British Council Cuba has developed the first part of a workshop with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba as part of the building capacities project Islas Creativas. This year the world-class choreographer Fleur Darkin, Artistic Director for Scottish Dance Theatre, was invited as the main trainer. British Council Trinidad and Tobago joined the event and invited choreographers Sonja Dumas and Dave Williams who also contributed towards the event success. The second part of the project is due to happen in Havana at the end of October and will conclude with the premiere of a new play created by Fleur, scheduled for early November.
It's hard to put into words what a gift this project was. That fantastic company with its wonderful staff and truly world-leading dancers, then two participants in the Creative Islands project who were both authorities in their own right and passionate artists, leaders and collaborators, and the British Council team in Cuba and the UK, who conceived and delivered the project. British Council has triangulated a network that I dearly hope can contribute to the Artistic infrastructure between Cuba, the Caribbean and the UK. I will work my hardest to progress the ideas we talked about as well as making the best piece I can on the company. Thank you all for the work you put in to make it so smooth and such a developmental opportunity for all involved. I have returned to the UK with a far greater understanding of why we make art and my own purpose as an artist. I believe it will help the Scottish Dance Theatre and all the audiences we meet. Thank you all. Cuba has a fundamental understanding of how important dance is and the dance culture there is awe-inspiring. The humility is the same response. - Fleur Darkin
Choreographer Dave Williams shares his experience from the project
The truth about movement… It changes your position
To get yourself from one Caribbean island to the next to the next can sometimes involve a great deal of highly intricate choreography, particularly if it’s “Cuba” you have to get to. Getting to the airport at 3AM is also no simple circadian feat. Nevertheless, the British Council got us through the immigrational hoops laid out for this inter-island steeplechase.
We made it to the check-in counter with time to kill. Passport – check. Travelcard – check. Itinerary and booking info – check. Luggage, money, and sweat clothes - check. They sent us back home. No yellow fever vaccination, no boarding. COPA Airlines wasn’t having any of it. Sonja Dumas, the other Trini representative on this exchange had her yellow fever shots, but it wasn’t recorded on an international immunization card. Back home. The Dance Lab was going to have to start without us tomorrow.
It was still all about navigation– navigating the healthcare system - getting a yellow fever shot, recording it on an immunisation card (the local version) and then getting that record transferred into an international immunization card. And it all had to happen before 2 PM when the place that does the transfer closes. At the same time, the ladies at British council had to make all the adjustment to bookings and itineraries. By 2 PM, we were all sorted – shot up and ready to go. We would now travel to Cuba on Tuesday, getting there in the late afternoon.
It was actually a bit overwhelming once we got into the studio. Nearly forty of them - all in one single room – each one, an energized amalgam of focus, technical intensity, individual nuance, concentrated expression and lightness of being. Yet, all of them seem to be in the same exact zone – on the same page - in a single work of art. And this was only a class.
Inside the rhythms rendered by the skilled percussionists accompanying the class, Thomas’ pulsing vocalisations – in what I can only call “onomatopoetry”. Thomas moved the class through their paces. Each step executed with familiarity and understanding, but each one stretching, reaching, and pushing deeper/further for more. It was like tapping into and turning on “soul”. These dancers were truly working in the moment… and in the movement. The sensuous undulations of the yanvalou rippled through the profoundly Grahamesque modern technique. I wondered what Miss Graham would think if she stood here with us, today
Ernesto, our British Council man-on-the-ground, who seemed to be embedded in the company brought us from the airport to the studio here at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba was our navigator and translator. As the class ended Fleur Darkin came into the room. She darted to a plinth at the other side of the studio she put down and hooked her stuff into power and sound. Artistic director of the Scottish Dance Theatre, she is the lady commissioned by the British Council to create the new work on the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. She was sweaty and focused. If I had two weeks to mount work on a company like this I’d be sweating too. She had been working on her own in the studio upstairs, getting it together for the coming session.
Ernesto made the introductions as Darkin was about to continue her workshop, the one we were now two days late getting into. We got our bearing and jumped right in.
