Dulce de Leche dance
By Sara G. Levin
Even the richest food can sometimes be too much of a good thing. The same can be true for dance. In Palenque, the new show by distinguished Afro-Cuban choreographer La Mora Danys Perez and her troupe Oyu Oro, essential ingredients that Perez has mastered so well rumba, son and conga, to name a few are over-saturated by the shows exaggerated characters and their sometimes blinding costumes. Still, underneath this showy veneer, there is an irrepressible waterfall of blood-boiling dance, and some invaluable history lessons.
Named after the isolating mountains of Cuba that protected runaway slave communities, Palenque (Fortress) tells the story of one slave groups escape from captivity. As the lights come up, over a dozen women, men and children struggle to walk across stage under the shadow of a brutal overseer. Representing the Haitian blacks of the 18th century who settled in Eastern Cuba, they sing in Creole, and the slave drivers yell in French. (Perez is from Santiago de Cuba, which was heavily influenced by the settlement of Hatian blacks.)
In a series of predictable events, one slave kills an overseer, many escape, and the dancing begins. Drums and running footsteps echo nervousness and confusion. Curtains in the background fall to reveal a live band throughout the piece, the instrumentals are amazing, and often only drums. Anxious rhythms lead the slaves to encounter another community of fugitives. Perhaps they were slaves brought to Cuba even earlier descendants of the Yoruba from Nigeria, who also heavily influenced by Cuban music, culture and religion.
The two groups begin a fierce competition dance. Four women attack at the air and the ground, convulsing, and screaming. In the intimate setting of La Mama, the riser seats shake with each jump. And even though it is freezing in the theater most people in the audience kept their coats on throughout the show the dancers feet spring across the floor as if they were running across hot coals.
With recognizable West African moves, the women open their chests to the sky and scoop up the floor, slicing the air as if wielding a machete. Everything is frantic and fast.
The women are ferocious. At one point, they wipe their bodies as if to rid themselves of an evil spirit. Watching, you feel the pain that inspired so much of what has become popular, modern-day forms of African-American (American in the sense of all the Americas, including Cuba) dance.
Paralleling the old forms of Afro-Cuban dance to the popular movements they inspired later on, the second act presents moves in flashier presentations of cha-cha, rumba, and conga. Having changed from colonial peasant clothes in the first act, with references to the traditional white garbs worn in Santeria, the dancers in the second half come out in seventies disco wear: high heels, mini skirts, and rumba ruffle-sleeves. They now speak Spanish, implying assimilation with Cuban white culture. The room suddenly changes into a variety show, and the competition is no longer for survival, but for glamour and sex appeal.
In this way, Palenque is reminiscent of Riverdance for showing a glossed-over history of an ethnic dance. This Cuban version is nowhere near as overdone as the Broadway-sized story of the poor Irish immigrants trajectory from pain to pop. Still, it is similar in intent and delivery. It strives to tell an important story, and succeeds in drawing parallels that most people do not think of when dancing to popular rhythms like rumba, cha-cha, son. It glorifies their origin in communities that escaped oppression and protected their culture. And perhaps in a way that is classically Cuban, Perez tells this celebratory story so sweetly, it overpowers the important traces of bitterness.