The Creative Islands Team
(L-R) Sonja Dumas, choreographer; Dave Williams, choreographer; Minerva Rodriguez, British Council Country Director; Lancelot Cowie, Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago in Cuba; Fleur Darkin, Artistic Director for Scottish Dance Theatre; Lesley Saunderson, Deputy Head of Mission and HM Consul at the  British Embassy, Havana; and Miguel Iglesias, Director at Danza Contemporanea de Cuba.  ©

British Council

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.

Trainer's Note:

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

PART I

Sunday

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.

Monday

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.

Wednesday

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 Contemporanea 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.

PART II

Deeper though

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater persons than yourself”.

Desiderata   

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.

©

British Council

Creative Islands Workshop
Choreographer Dave Williams facilitating the Creative Islands Workshop.  ©

British Council 

Creative Islands Workshop
Choreographer Fleur Darkin (centre), Artistic Director for Scottish Dance Theatre, lead the workshop.  ©

British Council

Choreographer Sonja Dumas facilitating the Creative Islands Workshop
Choreographer Sonja Dumas facilitating the Creative Islands Workshop.   ©

British Council

Creative Islands Workshop
Students participate in a group activity during the Creative Islands Workshop. ©

British Council

Choreographer Sonja Dumas shares her experience from the project

Looking, Feeling, and Dancing

Nearly each day for about eleven days between in late March and early April in 2017, Dave Williams and I would trek about a mile up Ave. Paseo in Havana from the small, eponymously named hotel where we stayed to the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, the home of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. We had good reason to walk instead of taking a taxi; our bellies would usually be full with a large breakfast that included guava, and I, for one, felt that I could lose a few nagging pounds. I was thankful for the guavas, though. Guava trees seem to be so rare in Port of Spain now; gone are the days when I could help myself to a low-hanging fruit from a random tree whose laden branch was hanging over the sidewalk. Cuba’s wholesome, larger-than-life guayabas, therefore, factored prominently into our breakfast each day.  

The walk to the Teatro Nacional, about ten or twelve minutes long, was itself an education – a cultural reminder of the grand architecture of Cuba and – rows of two-storey houses with colonial histories, some dilapidated, some under repair, some transformed into fancy restaurants (one was even a beauty salon named after Kim Kardashian) – all magnificent. Even the gargantuan ficus trees in the centre of the avenue, each knot of their plaited trunks a keeper of past and present culture, were reasons to pause and wonder.

The Plaza de la Revolución, with its towering new-age obelisk – a monument to the political ideals of the Cuban Revolution - sits directly opposite the Teatro Nacional. Its grandeur is fully matched by the passion of the young dancers whom we found in the magical world of the dance studios of the building. I had been there before on a brief visit many years ago. It hadn’t changed much. The space is simple. There are no mirrors in the larger studio - just a good dance floor, a sound booth and large windows that bathe the studio in light. However, what energized the space were the forty-odd dancers – young, vibrant and hungry for opportunities to move, led by the quiet dynamo of a teacher called Tomás, who were taking their daily technique class.

As a dancer and choreographer and teacher, I am always fascinated by how bodies move in space. These dancers were infusing each exercise with their own personalities, their own variations on a theme – a far cry from our way of doing it in Trinidad and Tobago, where conformity in basic exercises is what is expected. These dancers, before any choreography, were carving out a declaration of their own dance personas. It was refreshing to see this investment in themselves; I could see that this could only serve to enhance their stage performance. They had been given the freedom to be the performers they could be as soon as they entered the space. That they were young, bright-eyed and ambitious only made them more keen to excel in their movements. The occasional (spontaneous) spellbinding extension of a leg to the ceiling or the percussive gesture of the head seeping into the elongated curve of an outstretched arm was almost like watching a fully choreographed piece. And this was just the preparation for the day.

I return to the word, “investment”, which I think is key. The days that followed brought the workshopping of the movement of Fleur Darkin, the smart, compassionate contemporary choreographer from England (by way of the Scottish Dance Theatre, where she is an artistic director).  Her task was to begin the creation of a piece that would be completed later in the year. She was flummoxed by the versatility, acuity and agency of the dancers. It was almost, she said as if she didn’t know what to teach them that might be new. But she invested time and energy (including several hours of preparatory work) in the creating a language of movement for the work that would edify and empower all concerned. The dancers, for their part, invested every sinew of their bodies in trying to interpret her movement, some of which was definitely physically challenging. Fleur also invested in Dave and me, as she welcomed our participation and comments and interpretation of her process. We also workshopped some of our own ideas with the dancers – some of which evolved out of her process with them.

