The annual CubaCaribe dance festival hit Oakland last weekend, with its “Cuba on my mind” theme for 2016 arriving presciently a year into the Great Cuban Thaw. It’s also been barely a month since Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana, in the aftermath of which Fidel Castro groused, “we do not need the empire to give us anything.”
But it's safe to say the “empire” itself has greatly benefited from the Cuban diaspora. The vibrant Caribbean music and dance scene in the San Francisco Bay Area attests to the longstanding search by Cuban artists and others from nearby islands for freedom of expression and collaboration opportunities. Cuban ballet dancers, for example, continue to defect to the west, and many of them end up in the Bay Area. As Joan Acocella noted in a column last year for The New Yorker about the potential impact of the loosening of the trade and travel embargo on “the island’s most important artistic exports, music and dance,” these talented performers crave the modern, often experimental, repertory that is not permitted to flourish in authoritarian soil.
The three choreographers represented in the second weekend of the CubaCaribe festival riff on the “Cuba on my mind” theme with imaginative results. Revolution – in some form – is definitely on their minds.
In Chalk Outlines (Excerpts), a dance, poetry, vocal music, and theater piece created in response to deaths of non-whites as a result of police violence from choreographer Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project, commanding vocalists Valerie Troutt and Rashida Chase sing of Africa, “the mother of civilization,” and invoke Moses (“go tell Pharaoh/let my people go.”) The dancers, all in spanking white, perform crisp and ebullient street dance-style moves, tracing the shapes of corpses with their own bodies. Do we acknowledge the individual humanity of the victims of oppression, Klaymoon seems to be asking with this work, or are they just statistics and chalk outlines at a crime scene?
With her work Gracias A La Vida, guest choreographer Krissy Keefer assembles a soundtrack of protest songs from Cuba, Peru, and Argentina, alongside tracks well known to U.S. audiences like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In Keefer’s setting of the music, six dancers from the Alayo Dance Company wield wooden stools and a bracing contemporary dance vocabulary in their evolution from prisoners to freedom fighters, egged on by an impeccable ensemble of musicians.
Meanwhile, CubaCaribe festival founder Ramón Ramos Alayo’s powerful, grounded, African-inspired movement evokes an astonishing meditation on such themes as the dehumanizing side of technology, the complex nature of transitions, and the fragility of the artistic soul, in three short pieces that bookend the program.
Where the Butterflies go (A Donde Van Las Mariposas) identifies the artist with nature’s most fragile and short-lived creatures, darting above a rippling stream that provides essential nourishment. 24/7 puts Ramos Ayala’s dancers in an urban setting, where bird calls are drowned out by the static, buzzing, and ringing of phones. Prisoners of invisible handheld devices, the dancers wear tortured, sleep-deprived stares and strut like robots. As the people of Cuba clamor for technology to underpin a new economic order, 24/7 seems to warn against buying into a tech-utopian idyll.
Then there’s the melancholy but gripping Goodbye. Enveloped in a swirl of turquoise and a bright red manton, with a sexy cry in her voice, singer Destani Wolf, backed by a splendid trio of musicians, wanders the stage telling us through song that no one knows what tomorrow will bring. Ramos Alayo’s fluid, acrobatic dance moves underscore a resolve to live in the passion of the moment. One of several forceful alliances in this piece is a duet of sisterhood featuring dancers Fredrika Keefer and Jillian Hibbert. Their bond is a glorious mixture of abandon and control that promises shelter in an era of instability and transience.
The third and final weekend of the festival moves to San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Friday, Apr. 29 and Saturday, Apr. 30 and promises more of a folkloric bent, with Haitian dance, capoeira, samba de gafieira, and more on the schedule. The festival is also offering dance workshops, and a screening of the documentary They are We (on Thursday, Apr. 28 at the Museum of the African Disapora) which recounts how an African clan, riven by the slave trade 170 years ago, is reunited through its tribal music. Details on CubaCaribe’s website.