Moving Histories

By Rena Ragimova


The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the destructive fury of Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and most recently, the massive earthquake in Haiti have shocked the world with stories and images of incomprehensible suffering in the often already destitute areas of the Caribbean. In spite of, or perhaps because of, these searing experiences, CubaCaribe, the Bay Area’s annual festival of Afro-Caribbean Diaspora dance and music, returns to San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theater this April in an almost rebellious fashion for an exhilarating three-week celebration consisting of traditional and contemporary dance performances, workshops, lectures and film screenings that feature an array of local artists, as well as guests from New York, New Orleans and Haiti.

Vessels of Culture

The peoples and cultures of the Caribbean have long held a special place of intrigue and allure in the collective imagination of Americans. Cuba is often thought of as the forbidden island shrouded in far-away mystery although it lies just 90 miles off of Florida’s keys. And then there is its neighbor Haiti, and its seemingly constant U.S. State Department travel warnings. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Mark Danner wrote, “Haiti is everybody’s cherished tragedy. Long before the great earthquake struck the country like a vengeful god, the outside world and Americans especially, described, defined, marked Haiti most of all by its suffering.” I had assumed that the Festival, now in its sixth year, would reflect this misery and other-ness that seemed to define the Caribbean in the minds of Americans. This year’s theme is, after all, From Katrina to Gustav.

I had the chance to speak with Ramón Ramos Alayo, the artistic director of CubaCaribe and Alayo Dance Company, after a Cuban Salsa class that he teaches at Bollywood Cafe in the Mission District. The class was coming to an end with slow cool-down stretches and a soft round of applause from the satisfied, glowing students. He spotted me waiting in the corner of the studio and signed to give him ten more minutes. Class was not over yet. The most important part of the class it appeared—the part where students and teacher stay around to talk shop, laugh or just catch up—had yet to happen.

As the last student made her way out, Alayo walked over, a large smile on his face, and promptly asked if I wanted a beer. Sitting at the bar that covers half of the studio, I thought about Danner’s quote and probed Alayo about the angst-ridden pieces that I should expect to see in this year’s Festival. He chuckled and explained, “People often think that about the Caribbean—especially Haiti. But when I do my work, when I dance, it’s not always going to be about struggle. My work is not the suffering. But then, you know, it’s not just showing big smiles and pretty costumes either. My work reflects my life and the dance is going to show all of it.”

Alayo Dance Company was formed in 2001 and has presented work in CubaCaribe since the Festival’s inception in 2005. The company is known for its innovative blend of modern, Cuban folkloric and popular dance—a ‘fusion’ that is indicative of Cuba but is rarely seen here in the United States. It has been celebrated for exploring difficult issues such as racism, slavery and cancer but without wallowing in victimhood.

Looking down, Alayo took a sip of his drink and continued on. As a producer he said he saw the theme From Katrina to Gustav as an investigation of how the Caribbean Diaspora is constantly evolving and how people are moving—sometimes because they are displaced, sometimes not—and how their art travels and changes with them. I added again that this change is often a result of unfortunate events, whether ‘natural,’ social or economic. “It is for many reasons,” he said. “Think of Oya (the orisha or deity in the Lucumí tradition that is practiced widely in Cuba). She is associated with wind and hurricanes and she also represents change. She is a warrior.”

No stranger to change, Cuban-born Alayo received a Master’s degree from Havana’s National School of Art and soon after moved to the United States, starting his own dance company. Alayo explores the idea of change as it relates to immigration in his new piece with Alayo Dance Company that premiers the third week of the Festival. His choreography presents a vibrant expression of the immigrant experience as it unfolds in a subway train in New York City, a city often seen as the epicenter of America’s convergence of cultures. Alayo has always been drawn to the Subway and how the train represents the movement of peoples, both literally and figuratively. “The number 7 train,” he said, “runs from midtown Manhattan through Flushing, Queens. It is called the ‘International Expressway,’ and there you see every type of face—from Dominican to Puerto Rican to Jamaican to Taiwanese.”

To Alayo, New York City subways are the only places in the States that resemble Havana’s over-capacity city buses. “In Cuba, everybody takes the bus,” he said, with just a hint of nostalgia. “Everybody is sweating on the bus, sharing space. It does not matter how much money you make or your color. Everybody is squished up against each other. New York it is the same thing. Business men are riding along with janitors.” He explained that in Cuba, a person’s relationship with their body and the bodies of strangers is more relaxed than what he sees in the United States. “But on the Subway, all of these people suddenly stand close together.”

Something that Alayo misses about Cuba is how art is an integral part of everyday life, with no one excluded. There, art is not only produced by professionals and consumed by spectators. The sounds of drumming, of radios playing, of voices singing are always wafting through the windows from the streets below. It is in New York City that he feels the same corazón, heart, pulse, clave of the street that he felt in Cuba. “Musicians are performing on the platforms and in the trains, not because they’re begging for money, but because they want to express themselves.” He recounted a story of a Subway musician who, after being completely ignored on a train by a couple who assumed that he was pan handling, began to sing to them anyway until they decided to get off the train. Incidents like that gave him the idea of inviting street musicians and performers, from paint bucket percussionists to pop-and-lock dancers, to join him on stage for his final piece in the Festival. Many street artists are immigrants themselves and according to Alayo this last performance of CubaCaribe highlights the common musical thread between life in his home country and the stresses, joys and challenges that immigrants encounter in the States every single day.

