With American tourists still forbidden to visit Cuba, the performers of Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba are free to massage our imaginations and our nostalgia for the island’s pre-revolutionary glamour. We don’t know what Cuba is like today, but we can try to guess what it used to be like in the 1950s by watching “Cuba Vibra!” (“Cuba Vibrates!”), the show this Caribbean company presented on Nov. 5 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
Like the classic cars still rattling down Havana’s streets, “Cuba Vibra!” seems caught in a time-warp. You can almost hear Ricky Ricardo shouting “Babalú!” before exhausting himself on the conga drum. Yet there’s no denying that decades have passed; and however much we may love the rumba, the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, these Latin dances don’t generate as much excitement as they did when they were youthful crazes, in the days when men wore suits and fashionable women wore organdy dresses with petticoats and white gloves.
Even in their heyday, the dances exploited their sources, transforming Afro-Cuban folklore into forms better suited for mass consumption. Yet in “Cuba Vibra!” choreographer Lizt Alfonso goes further, mixing ballroom dancing with elements of flamenco, musical-theater dance and ballet. Incongruously, an electronic synthesizer and bass join the other instruments the band plays live onstage — so despite the soulful vocals of Rachel Pastor, the blast of a trumpet and some infectious drumming, this group lacks the flavor and the subtlety of genuine masters like the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Although the dancers are attractive, technically proficient and well-drilled, too often Alfonso’s homogenized choreography veers between acrobatic stunts for three men and mechanical routines for an ensemble of women.
Because the rumba isn’t really a spectator sport, Alfonso’s greatest challenge, apart from choreography, has been developing a “book” that draws narrative suggestions from popular tunes and keeps the moves from growing repetitive. Here in the United States, various artists have shown us how this can be done — from Pedro Ruiz’s “Club Havana,” Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” and Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera” to Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s “Swing!” and all the jukebox musicals — yet it isn’t clear how much Alfonso, in her embargoed country, may have seen. More than these examples, “Cuba Vibra!” suggests the influence of flagship troupes like the Moiseyev Dance Company or Ballet Folklórico de México, as if ballroom dancing were a badge of national identity or a communal ritual rather than an intimate experience two people share. The closest “Cuba Vibra!” comes to intimacy is the trio danced to “Bésame Mucho,” in which two women compete (without much conviction) for the attentions of a man.
In other vignettes, the protagonists also appear more like types than real human beings. The oddest of these, perhaps — though still more dramatic than “Cuba Vibra!’s” generic representations of “fiery” Latin temperament — is the “Spirituality” number, in which a lone and ostensibly gullible woman enters a cloister where white-hooded nuns file past, bearing candles. When the hoods come off, however, the women reveal themselves to be Santería worshippers; and a priest arrives to seduce the curiosity-seeker (Babalú!). In another peculiar episode called “Blackout,” the female corps exchange their white robes for camouflage pants and the equally regimented lives of soldiers or revolutionaries, whose maneuvers separate a pair of young lovers. The skit ends tragically, with the young man hanging martyred across the soldiers’ backs.
The finest episode in “Cuba Vibra!” is also the least preposterous. In a number called “Tea Party,” the troupe recalls the formal attire and the chaste deportment of yesteryear, but more charming than the women’s pastel-colored gowns is the style of their florid hand gestures and little hops in heeled shoes — relics of a vivacious yet more modest time.
“Cuba Vibra!” is currently playing at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan, where it remains until Nov. 29. For details, visit newvictory.org
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