Cuba’s premiere folkloric dance company made its North Carolina debut in Durham last night. Performing at the Carolina Theatre as part of the American Dance Festival, Ballet Folklórico Cutumba* presented a program entitled “Roots and Cuban Tradition.” The simplicity of the title does little to describe the vibrancy and excitement of the evening. Beautiful costumes and ample audience participation both as amateur percussionists and as enthusiasts were just the tip of the iceberg of the fun of the evening. If those reasons aren’t enough to make your way to the repeat showing Thursday, July 16 at 8:00 pm, the absolute brilliance of the dancing, singing, and African drumming will be like nothing you’ve seen before. 

Founded in the 1960s and widely regarded as the authority of folkloric dancing in the Oriente region of Eastern Cuba, Ballet Folkórico Cutumba travels internationally presenting an amalgam of Afro-Cuban dance tradition. Encompassing the melting pot that is Cuba, and especially the coastal region of Santiago de Cuba, the company tirelessly researches, collects, conserves, and presents the variety of dances from that region. These include gagá, son, vodún, santería, tumba francesa, rumba, and merengue. Consisting of nearly 50 musicians and dancers, the representative fourteen on stage at the Carolina Theatre Wednesday night delighted the crowd with their skill, expertise, and joy.

Warm, funny, and bilingual introductions by Dr. Chuck Davis (ADF royalty and a legendary expert on African dancing) and Idalberto Bandera Sidó* (Director of Ballet Folklórico) set the stage for the rich, culturally entertaining evening ahead. Lighting Designer Sarah Jordan thoughtfully lit the stage for the musicians and singers, changing colors on the back curtain to match the costumes and mood in such a subtle way as to never distract from but always enhance the musicians and dancers. Two singers and three drummers dressed in white from head to toe sat elevated in the background and provided the music for the evening.

Each piece of the evening was like seeing an incredible piece of history unfolding before you onstage. In fact the very first dance, “Procesión ‘Kings Party'” (1990), expertly showed the audience the development of Afro-Cuban dance in Eastern Cuba. Most of the African dance and drumming tradition that survived in Cuba came from the Yoruba, the slaves brought over towards the end of the slave trade from modern day Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana. In the Yoruba tradition, dance was an essential form of worship. Over the years, as the Yoruba and Christian cultures in that region of Cuba mingled, Christian holidays were celebrated by the Yoruba by dancing in honor of their own deities. In the Ballet Folklórico’s piece, the Epiphany is celebrated by a procession of seven deities in the Yoruba tradition, each reflecting the fundamental activity of town life. A warrior, king, queen, and jester, among others, took solos as one after the other wove around the stage. The complex rhythmic accompaniment provided by the drummers changed with each character. Ballet Cutumba told so many stories on stage so well with this piece. Members of the audience cried “Yeop” (a common sign of delight in that part of Cuba) in approval.

One of the true delights and shocks of the evening followed with the singer and percussionist, Rafael Cisneros Lescay. Very tall and thin, he came forward from the back of the stage and immediately enchanted the audience. He teased and treated the crowd to a rousing “Meringue Pao Pao,” a fast, undulated dance/song out of the voodoo culture. A true entertainer, he included the audience in the song with a fun call and response game. While we laughed and clapped, he amazed us with his richly colored, agile, and musical voice.

The first half of the program closed with an ensemble piece, another dance from the Haitian voodoo culture. Called “Warriors and Handmaidens,” the frantic, relentless drumming along with the clanging brass cymbal set a fast pace for these dancers. The skill of the musicians became even more apparent in this work, as each singer took up a percussion instrument, and the drummers switched instruments.

The second half of the program highlighted more of the ensemble in shorter pieces. As a musician, I witnessed feats of skill that still leave me in awe. In “Cicle of Rumba,” four couples flirtatiously dance on stage. The men, in their fedoras, ogle and entice the women with their swagger and charm. The women dish it right back with winks and undulating hips. The audience was in stiches by the men’s bravado and the women’s glee. At the end of the piece, singer Cisneros Lescay again came down onto the main stage and interplayed with the four male dancers as each took a remarkable seemingly improvised solo. The dancers along with Lescay just seemed to be having fun despite the incredible mastery on display.

My two favorite pieces of the evening followed. All of the dancers returned to the stage for “Rhythmical Cutarero” in sandals that made a percussive slapping sound when they stepped. I was amazed by the simple physical feat of keeping the flimsy sandals on their feet, but more so by the absolutely explosive rhythmic and compound metric interplay happening between the dancers’ feet and the drums on stage. I remember doing rhythmic dictation in music conservatory as an undergraduate. On the hardest day, I never dictated anything more complicated than a cha-cha (2+2+3) with some 32nd notes. These dancers were improvising some of the most devilishly complicated rhythms with their feet, while also performing different dance moves with their upper bodies. 

The true heroes of the evening finally came to the front of the stage next. In a piece entitled “Calling the Drums,” drummers Rolando Gómez Vinent, Ramón Márquez Domingez, and Diango Sánchez Cobas, walked out with Bata drums strapped to their bodies. Without speaking, they started with a funny call and response with the audience, and soon launched into pure genius. Not only was the ensemble absolutely perfect and the technical skill evident, what really made my jaw drop was the breadth of colors each drummer found on his instrument. Soft, loud, whispery, pounding, from a deep resonance to a harsh slap, not only were the rhythms tittering and tripping, but each pulse and strike of the hand was offered with care to the nuance of sound. These drummers turned a percussive instrument into a brightly colored voice. At one point, one of the drummers put his elbow on the drum to dramatically change the pitch. The skill of these men was endless.

The show ended with a delightful and frenzied dance. Every dancer took a ribbon of color extending from a tall pole brought to the middle of stage. The dancers twirled around each other and the pole with their ribbons forming a beautifully braided tapestry. The pace was upbeat, but meandering; they were having fun. At the blow of a whistle, the dancers quickly changed direction and in a frenzy of color, feet, drumbeats, singing, and skill, the dancers reversed their steps in hyperdrive unraveling the braid without a missed step or beat. The audience jumped to their feet, and after a few curtain calls, we left laughing and smiling and absolutely delighted.

Winning multiple international awards, this dance troupe is no stranger to the global scene, and I’m certain Afro-Cuban aficionados know them well. I can only hope as the pathways between Cuba and the United States reopen, this group will finally have the success in the States that they deserve. And if these musicians and dancers are a representation of the immense talent that exists in Cuba, the influx of artistry that will blow our way will literally knock us off our feet. 

*To see the history and biographies, please visit the program notes here. For information on Thursday’s repeat performance see the sidebar.