When we could, usually over the deceptively simple but sumptuous meal that everyone (dancers, administrators, visitors etc.) was fed each lunchtime (some days there were even guavas), we would discuss each other’s process and how the work was shaping up. To be honest, I had not arrived in Cuba with a clear understanding of what was expected of us – Were we to assist in choreography? Observe? Teach? It turned out that most of it was observation. But the process of continuous observation and discussion is a powerful aid to a choreographer, even if it is not her own work.

A choreographer, however, is wired to choreograph. Dancers are our instruments, so when we see vibrant dancing bodies, we want to start shaping movement for them to execute. Sensing this, the ever-generous Fleur invited us to work with the dancers one afternoon, exploring ideas of our own and ideas that might have come from our discussions during the course of the lab. The session was short and full – Dave and I had separate groups of dancers with which to work; he explored his ideas with one, I explored my ideas with the other. The process of creativity never ceases to amaze me; the dancers executed the movement as true to my explanations as they could, and they did it extremely well. But in the unexpected absence of recorded or live music, I began to sing just so they would have some accompaniment. It turns out that what I hummed – a Yoruba-inspired song to the Orisa deity Yemanja - resonated with them to the point where the study absolutely came alive in the moment. They were fascinated with the song – perhaps because the Yoruba culture is so strong in Cuba. Suddenly I had a performance emerge from a simple workshop idea. I just never know when these moments of connectivity will happen. But I am eternally grateful when they do.

I also got the opportunity to share the teaching of a Saturday class with Tomás. Like Fleur, I wondered what I could teach them that they didn’t already know. But the answer to that was easy, embedded in my informal thesis about Caribbean movement. A movement that is considered endemic to the Caribbean is largely predicated on interpretations of African movement that arrived in the region under conditions of forced migration. That movement is largely grounded and percussive - both on the corporeal and musical planes. However, many of the distinct percussive styles of various parts of the West Africa where the majority of enslaved Africans originated became conflated with each other, as members of different African cultures were thrown together and therefore influenced each other. But each amalgamation arguably developed differently within the confines of each island, so that the execution of percussive Afro-centric music or dance looks and feels different and likely carries a different set of codes in different islands of the region. I decided to call my class “African-Caribbean movement – Trinidad and Tobago style”, to both teach them our T&T style of Afro-based percussive movement and to see how they interpreted it. The result was a short, energy-charged class with the dancers joyfully interpreting the movement and enjoying their own African-Caribbean style inside of each exercise. I always marvel at how different our interpretations are, even though the percussive element is so prominent in our shared heritage. I also taught them the Trinidad and Tobago “wine” (oscillation of the pelvis), of which, of course, they have their own version.  My own personal dream is to create a contemporary Caribbean version of Swan Lake one day soon, using dancers from all over the region. This short class definitely gave me more insight into the inherent impulses of these Caribbean bodies – something I can use if my Swan Lake dream comes true. Perhaps I might be lucky enough to have some of them even perform the work.

Those moments were precious, and as was the evolution of Fleur’s process towards the realization of her choreography for Danza Contemporanea. For those two weeks, the lab was a little ecosystem of exploration that brought Fleur and the dancers closer to the creation of a work that, if Fleur has her druthers, would play a major role in the company’s repertoire for many years to come. Fleur’s exercises were carefully crafted offering the dancers micro and macro ways of moving. Her overall theme was an investigation of how dance meets mourning – a challenging topic, but one that has so many layers that the bedrock of investigation is rich. At the end of the process, there were several engaging phrases of movement, ranging from frenetic, release-based rolls on the floor to disco-like impulses inspired by techno music. The dancers executed all with vigour and investment (that word again). I could see how the dancers grew into the language of the dance.

For me, this trip was a lesson in revisiting how to observe movement (what I often tell my students to do). It was also another opportunity to simply look and imagine – the foundation of creativity. Of course, a single, stand-alone two-week trip is long on one hand but a drop in the bucket on the other. (Two weeks were also enough for me to gain more irritating pounds, despite the daily walks, but that’s another story that has something to do with too many rich desserts at dinnertime.) Long or short, these types of trips draw us further into our creative selves, making us hungrier to do more, to make more. I truly hope that more long-term collaborations will happen – especially meaningful intra-Caribbean ones, which are all too infrequent. I was especially happy to connect with both British and Caribbean dance leaders such a Fleur and Miguel Iglesias Ferrer and Jorge Brooks Gremps, respectively artistic director and manager of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. I applaud and welcome with open arms these creativity initiatives of the British Council.

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