Salsa classes around the country are packed and the phenomenal success of Buena Vista Social Club still resounds, so a show about Cuban dance and music is almost guaranteed to attract attention. But Nilda Guerra’s upbeat Havana Rakatan doesn’t simply surf that wave of popularity; it works hard to earn its audience, with an abundance of captivating costumes, a brilliant band, a versatile troupe of dancers and plenty of shameless playing to the gallery. Though the format is standard – set-pieces tracing music and dance history from folk roots to urban styles – the vivacious performances and brisk pacing bring it to life.
In the opening, a regiment of flamenco women, all haughty attitude and coiling arms, encounter a group of men, earthier and more full-bodied, in African grass skirts. It’s a pat but effective way of showing how Spanish and African roots mingled to form that special Cuban combination of taut and loose. The rest of the first half focuses on the African heritage, with sequences about gods, war dances, possession and courtship. You really need the programme notes to follow the action, but the choreography zips along, and the dancers’ energy is infectious.
a woman slinks about and beams, radiantly happy with her besotted suitor, but even more pleased by her ultra-sultry self
A Cuban country dance – a kind of very flirty hoedown – leads into a street scene in old Havana, and it is from here, as the show moves from folk to popular dance, that it really finds its swing. In the mambo, the women shimmy and wriggle in chic, red skirts; the snakehipped men, dapper in their natty hats, sweep them off their feet into spiralling airborne lifts. In the chachacha, a woman slinks about and beams, radiantly happy with her besotted suitor, but even more pleased by her ultra-sultry self. The manteca, with its rival groups outdancing each other, has a touch of West Side Story, while the more interpretive bolero provides a welcome respite to the pace and posturing.
Guerra’s choreography occasionally gets too busy, but she’s good at echoing the layers in the music and matching her dynamics to different strands of rhythm. If the sexual posturing hits the same note too often – the women all allure and seduction, the men all chase and display – the dancers are such disarmingly natural show-offs that you’re always on their side.
Special mention goes to the music, without which none of this would work. Geydi Chapman and Michel González are gutsy singers; and a cooking rhythm section, set against those insistent choruses and brassy fanfares, keeps everything more or less at boiling point.