By ROBERTO MENDEZ MARTINEZ
HAVANA TIMES, March 10 (IPS) – Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is celebrating a half a century since its foundation. The group’s origin dates way back to the Department of Modern Dance of the National Theatre of Cuba, founded in 1959 and under the supervision of professor and choreographer Ramiro Guerra.
Guerra had been trained in ballet as well as modern dance in the United States with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, and had had the courage in the 1950s to try to promote the genre in Cuba with recitals he gave at the Nuestro Tiempo Cultural Society.
The Department’s work was not easy. The idea was to train around 20 dancers based on elements taken from the schools of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, José Limón, in symbiosis with Cuban popular expressions and, above all, African origin sacred or profane dance.
In the meantime, however, it was necessary to quickly offer general culture to the future dancers. It wasn’t a question of pure folklore but rather modern art, for which they had to have their own language. This work was one of the perfect incarnations of the revolutionary utopia. A manifesto published at the group’s initial stage proposed with the absolute and exalted tone proper of those years:
To explore the island’s myths and foreign ancestors who germinated in the Caribbean melting pot and to have a vision of the past with present-day tools to build a future. To raise an individual form to a universal character without picturesqueness, but without losing color. Be linked to the land, but with a contemporary cosmopolitan air, our dance shows nuances, qualities and viewpoints that only we, through our own language, can reveal, also using the broad contemporary resources of the voice and song, of cinema and music.
Although the first fruits of the group were exhibited in the still unfinished Covarrubias Hall of the National Theatre on February 18, 1960, the first of the troupe’s truly notable works -which would remain for decades as part of its repertoire- was Suite Yoruba, a choreography by Ramiro Guerra, which saw the light in that very stage on June 24, 1960. Later it would be filmed for posterity in the documentary Historia de un ballet (History of a Ballet), made in 1962 by then young filmmaker José Massip.
The collaborations of foreign creators, from U.S. Lorsna Burdsall to Mexican Elena Noriega, were especially important during that first stage, while Cuban dancers and creators such as Eduardo Rivero, Arnaldo Patterson, Gerardo Lastra and Víctor Cuellar were being trained in its ranks.
Its first tour was paradigmatic. In 1961, not long after the April Bay of Pigs invasion, Contemporary Dance was able to perform at the Paris Sara Bernhardt Theater during the 5th Season of the Festival of Nations. The public and critics gave them a rousing welcome. L’Humanité daily praised “the spontaneity of that evocation, the wealth of rhythms” in “a legendary and at the same time real world,” and Lettres Françaises said: “a national genre has been created.”
That mixture of vanguard and tradition, experimentation and folkloric search, was producing some legendary pieces: this is the case of Orfeo Antillano, from 1964, where the Greek myth is transplanted to Cuba based on the use of pieces of concrete music by Pierre Henry mixed with Yoruba rhythms, a Santiago de Cuba street dance with its Chinese horn and even a trumpet solo created ad hoc by Leo Brouwer.
Four years later, Medea y los negreros was performed at Havana’s García Lorca Theatre. This time around, a script based on Euripides’ tragedy was taken to a Caribbean island and the soundtrack merged fragments of Carlos Chávez and Luciano Berio, with touches of Congo acclimatized in Cuba.
For years, the public applauded this creation, where there was an authentic Greek choir that followed the ups and downs of the Medea-Jason-Creusa triangle and applauded the singular virtuosity of dancer Ernestina Quintana in the main role. Meanwhile, dancer Eduardo Rivero was beginning his own choreographic career with the unquestionable successes of the duo Okantomí (1970) and Súlkari (1971), which for a long time would be the group’s most authentic letters of presentation.
Surviving the ‘70s Cultural Purge
However, the Five-year “Grey Period” was knocking on the door. In April 1971 the invitations for the premiere of Decálogo del Apocalipsis by Ramiro Guerra had already been printed when the order came to suspend the premiere.
The work had been in production for a year and was Ramiro Guerra’s most audacious endeavor. The action was to take place in 12 different areas of the National Theatre and mixed cinema art, jazz, electro-acoustic music and even some of songs by The Beatles.
Although the work was never completely staged, there were some partial tests with audiences and among them not just a handful of jubilant promoters but rather what the choreographer euphemistically called years later “small censoring groups” and these were shocked by the use of “foreign” subjects and music as well as by the biblical intertextualities and even some sexual elements such as the scene of the “chaste Joseph” in Cantar de los cantares, where according to the creator, there already were details of “gay aesthetics.”
It was too much for those times. Not only was the work erased from the marquee, but the choreographer was removed from his post of director of the group.
From an aesthetic point of view, this was a serious blow for the troupe. The life of the group continued, Guerra’s disciples continued creating, but there was a limit on the horizon, which had to be carefully avoided. Special emphasis was placed on the Afro-Cuban folklore elements and on the development of the group’s own dance language.
While creators such as Eduardo Rivero and Gerardo Lastra seemed at ease within these limits, another restless spirit was making way: Víctor Cuellar. Starting with his Juegos poliformes from 1971 and Diálogo con el presente (1972) up to Júbilos (1978), changes for more propitious times were being prepared.
In fact, it was basically Cuellar who introduced in the group, which since 1974 bore the name of National Dance Group of Cuba, the first elements of post-modern dance and especially those of dance-theatre.
While he was able to create an elegant and balanced solo — Michelangelo in March 1979 — for soloist Ruben Rodriguez, in September of that same year he astonished audiences at the Mella Theatre with his Escenas para bailarines, taken from Goethe’s Faust, since there was a bit of everything there: inter-textual games, circus elements, theatre resources, self-parodies, de-construction “a la Derrida” of the classic text. Unfortunately, Cuellar’s leaving the country a few years later put an end to this career.
Such diverse aesthetics emerged in the ranks of the group in the late 1980s that it was impossible to maintain a balance between them. In addition, the new generations of creators had their own projects that could not always be channeled in the walls of the “mother group.”
Several of them left the group — Marianela Boán, Rosario Cárdenas, Narciso Medina, Eduardo Veitía — to create their own groups based on a personal aesthetic that seems to exceed the group’s basic budgets.
Meanwhile, Eduardo Rivero also leaves those ranks to establish himself in Santiago de Cuba and found the Caribbean Dance Group, more along the lines of the traditional and folklore to which he was close to.
Despite these losses, the company not only was able to survive but advance. Now with the more general or modest name of Contemporary Dance Group of Cuba and under the direction in the last two decades of Miguel Iglesias -who got joined the troupe in the 1970s from the Ballet of Camagüey- has achieved an updated production of its language. Performances in Ottawa, Venice, Verona, Brussels, London have demonstrated the group’s vitality.
While among its maestros and creators there are “historic” figures such as Isidro Rolando, Dulce María Vale and Luz Marina Collazo, and new choreographers such as Julio César Iglesias and George Céspedes have emerged.
Their creations confirm the searches in the most current dance language, as demonstrated by the recent premiers of Breath Fragment by the former and especially the Carmina Burana mega show, conceived by the latter based on the “stage oratorio” by Carl Orff, which had its world premiere in Mexico’s National Auditorium on November 20, 2008. In January 2009, in a smaller format, it was put on for Cuban audiences at the Grand Theatre.
Contemporary Dance is celebrating a half century since its creation. It declares itself to be the “mother of dance on the island” while meeting the challenge since the legacy of Ramiro Guerra branched into many projects across the country and with this the notions of language and aesthetics, as well as foreign influences, which are increasingly more heteroclite. How to live according to the new airs and not lose the values of a tradition that left authentic milestones? Perhaps that is the greatest of its challenges.