To most Americans, Cuba is still a tantalizing mystery: a forbidden island nation, just 90 miles from Key West, where communism coexists with palm trees, really good cigars, and the sultry strains of salsa music. Among dance lovers, it has long been celebrated as the birthplace of great ballerinas - from 90-year-old legend Alicia Alonso to Pennsylvania Ballet's own Riolama Lorenzo - and mambo, a social dance form that has found its way to Hollywood, Broadway, and beyond. But we've never seen Cuban modern dance - until now.
This week Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (DCC) makes its Philadelphia debut as part of the company's first-ever U.S. tour. Long familiar to audiences in Europe, Asia, and Australia, it is a large, professional, state-sponsored ensemble founded by Ramon Guerra in 1959, the first year of Fidel Castro's revolutionary government. The touring component consists of 21 young dancers whose physical strength, versatility, and attractiveness are all at an extremely high level.
Like Cuban society itself, these performers are a hybrid of ethnic and racial types. Schooled in both ballet and modern-dance techniques, they also are totally comfortable with African and Caribbean movement styles. Their company has commissioned new works by choreographers from Havana and Spain, and from Sweden, Holland, and New York.
The program presented at the Merriam Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday nights will include three works designed to demonstrate DCC's range. Barcelona native Rafael Bonachela's Demo-N/Crazy shows off the dancers' impressive physiques, with the men wearing only white trunks and the women in white briefs and bras - or, at times, only the briefs. It includes elements of gymnastics, some gorgeous live singing, and an unexpected, literally upside-down ending in which the cast slowly executes unison headstands, and then holds them for what seems like hours.
Totally different in mood is Mambo 3XXI, by company member George Céspedes. This tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of one of Cuba's most popular exports is danced in casual clothes (khaki trousers and shorts, loose shirts and T's) and goes from weirdly robotic to wildly exuberant aerobic - yet also sexy - group movements.
The other item on the Merriam bill is also the first work ever created for DCC by a Cuban American. Pedro Ruíz, now 46, is the eldest of three children born and raised in Santa Clara, a small town in central Cuba.
In a recent phone interview, Ruíz explained that his initial training came from a second-grade teacher who taught her students to dance ballet, local folk dances, and more. When he was 15, his family moved to Venezuela, then 21/2 years later settled in West New York, N.J., where he had to adjust to a new language, serious winter weather, and the challenge of earning enough money to pay for dance classes (they were state-sponsored in Cuba).
After many disappointments and difficulties - including a stint working at an insecticide factory - Ruíz met and auditioned for Tina Ramírez, founder and director of Manhattan's venerable Ballet Hispanico. He spent 21 years as a principal dancer with this troupe, for which he also created three works.
Now an award-winning teacher/choreographer, Ruíz encountered DCC in 2009, when he returned to Cuba for the first time in 30 years. Company director Miguel Iglesias invited him to teach a master class, which in turn led to the commission to choreograph Horizonte (Horizon). The piece, Ruíz says, was inspired by his walks in old Havana, watching the waves splash over the Malecón esplanade that stretches along Havana Bay. His goal in Horizonte was to use "the energy and sensuality" of DCC's dancers to evoke the exquisite colors and tropical breezes of his native land. He attended the 2010 world premiere of Horizonte in Havana, where it was enthusiastically received.
When the company began its current American tour in Virginia Beach, Va., this month, Ruiz was there - and "very proud" that the dancers received a standing ovation. Of the 12-day engagement at New York's Joyce Theater that followed, he exulted, "I still can't believe that this has happened, being accepted, as a Cuban American, to choreograph for a Cuban company - with such gorgeous dancers!"
But the tour almost didn't happen. Despite the recent increase in cultural exchanges between the United States and Cuba, the long-standing economic embargo and political tensions still exist, and continue to cause major headaches for presenters of international artist groups. According to Randy Swartz, artistic director of Dance Affiliates (which, with the Kimmel Center, is cosponsor of the Philadelphia performances), it took eight months of hard work, by many organizations, in several cities, to work out the logistics involved in getting the Cuban dancers, and their staff, to this country.
"At one point," he recalled, "four company members had no visas, so the troupe wasn't coming."