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Cuba Caribe Festival

Knowledge Through Movement

It figures that the most intriguing destination in the Caribbean is the only one that you can’t easily plan a visit to. Cuba, the land of the rumba, aromatic cigars, and Afro-mythic folklore, has long held the fascination of foreigners eager for a taste of Caribbean splendor, particularly since we’ve been indoctrinated with the idea of its being forbidden fruit. But despite the archetypal visions of vintage cars and Communist propaganda, few people truly realize the impact Cuba has made on the international community, particularly with respect to its vibrant tradition of dance throughout the centuries.

This month’s Cuba Caribe Festival of Dance, Music, and Theatre, which continues through May 1, highlights some of the artistic traditions of both Cuba and other Caribbean countries. The four weeks of performance also include workshops, discussions about the politics and art of Cuba, community celebrations, and extended opportunities for participants to delve deeply into a world that is too often either exoticized or dismissed altogether. Performers include Ramon Ramos Alayo, Susana Arenas Pedroso, dancers from the Ban Rarra group, and other artists from the Bay Area Cuban community.

Recent festival events include “Dear Fidel,” a multimedia show that underscored the strained political relationship between the United States and Cuba, through dance, video, and narrative. Recent panel discussions have also included an in-depth exploration of the Santeria/Yoruba spiritual tradition, a workshop on the infectious combination of African and modern Cuban dance, and the musical traditions that pay homage to the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people. In addition to workshops and performances, the festival also features “Sobrevivir: The Survival of Cuban Identity Through Dance,” an exhibit that continues through May 3, and features artwork and video presentations that chronicle the role of dance in preserving Cuban culture and aiding in the creation of a dynamic national identity.

Last weekend’s “Yo Soy Cuba,” presented by the Arenas Dance Company, probed the vivacious intermarriage of Cuba’s Spanish and African traditions through music and dance sequences rooted in the rich mythopoetic history of the nation. Relaying the cultural legacies of deities such as Yemaya (the mother goddess of Santeria) and Babaluaye (the father of the world and the Orisha, or deity, of care and compassion) through ritualistic performance, the Arenas Dance Company wove a remarkable tapestry of a mythology that seems strangely relevant and grounding amidst the chaos of our geopolitical milieu. All the same, the performance was imbued with the sort of disjointedness that made being a passive audience member feel somewhat inappropriate to the occasion. Aside from the spoken word introductions that preceded each piece and dripped with theatrical embellishment, this was a show whose magic was conveyed more through the experience rather than the performance. As the musicians responded to each other through an improvisational repartee between percussionists and singers, and the dancers glided across the stage in an ecstatic convulsion of sound and movement, I almost felt like I was watching a ritual procession on the street—one that could have easily invited enchanted spectators’ active participation.

This weekend features the Alayo Dance Company with “A Piece of White Cloth,” a brilliant and poignant performance that traces three major Cuban traditions: Yoruban movement, Cuban folkloric dance, and the modern fusion of Afro-Cuban dance. Movement, continuity, and ancestral memory are major components of the spectacle, which uses metaphor and ritual to assert the enduring presence of dance in Cuban cultural and spiritual traditions. The final weekend of the festival also features the Alayo Dance Company in “La Madre,” an eloquent personal piece about choreographer Ramon Ramos Alayo’s loss of his mother. Intersecting narratives around myth, memory, archetypes, and spiritual awakening seamlessly mingle to produce a new realm of possiblity and healing through concepts of family, history, and art.

What makes the festival so illustrious and thought-provoking is the fact that the dance and theatre delineate a mythology that is never divorced from the struggles and triumphs of the Cuban people, from the inception of their nation to their political and artistic present. For those of us whose educations left Cuba an inconspicuous speck on the atlas of the world, the Cuba Caribe Festival presents a delightful opportunity to cull little known knowledge about this multifaceted island nation without having to crack open a book.

Cuba Caribe Festival performances continue through: April 22-24, 2005 All shows are at 8 pm (except Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm) April 29-May 1, 2005 All shows are at 8 pm (except Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm) Dance Mission Theater 3316 24th Street (at Mission), San Francisco www.dancemission.com Tickets: $18 in advance, $20 at door (performances only) To reserve tix call Dance Mission Box Office at (415) 273-4633.