Lithe, elegant, yet earthy and bold, Acosta Danza enthralled with aggressive freedom. Cuban dance exudes sensuality with rhythm at the heart. It seemed to seep upwards from the floor generating tiny pulses that the dancers played within subtle shimmies of hips, fingers and even toes before exploding into the long lines of classical ballet and the curvature of contemporary dance. The underbelly of the performance was the embodied streets of Havana – a rich cultural tapestry of urban, folk and social dances with an unmistakable identity that was palpable in the performances of the eclectic group of dancers. Individuality rather than uniformity engaged the audience. Two duets by renowned choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui took full advantage of the company personality while group works from Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg and the opening Alrededor No Hay Nada (There is nothing around) by Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero were imbued with Cuban cultural essence in different ways. Another important partner in the mix was the lighting design for each work – the company foregrounds the dancers with minimal sets and costumes so dramatic staging was key.
Tango like tableaux of dancers caught in a corridor of light, framed in an embrace, or frozen after some fast-paced footwork and knee spinning to a spoken poem and jazz songs by Joaquin Sabina and Vinicius de Morais underpinned the concept of Alrededor No Hay Nada (There is nothing around). Clad in black jackets and hats that were twirled like a cabaret act and swapped between the dancers, the piece echoes dance hall sexuality with playful manipulation of couples, trios and groups as they found music in the cadences of the strident voiced lyrics. Sometimes the partnering became brutal as the manipulation of a dancer took on a foreboding reality only to resolve into a playful jest. Nostalgia, ‘Manana’ (tomorrow) and a timeless flow emerged from the raw energy that looked back but also propelled the dancers forward to live in the moment – fittingly it ended abruptly like a snapshot of time encompassing past, present and future.
Rumba is a quintessential dance force of Cuba and the choreography Paysage, Soudain, La Nuit by Pontus Lidberg captured this in a folksy style group work set in front of a hedge of long straw. It showed the passage of the day and metaphorically life cycles with the colour and mood changing as the dance progressed. Beautifully realised with a perpetual flow of the group juxtaposed against individual moments of reflective dance, it showed young couples in love or flirting in small groups. Malleable bodies flowed across the floor, were balanced in subtle lifts that merged into soft landings to begin anew in a phrase of rumba beats and grooves. The notion of perpetual motion came through in the shift of movement passages as well as the lateral movement of the whole piece as it moved in a loop across the stage with dancers exiting then often re-entering on the other side. The large group dances were fun and inventive with the beat moving up the bodies as Afro-Cuban inspired stomping sustained quirky gestures and individual eccentricities for the upper body. Joyful and infectious it captured the youthful essence of the company.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui chose two mythical beings for the duets that closed each half. Known for his collaboration across many cultures there was an expectation of some Cuban resonance in Faun or Mermaid; yet strangely these pieces took on a global focus allowing the dancers to breathe identity into each. Faun channelled the original Vaslav Nijinsky choreography L’après midi d’un Faune, set to Debussy’s original score. Adding music from British Indian composer Nitin Sawhney enabled a rich canvas of emotions from the romantic original to the texture of electronic contemporary Asian music to emerge. Dancer Carlos Luis Blanco rolled relentlessly around the space before a luminous projection of a forest glade. While not a parallel stance with iconic hand gestures echoing the original Nijinsky was to be seen, the choreography explored the body through acrobatic muscularity and earthly connections. At times the dancer seemed lost and the direction of the choreography unclear. Enter dancer Zeleidy Crespo and the creative possibilities took on another dimension. With exceptionally long limbs and upper body flexibility, she was able to create shapes that were unreal, animalistic and overtly sexual. The couple joined to discover the spaces between them creating highly original movement in a visceral expression emanating power and grace. It was a stunning rite of passage transposing Nijinsky’s original to the present day. The final choreography, Mermaid featured outstanding performances by artistic director Carlos Acosta with Marta Ortega. Danced to a soundscape by Cherkaoui’s long-time collaborator Woojae Park, sounds of water dripping, the sea and traditional Korean songs add to the surreal, timelessness of the work. Incorporating the metaphor of a fish out of water we find ‘the mermaid’ struggling to stand in pointe shoes as she attempts to walk on dry land. Images intrude as we recall present-day refugees endlessly walking to find a place to rest, people encountering difference and seeking help; this powerful metaphor is teased out wonderfully by the dancer who looks at times wild and confused, yet wise and knowing as she gazes at the audience. Acosta is brilliant as her rescuer; a compassionate companion and accomplice in her journey to safety. An exceptional dancer of our time his partnering is soft and supportive while his solos are virtuosic in the insightful clarity of each moment. While the choreography includes somewhat cliched imagery as if the idea of the mermaid must be reinforced through endless slithering, toe wiggling and being held vertically, the rapport between the dancers surpassed this as they gave passionate performances reminiscent of the highest romantic ballet canon. Returning to the dripping water and magnification of this simple sound the water-soaked dancers emerge to convey the deepest humanity of survival and overcoming. Deservedly, rapturous applause followed – it was a night that belonged to the dancers.