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Acosta Danza’s Choreographic Soup

An “Ajiaco” is a type of soup common to Colombia, Cuba, and Peru that combines a variety of different vegetables, spices, and meats. It’s also the title of the latest quadruple bill of works that Carlos Acosta’s ‘Acosta Danza’ presented at the Venice Dance Biennale. Running on July 14 & 15, the two shows mark the Havana-based company’s Italian debut. 

Performance

Acosta Danza: “Ajiaco”

Place

Biennale Danza, Venice, Italy, July 15, 2023

Words

Emily May

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Just like the dish it takes its name from, “Ajiaco” is a blend of opposing elements. Bringing together contrasting works by four very different choreographers, it is intended as a reflection of Acosta Danza’s diversity and eclecticism. What binds the works together, however, is their commitment to multiplicity and hybridity.

Miceala Taylor’s “Performance,” for example, combines movement inspirations from the L.A-based choreographers dual background in hip-hop and classical dance, as well as the company’s grounding in Cuban styles. Opening with two performers visible in a spotlight—one makes crazed facial expressions as the other holds and manipulates their cast mate’s head—lights soon rise on the remaining five, who ripple their limbs in a canon that dominoes down their linear formation.

Breaking out of their opening arrangement, in unison, the group pop their chests, jerk their heads, and walk nonchalantly across the stage with hunched backs and swaggering shoulders. At irregular intervals, they arrive in twisted tableaus. Illuminated by harsh lighting, these pauses punctuate the choreographic phrases. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Sharon Eyal’s signature style, yet Taylor’s approach is less focused on incessant repetition. Instead, what stands out are the complex rhythms her performers embody, which encourage audiences to hear the pulsing musical accompaniment in new ways. 

The slow introduction of new stylistic elements—a classical leg extension here, a contorted hand gesture there—as the piece unravels is also intriguing. Some of what is added doesn’t blend in so well, such as when the dancers dramatically cover their hands over their eyes, ears, and mouths with kitsch facial expressions, or when ‘Clair de Lune’ starts playing amidst an otherwise moody and electronic soundscore. Aside from these moments, Taylor successfully synthesizes seemingly contradictory components together so that they are almost untraceable back to their origins. 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s duet “Faun” addresses the theme of hybridity literally: its titular mythical character is half goat, half human. Inspired by Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreographic interpretation of “L’apres midi d’un faune,” the 1876 Mallarme poem describing the sensual experiences of a male faun upon encountering a nymph, the work opens with semi-nude dancer Yasser Dominguez curled in a ball on the floor in a pool of light. Undulating his spine, his body gradually unfurls before embarking on a oozing, sensual, solo. While accompanied by the same Debussy score used in Nijinsky’s 1912 version, the choreography is a far cry from the original’s angular, two dimensional movements. Instead, Dominiguez moves seamlessly in and out of the floor, sleepily indulging in his body: one moment he’s sailing around in an arabesque, the next he’s on the ground flipping effortlessly over his shoulders.

A contemporary score by Nitin Sawhney heralds the entrance of Patricia Torres’ intense-eyed nymph, who seduces Dominguez with a sequence of precise balances, contorted elbows, interlocked knees, and spell-casting hand gestures. The pair step delicately in between each other's legs in what appears to be a reference to Argentine tango, before melting their bodies into each other. They morph into one entity, their limbs indistinguishable from one other—an effective portrayal of the intense melding of minds and bodies in romantic and sexual relationships, yet another form of hybridity. This said, a light chime in the score that prompts Dominguez to breathe heavily, and then step away from his partner, is a stark reminder of how quickly passion can dissipate after its climax has been reached.

Javier de Frutos’ “98 Días,” which receives its world premiere in Venice, uses the story of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca reconnecting with his native language, finding joy, and feeling at home in Cuba as a lens through which to explore the plight of outsiders. Lights rise on the cast sitting on a line of chairs upstage. Their set up, and the sound of a ticking clock gives the impression that they’re in an official waiting room. I can’t help but think of my own experience nervously sitting in the foreigners office in Berlin ahead of my interview for a German residence permit.

This interpretation is perpetrated by the scenes that follow: in a stand out moment, the dancers rise from their seats and begin to travel progressively forward like advancing chess pieces. Blending in and out of unison, the group's motions are set to the rhythm of a recitation of Lorca’s poem “Son de negros en Cuba.” When an electronic, mechanical beep sounds, they pause, and go back to their starting positions, as if returning to the beginning of a conveyor belt or production line. This repeats multiple times, and the performers never reach their destination. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the persistence required when dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration?

While “98 Días” is not the joyful piece one may have expected from its description, more playful duets, and a few smiles, emerge towards the end. Also, while the meaning may be lost on non-Spanish speakers, “Cuba” and “Santiago,” which are repeated throughout Lorca’s poem, are spoken with a deep, heartwarming affection. It suggests that, despite the challenges, it’s worth fighting for the right to remain in the places that feel like home.

Alexis Fernández’s “De Punta a Cabo,” the final work of the evening, is a celebration of the multiplicity of Cuban culture. A film of the Malecón, the famous eight kilometer-long promenade on the coast of Havana, is projected on the back wall. The dancers, dressed as “normal people,” enter the stage to create a vibrant street scene, communicating with each other through various styles of movement. There’s en pointe duets and balletic lifts, flirtatious fanning, shouting, and shared seductive smiles, as well as a dance battle with latin, afro, and hip-hop influences. It’s all in good humor until a more aggressive fight breaks out! 

The projected film holds this melange together and gives it structure—starting bright and sunny and before progressively darkening, it takes the dancers from day to night to early morning, from raucous group sequences to sleepy swaying duets. The dancers themselves also appear on the film, acting as digital doppelgangers for their onstage counterparts to interact with.

The description of “De Punta a Cabo” claims that, in 17 minutes, it “captures all the contradictions of his country, divided between tradition and modernity, poverty and development.” It’s a big claim, and maybe not entirely fulfilled. However, the work’s vibrancy, and the dancer’s ebullient performances, are the perfect ending to “Ajiaco.” It’s the long-awaited spicy ingredient for this self proclaimed “soupy” programme. 

Emily May


Emily May is a British-born, Berlin-based arts writer and editor specializing in dance and performance. An alumna of Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance and a member of the Dance Section of the U.K. Critics' Circle, she regularly contributes to publications across Europe and America including Dance Magazine, Art Review, Frieze, The Stage, Flash Art, The Brooklyn Rail, and Springback Magazine. She is currently an editor at COLORSxSTUDIOS, where she launched and continues to manage a new editorial platform.

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