The American Dance Festival and the Carolina Theatre of Durham co-present Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, from Santiago de Cuba
It’s something I didn’t expect to happen in my lifetime. The invisible wall between the United States and Cuba has been cracking for years, but finally, finally, the cracks are big enough for an entire troupe of traditional Afro-Cuban dancers and musicians to come bounding through. In spite of various bureaucratic impediments, including the breakdown of the US State Department’s visa computers, and the threat of thunderstorms that might have grounded the last flight out of Miami on the 14th, Ballet Folklórico Cutumba and all their costumes and drums made it to Durham to present their spectacular show, which was introduced by the very excited Baba Chuck Davis. Davis was unusually ebullient, even for him, thrilled that another aspect of African culture would soon be more widely known. “Roots and Cuban Tradition” will repeat tonight at 8 p.m.
Some years ago, my passion for textiles lead me from Nigerian cloth into a broader study of west African arts, which led me to the dancing of masks, which led to studying the orisha—deities–especially those of the Yoruba and nearby cultures, which led me to Santeria and voudun and the head-smacking realization that much of African Atlantic culture had been preserved and carried on for centuries on the far side of that ocean. The slave trade killed millions, but it did not kill the orisha, who continued to make their meanings even when operating under the mantle of the Roman Catholic church and other ways not immediately apparent to white people.
Yemayä is a great example. Goddess of the Oceans, Great Mother, Queen of the New Year, she slipped easily under the blue cloak of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, whose son is recognized by all wise men on the Feast of the Epiphany. The first dance in Ballet Folklórico Cutumba’s program is traditional to that day. In “Procesión ‘King’s Party'” seven of the great Yoruba deities dance in turn, demonstrating the powers arising from their essential characteristics. The most splendid of these in last night’s dancing was Yemayä. You may not have known her name, but her power and her association with water and life were unmistakable.
There follows a song and dance to Changó (Shangó, Xango), a powerful warrior and lover among the orisha, who is associated with drumming and dancing as well as thunder and lightning. He was hot, as he should be, in his red and white, with his symbol, the double-headed axe, as he prepared the way for the splendid ensemble of “Warriors and Handmaidens.” There are only eight dancers on this tour, but their energy, and the brilliant, bouffant costumes decorated with pattern and enriched with ruffles and floating panels, made them seem like many more. With the musicians and singers all in white on a narrow dais behind them, the stage was filled nearly to spillover.
Six pieces follow post-intermission, with more emphasis on the fine singers and drummers. I thought the peak was a sharp piece in which the four male dancers, all in white, with soft white shoes, perform a series of solos and duets that bear striking resemblance to some of the Nicholas Brothers classic tap dancing routines–but without tapping. Then all the dancers come out in flat hard sandals, and comprise another rhythm section, slapping, not tapping, the flat soles against the floor. The crisp sounds beating together with and in contrast to the rounder sounds of the drums was just amazing.
But wait, there’s more! The final piece made dance pattern visible by means of colored ribbons on a pole. Working in two teams, the dancers move over, under and through, to wrap the top of the pole in a round braid made from the pendant ribbons; they braid sections to lie flat along the pole; then they weave around it again–before undoing the whole thing. All this occurs at warp speed, under the influence of rapid drumming. They dance the weave!
There are no deep questions explored here. There’s no angst, no innovative social commentary, no provocative new choreography–but my mind was blown. This program shows an aspect of dance that is as important as any other. And it is more than OK to get happy with it. There one thing, though, probably a permanent conundrum. As the Grateful Dead used to croon, in a song about a man dying, “it all leads up to this day.” If African people had not been enslaved and taken to Cuba, we would not be seeing these dances in Durham. I don’t know know what to do with that, except praise the persistence and adaptivity of the culture those people brought with them.