Danza Contemporánea de Cuba debuts at the Joyce

Cuba has had a high profile in the dance world mainly due to the tireless efforts of the legendary Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso who, at age 90, still directs the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. That purely classical company will show New York its current roster of dancers next month, with four performances (June 8–11) at BAM. At the moment, however, we have a chance to discover where Cuban contemporary dance has been heading as well. Modern dance styles have definitely taken root there as well, though Americans haven’t had a chance to sample that development, due to political stalemates and subsequent embargo that prevented much cultural exchange and touring. But now, more than 50 years after it was founded, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba is making its U.S. debut with a two-week season at the Joyce Theater, offering two separate programs.

Danza Contemporánea de Cuba

Danza Contemporánea de Cuba performs Casi-Casa at the Joyce / Photo by Gerardo Iglesias

The 24-member company may have chosen to open its first program with George Céspedes’ Mambo 3XXI in order to lead off with a work by one of its five resident choreographers. But this mostly regimented display of punchy, athletic moves was more formulaic than inspired. At least things improved once the 21 dancers had made it through the opening sequence, in which they formed seven lines and delivered a fast-paced, uninspired aerobics demonstration. As Mambo 3XXI progressed, one could discern a faint theme of regimentation giving way to individuality, or predictability ceding to spontaneity. Beginning in white tank tops and black shorts (women) and white tops and khakis (men), they gradually added more color and variety to their costumes as the dance progressed. And they eventually were allowed to show us more of who they are.


The dancers spilled across the stage in a skein of solos and duets, demonstrating great fluidity as well as strength. The men showcased some b-boy moves, and the weight-baring improvisatory approach of Contact Improvisation was evident in some of the pairings. Céspedes interspersed male-male and female-female pairs with the male-female ones in what seemed a dutiful, rather than motivated, element of the work. Sections set to more melodic Latin music, rather than a pulse-heavy sound score, allowed the dancers to loosen up and display their sinuous reach and coiled strength. At the conclusion, the dancers returned to their lines but were allowed to be more wild and spontaneous; as the work drew to a close, they were verbalizing their enthusiasm as they former a partying cluster in the center. It felt like a manufactured ending, but it worked: The crowd responded with an excited cheering ovation.


The second half of Program A is Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa, a 40-minute work with individual parts more intriguing than its overall impact. Ek is a well-known Swedish choreographer who has long been a major figure on the European scene. He is skilled at alluding to dramatic situations through subtle encounters, and his duets can be eloquent in their yearning ambiguity. Casi-Casa suggests a framework of lazy domestic coziness, but its uninterrupted series of scenes unearths darker urges and somber consequences. A freestanding door and a stove are onstage. A tall, striking earth-mother appears next, propping a fedora on a raised foot. She later returns to lead a quintet of women who smoothly manipulate stylized vacuum cleaners to the sounds of wistful bagpipes.


Duets are Ek’s strength. A man and woman in gray seem destined to be together, partnering with a sleek urgency reminiscent of early Jiri Kylian works. Their intensity is such that it sets the stove to smoking, with ultimately grim consequences. Another lithe, intense couple reach for each other around and through the door. The music is credited only to Flesh Quartet, but sounds more like a collage of varied selections, though mournful violin-led melodies predominate.


This program will be performed Friday and twice on Saturday; Program B (Wednesday through Friday evenings and Sunday matinee) features an intriguing trio of choreographers. It includes Horizonte by Ballet Hispanico alum Pedro Ruiz, the first Cuban-American to work with the company, plus Demo-N/Crazy by Rafael Bonachela, the Spaniard who now directs Sydney Dance Company, and Sulkary, a 1971 work by DCC resident choreographer Eduardo Rivera that incorporates Afro-Caribbean movement.


Danza Contemporánea de Cuba

Through May 22, Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at 19th St.), 212-242-0800; $10 .