Group of dance practicing The listening room, a new work for Danza Contemporánea of Cuba

The UK based choreographer and designer reflects on his recent trip to Havana where he led choreographic workshops and created ‘THE LISTENING ROOM’, a new work for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba.


My recent trip to Havana was so overwhelming that I fear even attempting to pin it down with language. How do we share our experiences? How can I put into words that which was sensed, felt and embodied? I’m forever changed by the things I saw, the wonderful people I met and the creative journey we took in creating ‘The Listening Room’. It is like the very essence of Havana has left its trace on me and I feel an urge to pass on that spirit in the way I conduct my life and the work that I go on to create.


In July 2015, I was invited to a meeting in London with Laura Perez of British Council Cuba and Jorge Brooks, Managing Director of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (D.C.C.). We had a chat about my work and their respective organisations and there seemed to be a tangible energetic connection that held in it, the potential for something special to be born. They proceeded to invite me to Havana the following spring to lead a week-long choreographic workshop for local performers and dance makers and to choreograph and design a new work for the dance company. Since the dates were hard to fit around my other work, I had just over two weeks to create a dance for twenty people at around thirty minutes in length. A tall order maybe, but I was up for the challenge, especially since D.C.C. has an incredible international reputation and Havana has always been on my wish list. I invited Leah Marojević, one of the dancers from my own company with whom I regularly collaborate, to join me on this exciting journey. 


I have been choreographing for four years and, other than my recent creation for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, these dances have mostly been created for my own group, toured to small-scale theatres and performed for audiences I have come to know fairly well. However, this commission was due to be presented at the recently restored Alicia Alonso Grand Theatre of Havana, a venue that sets up quite different expectations than those I am familiar with.


 I am increasingly interested in context and how that impacts what I make and the way I create it. I also enjoy the influence of where work is shown and who is taking part in the performance. I could see that this commission was going to provide me with a host of new factors to respond to, rethink or repurpose. It felt vital for me to bring a questioning small-scale approach to this whole venture rather than slip into the existing tropes of large-scale dance as I perceive them. I disciplined myself to work experimentally and set about devising a simple concept that would be a challenge for myself, for the company and for the audience too. Generally speaking, if I am going to use the term ‘contemporary’ dance in relation to my work, I believe I have a responsibility to be in dialogue with the very ‘nowness’ of things. I sought to bring some new perspectives on what dance could be like to make, to perform and to witness.

Following a flight diversion to allow for Obama's plane to land, I arrived with Leah into Havana and we were driven to an apartment situated in a beautiful neighbourhood called Vedado. That first evening, we took a stroll in the thick moist air and everything we laid eyes on appeared unbelievably filmic. Positioned inside most of the houses, under an entrance arch or in a kitchen, was a simple and unassuming neon light, giving domestic scenes an almost theatrical glow. I hoped that the work I would go on to make could feel like this walk. On day one, our trip to the studio took us past incredible houses of all kinds, each one its own particular faded shade of lemon yellow, pale pink and cool turquoise. Providing a stark contrast to the pastel hues of the homes, were huge, almost gothic trees, their branches like haunting arms over the roads and the architectural plants with exotic flowers that lined them. Some properties were falling down, some were half inhabited, some had dogs on the roof and lean cats out the front. Folk were seemingly always outside on the street chewing the cud and ready to welcome you with a ‘Buenas!’ A group of elders dressed in bright whites began each day with Tai Chi in the park outside our window, while lanky teens played soccer in the park behind. I was struck by how much of life appears to be choreographic when you’re conceiving a new piece. Vedado provided a feast for the senses at every turn and I would later find a way to weave these vivid experiences into the work that was made.


Upon entering the company studio Leah and I were greeted by the most generous group of open-hearted humans we could ever have hoped to collaborate with. For the initial week, the company dancers were joined by numerous local dance makers with whom, I was able to share my creative processes and outlooks. I led a technique class each morning before embarking on creative workshops together with Leah. We initiated group discussion that challenged some existing notions regarding dance creation and performance, tested out some tools for devising movement and conducted games that assisted a greater awareness of presence. We chatted about the role of the empowered dancer as a collaborator and through various tasks and improvisations, the dancers started to understand the concept of dancer ‘agency’. What is possible when there is permission given for the performer to listen to their own instincts? What happens when they are invited to ask their own questions whilst in performance? How can they create the show they want to dance in real time? I recognised that the idea of a choreographer not needing to fix every aspect of their work was a fairly radical proposition and was in stark contrast to some of the choreography they were used to dancing and making.

I suggested that some of the dominant pre-existing value systems around dance in performance were worth reconsidering, for there are many ways that choreography can engage its audience. I explained that my work is founded on a belief that a clear process will engender trust in the cast to make great informed choices and that this can be the case for set material as well as improvised dance. For my work to truly become a live experience, to do and to watch, I have to let go of a need for total control and let the performers themselves write the work. Many magical dances were revealed to everyone present in the room that week and the sound of pennies dropping was simply beautiful for myself and Leah to witness.