Preserving Spirit

The wide range of cultures represented at CubaCaribe testifies to the Festival’s commitment not only to represent the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora, but also to show the ways in which dance changes and develops when traditional forms and new environments/situations collide. For instance, dancer, choreographer and vocalist, Adia Whitaker will also present work at CubaCaribe. Whitaker is best known for her creation of multi-media dance-theater productions. This year, she brings to Dance Mission’s stage her Ase Dance Theater Collective. The Brooklyn-based collective is guided by Whitaker’s desire to deepen awareness of the 400-year African presence and imprint throughout the Americas. While continuing to rely heavily on traditional Haitian dance for their movement vocabulary, her company speaks directly to the 21st century consciousness of its audiences. She describes her work as “neo-folklore,” which, while rooted in traditional movement, does not always tell “folktales.” Whitaker is a strong choice to open the festival because like Alayo, she sees power when stories and people meet. She explains, “As people of African descent that have migrated from all over the world to fulfill our dreams of art and revolution in New York City, it is our [company’s] shared belief that all forms of African drum and dance facilitate a process of spiritual awareness. And this inspires us to create rich and transformative art that uplifts the soul.”

New to this year’s CubaCaribe programming is the addition of music and dance of New Orleans, often considered America’s gateway to the Caribbean. In the 19th century it was in New Orleans’ Congo Square where Creoles and American Indians would meet and trade and on Sundays it was where slaves were allowed to gather and dance. There, secular dances such as the Bamboula and the Calinda evolved and flourished. After Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans residents scattered, and with them their unique artistic traditions. Slowly people are moving back and re-planting their roots. This first weekend of the Festival honors their struggle as artists present the dances of the Congo Square, as well as songs and dances of Black Mardi Gras Indians, named after the American Indians who helped and gave shelter to escaped slaves.

Shared Triumph

When asked what the second week of the Festival would be like, Alayo had one word: “Influence.” The second weekend is a mixed program that examines where the artistic traditions from the Congo, Brazil, United States, Haiti and Cuba converge and diverge. Presenters include Herve “Kayos” Makaya, a native of the Republic of Congo who migrated here in 2007 to escape the civil wars plaguing his country. He is a master of traditional Congolese music and dance and is known for possessing an incredibly energetic presence. Tracing the Caribbean Diaspora south, Afro-Brazilian storyteller Paco Gomes uses a dynamic blend of Orixa dance, modern and Capoiera. Jacinta Vlach’s Liberation Dance Theater also tells stories using contemporary dance techniques, as well as movement from Latin and African traditions. Vlach explores reggaeton in this year’s performances—from its roots in Panama and Puerto Rico to the continental United States. To conclude the weekend the Festival turns to the work of Haitian dancer, Djenane St. Juste, and her mother, Mambo Florencia “Fofo” Pierre, as well as Yismari Ramos Tellez, who brings her artistic direction to Las Que Son Son, the versatile all-female Cuban folkloric and popular dance company. This is just a sampling of the groups that will perform in the mixed program.

It must also be mentioned that Lakou, a dance troupe from Jacmel, Haiti was poised to participate in this year’s Festival. However, one of their directors died in Haiti’s horrific earthquake and their tour understandably is now in question. There are many reasons why people travel and share stores. And, there are many reasons why they do not.

Border Crossing

One of the films that CubaCaribe will screen during the Festvial is Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, produced literally in the wake of Katrina. Finishing his drink, Alayo stood up and put his hand in pocket, pulling out a piece of paper where a quote from this documentary was scribbled. “Human beings are always looking for a way. The musicians and dancers are improvising, doing something they’ve been doing a long time. So they have the feeling, not only is this moment here something that’s never happened—it’s a moment that’s always happened.”

We stood outside of the Bollywood studio and said our goodbyes. Alayo squinted from the sunlight and shook my hand. “No te lo pierdas. El Festival va a estar buenisimo. Seguro que yes.”

The strong yet malleable artistic core of the Caribbean Diaspora not only enables us to trace the origin of its many songs and dances, but through them experience the many threads of Diaspora history. Textbooks and news reports may inform us of the adversities endured by slaves and the hardships faced by Haitian earthquakes survivors this winter, but only detailed personal accounts can evoke them. The dance program assembled by CubaCaribe interprets these stories in all their complexity and subjectivity, indelibly chronicling the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora for Bay Area audiences. Now in its sixth year, CubaCaribe continues to serve as an exciting venue for artists to come together and share their personal history.

CubaCaribe runs April 16-May 2, 2010 at Dance Mission Theater with special events held at the Museum of the African Diaspora and other locations throughout the Bay Area. Please check for the full schedule of Festival events.

This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of In Dance.

Rena Ragimova works and plays in the East Bay. A former teacher and a self-admitted Oakland enthusiast, she loves writing about art, politics and wine.