It was fun for them and for us.”
And the visit improved his language skills. With Spanish as his first language, George is nonetheless a confident English speaker, but he has worked hard to reach that level.
“I always try to use English when I can and that is how I have learned it. If you keep talking to people, then it gets better.”
George is looking forward to returning to England this spring with DCC, which will be in the UK for just over a month, kicking off in Newcastle before coming to Birmingham.
“I enjoy touring a lot and in England I have a lot of friends. It is always good to have a different view of yourself from outside.”
And he hopes to continue choreographing on a worldwide stage.
“I am a free person and I see myself everywhere,” he says. “I can see myself wherever I have an idea and we can have a conversation and communication. And if someone is interested to work with me and those ideas, then I can do that.
“I am Cuban because I was born there, but that doesn’t mean that I can only work there. I could work anywhere, I guess.”
Cuba has certainly seen its changes over the past century as it passed from the heady days of the Batista regime to become a Communist island under Fidel Castro. Facing embargoes from the United States, the country has needed to stand on its own two feet. But dance has always been at its heart.
Over recent years the UK has gradually become increasingly aware of the richness of dance in Cuba, with Royal Ballet principal Carlos Acosta pushing forward cultural exchanges. Acosta has visited Birmingham a number of times over the past decade, including an appearance with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, when the company performed at Birmingham Hippodrome as part of International Dance Festival Brimingham 2010.
George says dance is part of the national spirit of Cuba.
“Every part of the world has its own way of being. Being Cuban we have a lot of heat, sea, beach and a different way to see stuff. That makes us what we are. Maybe that is why we are really physical and, at the same time, conceptual.”
But he is also wary of continuing the idea that Cuba is nothing but mojitos and salsa.
“In Mambo I wanted to tell people how young people like me see our culture,” he says. “It is not the same as old people in Havana.
“Being a young person in Cuba is the same as being a young person in all places, but with different stuff. I have my family there, my friends there, I have a girlfriend. I have a bike. I like the weather and some other things and there are some things I don’t like. Living in Cuba is like living everywhere.”
* Danza Contemporanea de Cuba perform a triple bill at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre on May 8-9. Contact 0844 338 5000 or see www.birminghamhippodrome.com for ticket details.