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Review: Cuba’s DanzAbierta debuts at The Joyce Theater

The Joyce Theater

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Contributing Writer, May 15, 2016

With the new excitement around warming relations between the United States and Cuba, it’s not surprising that one of Cuba’s most celebrated contemporary dance troupes, DanzAbierta, made its Joyce Theater debut this week before a nearly sold-out house and won a generous response from the audience. The second of three companies in the Joyce’s Cuba Festival (now through May 22), DanzAbierta (“open dance”) worked no small measure of stagecraft magic in Showroom, an ensemble piece from 2012 by choregrapher Susana Pous and technical director Guido Gali.

Gali and the Spanish-born Pous also share design credit for Showroom, and we must start there with their all-important set. The action takes place on the stage of an old-school Cuban cabaret modeled on Havana’s world-famous, and mobbed-up, Tropicana—think towering feather headdresses, ruffly pouf sleeves and trains, lots of skin—a giddy phenomenon that somehow managed to survive Castro’s revolution. A movable set constructed to resemble the club’s glittery stage curtain gives us views of glamorous showgirls and showboys smiling and doing their thing for our enjoyment. But rotate that curtained frame sideways, or pull it aside entirely, and we clearly see a different atmosphere behind the scenes.

The production benefits not only from this surreal malleability of set and stage space but also the soundscape from X Alfonso, a Cuban musician noted for crossing all sorts of boundaries of musical era and genre. He complicates the traditional music in Showroom and enhances its otherworldliness with a soundscape that can throb, reverberate, distort and tick like time running out—or a bomb about to explode.

Almost all of DanzAbierta’s six performers show useful versatility in their dancing, though this unremarkable look might be purposeful. Only the eye-catching Mailyn Castillo stands out in any way, her grin almost always set in rictus and her moves, as lead dancer as well as singer, determined and calculated. The others fill in the stage and the story, but both their onstage rumbas and their abstract, backstage interactions leave them looking like animated artists’ mannequins. When they strip off their show clothes backstage, their nude-colored underwear and hair caps really underscore the featureless mannequin quality of their movement. We still wait for real people to show up.

The title, Showroom, more than hints at these performers as objects of commerce. In its focus on stereotypes in popular entertainment, the piece recalls a 2013 work by New York-based dancemaker Camille A. Brown—the Bessie Award-winning Mr. TOL E. RANCE. In that ensemble work, Black dancers grapple with the history of blackface in vaudeville, as well as the myriad ways Black entertainers have been and continue to be stereotyped in American society. Pous might have been going for a Cuban version of this theme—an interesting project—but she could have told her hour-long story in half the time. We get the point early on and, regrettably, Showroom’s repeated elaborations simply seem belabored.

Cuba Festival continues at The Joyce Theater with additional performances by DanzAbierta (May 16-17 at 7:30pm) and the debut season of Irene Rodríguez Compañía (May 19-20 at 8pm, May 21 at 2pm and 8pm and May 22 at 8pm). For information, click here.


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