One dancer who has performed in the company for many years was so confused at the beginning of the process that she eventually broke down in tears. She explained that, whilst this approach made sense to her, it challenged everything she had thought about herself in the world and in her dancing practice. After some healing reassurance from Leah who explained that we are all in a process of ‘figuring out what we are doing’ and ‘attempting to find comfort in unknown places’, she started to let go of some pre-existing ideas about her dancing self. The next day a massive transformation had taken place, it was as if she finally trusted that she, herself, was enough and the armour could come off. It made me reflect that discipline can be of the mind, whilst the body can be set free.

The dancers at Danza Contemporánea de Cuba are remarkably talented and strong, they possess an incredible work ethic and at the same time, have an elasticity of mind and hunger to dive into unexpected places and take on new ways of thinking. The workshop week meant that I took the time to carefully introduce the company dancers to my way of thinking to a degree I might not have done were I solely engaged to choreograph a work for them. I quickly realised I had a group of inspired and inspiring people in the room and I could create a work that held within it, the freedom that I so often wish for. I invited them to bring their natural selves to the piece and I explained that an audience might be able to see themselves reflected in a cast of dancers if they, the dancers, allow themselves to be truly present and visible as a diverse group of individuals.

For this piece, I desired to work with an existing piece of music; something epic that could match the size of the cast and the volume of the performance space itself. I set about devising a way of disrupting the common relationship between dance and music to ensure the equal presence of each form. Could the dancing be performed with the music rather than to the music? Could the music appear to be played to the dance rather than the dancing be performed to the music?

When I think about music for dance, I often return to the use of sound in film. In particular, the way in which Mike Leigh regularly sets a mundane scene against stirring music which seems to trigger an unexpectedly moving reaction. In these circumstances, the actor does not wash their dishes in a meaningful way to the music we hear, but we are invited to watch the action, hear the sound and find our own connection between these forms to assimilate our own meaning. Whilst I’m certainly not afraid of emotionally driven work and am passionate about communicating to my audience in ways that will engage the body, mind and heart, dance where the performers are responding in an emotional way that duplicates the sound, often leaves me struggling to find space to notice my own self and my own feelings in relation to the material I am presented with. 
I decided that for this commission, I would stage a situation. A situation housed in a room where a conversation between forms could take place in real time. Both the audience and performers would be invited to navigate what they see and what they hear, to create their own interpretation of events.


I explained to the dancers that we would be creating numerous dances to a diverse range of music and for the performance, they would each be given MP3 players and headphones to dance with. The audience were not going to hear what the dancers were listening to and instead would be listening to Steve Reich’s 'Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings’. I remember an air of fascination tinged with concern around this notion. One of my tasks would be to ensure this theory would not alienate the audience in practice. I positioned myself in an unknown place as an artist, aware that searching to solve the puzzle of this creation together with the dancers would impact their investment in the work and would be visible to an audience. The concept of this piece was intended to house dance of all kinds, celebrate of these young dancers and empower dance as a form.

Some of the dances we made were totally improvised, some were set choreography whilst others were games and tasks. From Vivaldi and Bach to Beyonce and The XX, our relationship to music was central in the devising process. Impulses, interpretations, rhythms and different sensations became visible in the dancers bodies as they listened and their curious play became totally infectious to witness. What was quickly becoming clear was that a forth wall could exist sonically but should not exist performatively. I directed the performers to share the space with the audience and to energetically invite the audience to join them. 

When we moved into the theatre, the work expanded to accommodate its new frame and I made adjustments to ensure it reached the theatre’s back row as much as the front seats. I was finally able to fully realise the design elements that I had been projecting onto the work in the studio. The lighting and costume designs were directly inspired by my stay in Vedado. Hanging centre stage was one domestic neon light, the very same as the those I spotted in the local houses. The dancers were dressed in simple shorts and t-shirts made out of linen in various shades, just like the sun bleached buildings of our beloved neighbourhood.


I can honestly say that watching this odd, thrilling and somewhat ambitious work that I created with Leah and the dancers unfold on stage, undoubtedly constituted one of the most magical moments of my entire life. Their understanding of the licence they had on stage deepened each time they entered the work. By the last show, there was a truly palpable excitement in the theatre from those on stage and those watching. As I had hoped, the theatre had become a room. 

On reflection, what I came to love the most about this whole experience, were all the people this project involved. The work that was created would not have been able to flourish without the curiosity, passion, trust and sheer bloody hard work of everyone involved from the dancers, to the staff of The British Council and Danza Contemporánea and of my incredibly wise soul mate Leah. I hope that in some small way this work might be important for the development of the artform here in Havana, but for me this could be about the conversation, the approach or the working process as much as the eventual work that we staged. When my U.K. friends enquire about my experience of living and working in Cuba, the only term that seems to be appropriate is ‘life changing’.