After the intermission, HAVANA RAKATAN moves inside, from the streets and waterfront locations evoked in the first act to a scenography of nightclubs and theatrical shows. It seems, suddenly and counter-intuitively, more authentic than it did before. Colorfully dressed farmers and urban workers, dancing in celebration of weddings, harvests, fiestas, might seem, on the surface, to be more basically human than the glitz and glamor of club and stage. Maybe, in some ideal anthropology of Cuban dance, it is. But Act One of HAVANA RAKATAN, for all of its color, physical beauty (the cast is incredibly attractive), and fine dancing, is – how to put it? – auto-romanticized. It is supposed to be tourists who celebrate “rural folk” and “ordinary people” as picturesque, but HAVANA RAKATAN does it on its own: such happiness! such joy! how authentic! Not. Or at least it did not seem so to me, which should not take away from the skill, charm and beauty of the dancers. In Act Two, on the other hand, those same dancers come alive; they are allowed to be authentic, because it is encoded in the situation. Show is artifice, nightclub is display, we – the audience – are the audience, and they are permitted to play for us.
Act Two, with its mambos, boleros, rumbas and salsas, its exploration of sex roles and willingness to perform, and a live singer, could stand apart as an evening’s, or an afternoon’s, entertainment. The musicians, whose presence at the back of the stage worked against the mimesis of the out-of-doors in Act One, turn vivid. The act has build, it has drive, it leads up to and reaches climax, culmination, finale, encore (the encore feels, significantly, like one mainly for itself, and only peripherally for Act One). The dancing is superb overall, and the choreography canny, even when there are not obvious principals in the routines, in reserving the central position, or the climactic moment, for the two or three dancers, among the men or the women, who stand out just a little more for their precision, passion, or technique.
There are some interesting notions at play in the first act, including a rather academic effort to expose the politically potent encounter between Iberian flamenco and the sub-Saharan dances brought to the Caribbean through the slave trade. The second act is less calculated, prompting us to entertain such thoughts on our own. There is, for example, a marked difference in the attitudes of the men and the women that becomes apparent and is of interest from the standpoint of culture and gender. The female dancers have a conscious elegance and technical precision, in both carriage and footwork; the males, by contrast, are determinedly loose, even rubbery, unwilling, as it were, to demean themselves with exact posture or visibly perfect technique. The slouch, as we know equally well from North American culture, represents coolness, which is to say, indifferent strength. The men are also overtly competitive, in ways that the women, who keep their rivalries implicit, are not.
HAVANA RAKATAN is choreographed by a native Cuban, Nilda Guerra, and presented as part of A bailar, a series of three shows that New York City Center, in concert with the original producer, Sadler’s Wells London, is presenting for the next couple of weeks. Next up is M¡LONGA, a tango show, and after that, BALLET FLAMENCO SARA BARAS. HAVANA RAKATAN disappointed me at first, but Act Two, which got the audience – especially a large Cuban-American contingent – on its feet, was exhilarating. It had the rhythmic verve that rakatan, an invented word, was intended to convey.
The last performance of HAVANA RAKATAN is 7pm on February 22 at City Center. A bailar continues with M¡LONGA, February 26-March 1, and FLAMENCO SARA BARAS, March 4-7. For tickets and information click here.