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Sadler’s Wells and Congas Productions present


Havana Rakatan

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Choreographer and Director – Nilda Pons


Musical Director – Rolando Ferrer

 


Peacock Theatre


21 May – 22 June, 2008

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Havana Rakatan offers so much more than any garden variety musical revue could do, for, not only does it feature astonishingly original choreography and undeniably outstanding dancing, but it also lights up its audiences with enough Cuban sunshine, via its infectiously spirited music and dance, to effectively outshine all the theatre marquees in the West End!


The stage reeked of atmosphere from the first with dancers standing in position, backs to the audience, before a tropical seafront. Their harmonious chanting seemed to embody the African roots of many of the Cuban people. The word ‘son’ stood out from their lyrical Spanish words. It signifies a type of music blending the two cultures.
The fact that my understanding of Spanish is very limited only seemed to add to my enjoyment of the proceedings as it left me free to appreciate the rhythmic sounds and movements of the performers.


A trumpet player and singer gave it their all in the first number. They were soon joined by some male dancers who reached up vigorously punching the air, as their fellows quickly stepped and spun. Escalating blasts on a trumpet added emphasis. The opening of the next number was a real lady-pleaser, though those who sighed out loud may not have been the most ladylike. Well-developed, male dancers slowly peeled off their shirts…the lights going dark as they reached for their trousers. Sporadic signs of feminine reactions again, audible. When the lights went up, a young woman in a gorgeous red and white flamenco dress took command of the stage, opening her arms to the sky as she twirled. A woman sang in a strong, plaintive voice, while men in grass skirts waving machetes encircled the dancer.


If this sounds like a mixed bag of cultural references, that’s because it is. The Cuban people are made up of many cultures. From the early 16th century, African slaves were being brought to Cuba, in such numbers that by the middle of the century, they accounted for half of the population. At the same time, the indigenous people and their culture was being ‘effectively wiped out by European colonisation.’ The slaves’ determination to preserve their cultural identity resulted in four main religions and their subsequent offshoots, each of which developed its own ‘music, rhythms and rituals,’ combinations of which form the basis of Cuban music. The main influences: African, French and Spanish, are amongst the many comprising the uniquely blended sounds from the land of ‘tobacco, rum and coffee.’   Cuba is, quite understandably, often cited as the ‘most important source of music in Latin America,’, for it offers not only its own, distinctly flavoured Salsa steps and rhythms to the world, but also Rumba, Mambo, Cha-Cha-Cha, Bolero, Flamenco, Son, and endless other fascinating combinations of music and dance, all designed to add lightness to the heart and passion to the soul!


The African influence emerges once again in the show, as women in long, colourful skirts wave beaded drums in the air. Their dancing is a lush blend of carnival and voodoo flavoured sorcery. They are as loose as rag-dolls and as agile as jungle cats. Their chanting sounds are Caribbean and African inspired. This vignette leads into another about slavery, with dancers crawling and writhing under their ‘master’, who eventually leads them into a hypnotically hip-swinging dance, set against a deadly, infectious beat. As they rhythmically stamp their heavy sticks in the fire-like glow, they seem to embody the heat of their tropical clime.  As ‘night’ sets in, amid sounds of singing birds, a song from white robed singers takes hold, offering fitting strains to accompany tremulous guitars. Before one is allowed to become too contemplative, however, the women and men take to either side of the stage and a clapping competition begins. The audience was so entranced by then, that they quite willingly followed their respective leaders! This playful war of the Sexes lead one woman to proclaim aloud in English to a potential suitor ‘Small for me,’ drawing laughs. This upbeat passage fittingly launched into the most romantic interlude of the show, as a woman who had formerly been the bashful object of a man’s attempts at amorous attention beautifully succumbs to his charms via a lovely routine which set the more dreamy amongst us a-sighing and a-swooning! It then struck me that one of the main pleasures of watching this show is the simple art of watching. Meaning, to watch these performers feels as though we are simply ‘catching them in the act’ of whatever they are doing in the course of their narrative dance, rather than watching a show - such is their dedication and professionalism!


