It was the angle of her neck that mesmerized me. In the middle of a performance on the wide wooden stage of the Grand Theatre in Old Havana, scarlet dresses swirling and feet pounding out the rhythm, one of the dancers turned at the waist, raised her chin and paused.
That was the moment when I became a flamenco fan. That one small movement said everything about the passion, strength and sensuality of this art form. Flamenco in Cuba may seem a bit incongruous considering it is quintessentially Spanish. But while it originated in the Andalusia region of Spain, it grew out of a fus ion of different cultures including the Islamic, Sephardic and Gypsy as well as the local Andalusian. Spaniards brought their music and culture to many of their far-flung outposts.
Flamenco was first brought to Cuba in 1882 by the Spanish dancer Trinidad Huerta, who performed at the Teatro Tacón. Fittingly, this venue later became the Sala García Lorca concert hall in the beautiful Gran Teatro de La Habana, named for the Spanish authour closely linked to flamenco.
His collection of poems, including Gypsy Ballads published in 1928, are often used as lyrics for flamenco songs. In a Canadian connection, Leonard Cohen recorded his 1986 song "Take this Waltz" using Lorca's poem Pequeño vals vienés which reached the top of the music charts in Spain.
The main national flamenco company, the Spanish Ballet of Cuba, was formed in 1987. Breaking away from that organization, a group of young dancers and musicians formed the Ecos Flamenco Company in 1999. Their objective was to foster the learning, development and spread of flamenco dance and music and the name of the group was chosen to reflect the "echoes" of the Spanish past found throughout Cuba today. Those echoes of music and dance and of peoples and culture continue to resonate with the musicians and dancers, providing them with the emotions and strength that characterizes Cuban artists.
The Company stages large shows and tours the biggest theatres throughout Cuba. In Havana, they regularly hold shows in the 2,500 seat Mella theatre. On a more intimate level, they can be seen performing their tablaos at the charming Meson de la Flota restaurant in Old Havana.
Under the helm of Danny Villalonga, the Artistic Director and lead dancer, Ecos has become one of the premier flamenco groups in Cuba. Danny first got involved with flamenco in 1994 because he was attracted to the music and gypsy customs. He has been dancing for over a decade and rose through the ranks to his current position.
Guiding the artistic direction of the Company as well as choreographing, teaching and dancing has become a full time job. Soft spoken and mild mannered in person, he transforms into a stomping, angry bull on stage. During his solos, his feet thunder into the floor like a team of carpenters driving nails. "We are very interested in gypsy customs," stated Danny, "the way gypsies dance flamenco and speak Spanish is unique. Gypsies dance flamenco differently from everyone else and this is the style that we try to follow."
Talent, creativity and discipline
The Company prefers to minimize the cubanía in their dance in favour of the Gypsy style but the fact that all the members are Cuban certainly contributes to the ongoing evolution of their art. The women of the Company are extraordinarily talented and beautiful. The lead female dancers, Ana Rosa Meneses and Yohara García, started dancing at the ages of 9 and 4 respectively and have been dancing together for years. Their experience and dedication clearly shows in their mesmerizing synchronicity and elan. The corps de ballet is made up of a half a dozen dancers, many of whom have emerged from Ecos' own dance school.
The musicians under the guidance of the musical director, Jose Manuel Tejeda, include two guitarists, singers, a flute and saxophone player, and a percussionist on the cajón. A cajón is essentially a wooden box but can cost several hundreds of dollars as it is elaborately constructed to include a strategically placed sound hole and snares to produce many different sounds. The cajón originated from Peru and was introduced into flamenco companies only in the 1970's but is now an integral part of the rhythm and sound of flamenco.
The lead singer, Samir Osorio, sings in the classical style and sounds like a grizzled road weary Gypsy. In fact, he is only 23 years old with an upbeat personality and an infectious smile. Ecos' artistic intentions include the modernization of flamenco's different forms, both in dance and music, while maintaining its roots in the traditional. This can be seen in the choreography which moves from the traditional to the modern and in its music where non-traditional instruments, like flutes and saxophones, provide different sounds to introduce new levels of depth and colour.
As part of the Company's commitment to flamenco, they have opened a dance school that has almost a hundred students. The school is comprised of students between the ages of 6 and 20 and are divided up according to their ability and knowledge of flamenco. The lessons provide a constant learning process drawn from the talent, creativity and discipline of the teachers who are all dancers of the Company.
The school periodically organizes large performances where their students can dance on some of Havana's biggest stages to show the dances they have learned and to experience what it is like to perform in front of hundreds of people. While attending a class, I tried to figure out the 12 beat syncopated rhythm.
I understood what the beat was supposed to be but I was completely unable to reproduce it and contented myself with listening and watching.
So flamenco in Cuba is not strange at all. Not only was it brought to the island over a century ago, it has been preserved and taught by dedicated dance companies and it continues to evolve the world over encompassing new influences from such places as Latin American and Cuba. For the dancers and musicians of Ecos, flamenco lets them connect with their heritage and traditions while expressing the emotions and experiences of their modern lives.
The silver medal won by Cuban decathlete Leonel Suárez at the 2009 World Track & Field Championships in Berl in placed him and his country in the el ite of the difficult competition. The Cuban athlete gave a hint of his possibil ities a year ago with the bronze medal won in the Beijing Olympics with a historic performance; becoming the first Cuban ever to mount the podium in decathlon.
Suárez called the second place obtained in Berl in "a spectacular feat" and it proves that the performance in the Olympics was not a fluke.