As we shared later, Darkin was also a wee bit overwhelmed by the volume, capability, and openness that was on tap here at Danza. The new piece and the process would also have to hold the attention of forty skilled and eager dancers who didn’t know her from Adam.
Every day at lunch when we: Sonja, Fleur and I, would sit in the office and discuss how the morning went and how the afternoon could possibly go. It was also a time for a little group therapy. These dancers were like sponges, sucking up everything thrown at them. They kept on being impressive and wonderfully overwhelmingly.
Over the next few days, in Fleur’s workshops to create/mount the new piece on the company offered the perfect environment for peer observation and team teaching. It allowed us, as choreographic strangers, to develop an understanding of each other’s processes, interests, styles and language. It also set in place a solid platform for longer termed engagement across international borders. At many more meals, we were also able to go very deep without exchange of perspectives and experiences with respect to many of the socio-artistic issues we face and grew from in our native cultures.
The next steps are, in another highly intricate piece choreography, to try to get our tails to Cuba later this year for the premiere of the new piece created and performed by our new colleagues; to get that company here in Trinidad for our CoCo Dance Festival in some measure in 2017; and full out in 2018.
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater persons than yourself”.
Try as I did over the first few of the ten days in Cuba, I could neither dull nor avoid the voice grinding in my head. Louder than ever before – louder than it ever spoke on any other trip away from home, the voice of comparison pumped up the volume to a mind-altering and unmuted clamour.
Was it envy, or just culture shock? But then isn’t comparison the heart of artistic inquiry, and certainly the engine of cultural exchange. Eventually, I stopped trying to stop the comparing.
Apples and oranges?
These dancers were full-time employees of Danza; there is not a single dancer making a full time living from dancing back home. Was that the key? It couldn’t be, very few dancers anywhere on the planet have that luxury.
Back home we don’t have a national dance company, not in real one. One exists on paper somewhere in the archives of the National Dance Association and in some forgotten Cabinet minutes. Cuba has three national dance companies, that I counted: one for folk dance, one is ballet, and Danza, the contemporary company. And all have been around for decades.
We’ve (T&T) had money and oil and free trade, cultural and diplomatic relationships with just every Tom, Dick & Harry. We have passports, travel agents, democracy, cable TV, the entire unadulterated worldwide web, and 4G LTE. Surely, we should be producing dancers like these and a company that kicks more ass than they do. Are we distracted? Cell phones rang rarely in Cuba. Interestingly, people held hands instead of mobile devices.
Still stunned by the sucker punch of shameless comparativeness that Cuba hits you with, my mind still reels in the concussion. And the hits kept coming. Why in the world are the arts so virile here in Cuba? In a country that has had its own pas de deux with communism, why are the contemporary arts so alive? Didn’t communist regimes see contemporary art as public enemy#1? Looking back at my native democracy, the contemporary arts seem now more like irritants that ought to be purged from the system. Continuing in the metaphorical: at best the irritants are coated and crushed to avoid any social discomfort. Have our contemporary arts/dance become mere placebos administered to trick the collective mind and body into cultural wellness?
Their technique - Every dancer here had internalized a kind of modern dance that seemed unique to Danza and to Cuba. Not only in the steps and exercises, which were decidedly Afro-Cuban, but there was also a deep soulfulness that went into every breath that supported and articulated every movement, gesture, and line. They approach movement as if it feeds the soul itself, and vice versa. How do you replicate that?
In my country, I have not experienced a modern technique derived from an import so deeply digested and transformed that it became so indigenised. Of course, and no one can argue, our local dance world is saturated with powerful and richly indigenous forms that we have transformed from middle passage and colonial manipulation of immigration and human trafficking.
The Scottish Dance Theatre and Danza, how did they come to be? How do they work? Why is the road to our own national dance company so broken and weeded over; and have I just found some of the tools to mend it or maybe completely circumnavigate it? Cuba can put a lot of pressure on a fellah. And there seems to be no immunization against that.