The dancing, throughout the show continued to be innovative, as well as phenomenal; to such a degree that there was no way anyone watching could ever feel as though they’d ‘seen it all.’  Suffice it to say that the dancers in Havana Rakatan easily out-dance the casts of most major West End musicals, but this is, no doubt, largely due to the wonderfully emotive choreography of Nilda Pons. The music, be it  fast or slow, is absolutely sublime, in that it seems to encompass every human emotion and mood imaginable, and that’s how it seemed to someone who couldn’t understand most of the words to the songs!


Havana Rakatan is also teeming with drama and humour. For instance, in the course of one ensemble dance piece, which took place in front of a backdrop of a crumbing Havana façade, two women got into a fight over a man, another woman knocked over her laundry basket spilling its contents, while yet another was delicately having difficulty mastering the uninhibited steps. All the while, some of the most fantastic dancing I’ve ever seen was going on, all around these emoting players. I could only equate this piece to opera, with words replaced by narrative choreography and instrumental music that is a heady blending of dedicated training and ‘street’ aspects.


The multi-talented musicians sat on a platform behind the dancers. I hesitate to call them a band, because to do so might be to diminish their musical prowess in the mind. They are more like magicians, capable of weaving fantastically giddy spells over their listeners with their instruments. Each piece they played was textured with percussive sounds which rendered each one a rich musical experience in its own right. When they got into a groove, there was no way anyone could, or even should, attempt to sit still. The fact that a well known actor was seen shaking his seasoned tail feathers in the aisle near us would back that up, were I to reveal his name, but my lips are, diplomatically sealed!


There are also four gifted singers in the show who all deserve recognition here. Geydi Chapman lends a deep, soulful note to her songs, while Maritza Cariddad Montero handles more traditional vocal interpretations with an ease that renders her numbers, nonetheless, moving. Michel Antonio Gonzales and Ramon Elias Catasus Abreu, who also plays guitar wonderfully, are both delightful to listen to as well.


In a talented troupe like this, it would be impossible to shine a light on just one or two players, but none the less, a few supremely, almost super-humanly talented dancers manage to distinguish themselves from the group.  For example, in one of the most spectacularly choreographed segments, a voodoo-woman puts a spell on a lanky male dancer Yoanis Reinaldo Pelaez Tamayo (Assistant Choreographer) and his glassy eyed, trance like movements take on the rather miraculously, plausible impetus that he is being controlled by outside forces, drawing appreciative oooohs and aaaaahs from the audience. I’ve seen a lot of dancing of many descriptions in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite like that! However, there are so many standout moments here, that it would take another report just to list them all! This is one show that sizzles and crackles with energy and excitement non-stop!


Havana Rakatan is a joyously first rate production from start to finish, with everything from Nilda Guerra’s stunning choreography and direction, and Rolando Ferrer’s vibrantly soulful musical direction, to set designer Camilo Rosales and costume designers Eva Ferran, Lorenzo Urbistondo, Roland Ruis and Castano Clavel offering invaluable, distinctively enhancing contributions. Add a wonderfully exuberant dance troupe and blinding musicians, shone off to perfection by Guy Hoare’s marvellous lighting and David Chirino’s scene-setting to this dizzying tropical cocktail and you have an experience which is guaranteed to transport you right out of your theatre seat onto the sun-soaked shores of Havana.


If you’re thinking of avoiding Havana Rakatan simply because it doesn’t have a traditional ‘story-line’, then think again. In the course of its thoroughly invigorating travels, this fabulous show takes its audiences on an unrelentingly captivating journey through the endlessly fascinating history of Cuban music.

 

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www.sadlerswells.com
www.havanarakatan.co.uk
Peacock Theatre
Portugal Street, WC2, London

 

 

 

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