Havana is always hot, and as if it is not hot enough, Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba turns up the heat with its sensual, forceful and virtuoso style.
Lizt Alfonso, the company’s director and choreographer, founded her troupe in 1991. The following year, she established her Academy and in 2000 the company became a resident ensemble at Havana’s Gran Teatro, where the Cuban National Ballet performs.
Next month LADC is coming to Israel (November 1 to 7), to perform one of its highly praised works, Fuerza Y Compas (Force and Precision), and a group of Israeli journalists are in Havana to see the show and meet Lizt Alfonso.
It’s only about a week after hurricane Irma hit the shores of Cuba, leaving some of the island’s beautiful beaches in ruin and rendering the houses with no electricity, but in Havana life seems to be back to normal.
The Lizt Alfonso building stands in the heart of the old city, close to the small impoverished alleys, where locals and tourists alike roam the streets seeking a wave of cool air emanating from the occasional air-conditioned store.
It is home of the dance company and the school, where hundreds of young children and teenagers study and train every day.
LADC is one of the most important companies of Cuba. “Our style is very unique. In each step, we combine different categories, so you can see at the same time the hands raised in the classical style, while the hips dance Afro-Cuban and the heels tap the flamenco beat,” Explains Alfonso. “For me, this is Cuba. It is our life, our roots, what we feel, our history. We are a mixture of all those things, and sometimes I think that this is one of the reasons why crowds all over the world are touched by our art. I think that maybe people recognize something, they feel a connection. Maybe we manage to represent them as well,” she muses.
“In one of our first performances abroad in 1998, people said after the show, ‘It is flamenco but not exactly... It is Cuba,” she smiles.
Jack Anderson wrote in The New York Times after the troupe’s latest visit to the US, “It’s always a hot night in Havana whenever Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba performs. Ms. Alfonso presents a kaleidoscopic fusion of ballet, flamenco, cha-cha, rumba, bolero and salsa dance, in a theatrical manner that emphasizes ensemble unity. The feelings may be boisterous, but all steps interlock in perfect synchronization. This is dancing with precise abandon.”
Alfonso and her partner JuanCarlos founded their company and the academy, with no government assistance. “When I started the company, everyone said I was crazy, loca,” she laughs. “They still say that. It is not so easy to start a dance company in Cuba. We have some companies that belong to the government, like the National Ballet, but I believe that if something doesn’t go one way, you can find another way.”
They started with 60 students, and now there are more than 1,300.
“Nine years after we founded the company, the Ministry of Culture offered their support. Apparently Fidel Castro, our president at the time, saw the troupe perform at a gala and was intrigued. They asked what we needed. We said funds, and they offered not only financial support but also this wonderful building,” she recounted. The building and the support allowed Alfonso to keep her artistic freedom while developing the academy, where children from the age of five (and sometimes younger) come to dance, train and receive an education. Later, some will become part of the Children and Youth companies, and the best will graduate and become part of the LADC.
“Many of the children literally come from the street. Sometimes the dance saves their lives,” Alfonso says, adding that choosing who is admitted and who is rejected is the hardest part for her. “I don’t sleep at night when it’s time to decide.” But she believes in second chances.
“As a child, all I wanted was to dance.
I tried to enter the academy of the National Ballet and was rejected. I wasn’t ready physically. Luckily, a friend of my mother’s knew the famous prima ballerina Laura Alonso, who was then a teacher. I studied with her, and by the next year I was accepted. So I always let everyone have a second chance,” she said.
After the show, when we sat with the dancers, one of the few male dancers, a young boy who danced with elegance and poise, confessed that dance saved his life.
“It allowed me to escape the future that I was destined for,” he said. Later, in confidence, Alfonso told me that his mother had brought him to the school when he was very young, begging, “Please save him.”
Due to her work with children, Alfonso was invited to the White House by Michelle Obama in 2016, where she received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Alfonso says that her dancers were very excited about their upcoming trip to Israel. “It is one of the most important countries for me. Our tours are like a university of life. We are learning, we get inspired and we open our minds and hearts to new experiences all the time. Only when you travel abroad do you learn to appreciate what you have at home,” she says.
In Alfonso’s distinctive style, Fuerza Y Compas combines elements of flamenco, ballet and folkloric dance, set to dynamic Spanish and AfroCuban rhythms. There are only female dancers in the show, and Alfonso says there is a message in this choice.
“The message is that we women are strong. In many places around the world women are still second best, and we want to say to the world that we can and we want to be first,” she asserts.
Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba will perform on November 1 to 4 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv; November 5 in Ashdod; November 6 at the Jerusalem Theatre; and November 7 at the Haifa Auditorium.