18 May 2009

Havana Rakatan @ Sadler's Wells Peacock Theatre

Havana Rakatan has returned to Sadler's Wells Peacock Theatre for its third year. With a press release that promises "Mambo, jazz, bolero, son, cha-cha-cha, rumba and salsa all come alive in a dazzling dance display of Cuban passion [...] Havana Rakatan is a captivating journey through the dance and music of a truly unique country", it was with high hopes that I set off to see the show for the first time.

I must admit I envisaged Havana Rakatan being something of a Cuban "Brasil Brasileiro". This was an incredible show that ran at the main Sadler's Wells theatre in 2006. Given that it was one of the greatest music and dance spectacles I've ever been fortunate enough to experience, it may be that my expectations were a little too high. Frankly however, Havana Rakatan was just not in the same league.

Another mistake I made was to expect an array of authentic Afro-Cuban dance forms. In fact it became clear from the outset that this is not the case. The dances fuse traditional Cuban styles with elements of contemporary, ballet and street, to varying degrees of success.

The show's opening scene was particularly weak. This could have been an opportunity to really show off and get the audience excited, but instead I found it uninspiring and lacklustre. I think the idea was to "transport" the audience to Havana before going back in time to examine the roots of Afro-Cuban music and dance, but I feel the show would have benefited from skipping this scene entirely.

The second scene is titled "Afro-Flamenco" and for me contained one of the best dances of the entire show: an excellent solo Flamenco from Maria Mercedes Perez Rodriguez. What then follows is an examination, through dance, of the historical melding of the African and Spanish cultures. Though a challenging concept to choreograph, I felt this scene had a lot of potential. Unfortunately it was not adequately realised and I found parts of it rather clumsy.

After this, things went further downhill and I was left sadly disappointed by most of the first act. There was frequently too much going on and the show didn't seem able to make up its mind as to whether it was a serious dance piece or a humourous musical drama complete with multiple props. I have no problem with a fusion of styles in principle, but in this case it just didn't work. At best it came across as slightly messy and at worse quite cheesy. There was even a momentary diversion into Chippendales territory (I couldn't help but think the dancing and costume should have been sexy enough to make a gimmick like this redundant).

Fortunately the second act is stronger and far more enjoyable. It disposes altogether of any pretensions at musical theatre (props and all), shifting focus almost entirely to the dancing itself. However, even this act was not consistent enough for my liking and it becomes increasingly evident throughout that some of the dancers are far better than others.

All of the music in the show is played live by a group called Turquino. Instrumentally, this group are top-notch, though vocally I was not so impressed. The best of the singers was Geydi Chapman who I found far more soulful that her male counterparts. It also struck me as a mistake to have the singers come front stage at times as it becomes obvious they are no dancers.

The material itself was generally good though, with only the performance of "Guantanamera" (unaccompanied by dance) coming across as unnecessary cliché.

Musically, the real highlights were instrumental versions of "Babara Batiri" and "Manteca"; both played superbly. "Babara Batiri" was actually one of the show's highest points as it also featured some fantastic dancing well-suited to the music. Unfortunately the same can't be said of "Manteca", which I feel was a wasted opportunity. Although the dancing itself wasn't bad, it just did not fit in with the music. Another example of poor choreography.

It isn't only the choreography that lets the show down though. I frequently found the synchronised group dances just not tight enough, giving the impression of too little rehearsal. At times, some of the dancers' mannerisms spoiled otherwise good performances. The fact that some of the costumes left wanting also did not help proceedings.

In conclusion, the show contained some interesting ideas, some excellent music and some exciting dancing, but there was too much filler and not enough of the good stuff. In fact, the programme which provides a short history of Cuban dance alongside some wonderful vintage images, was almost more inspiring than the show itself.

Havana Rakatan runs until 23rd May. For details visit: www.sadlerswells.com/show/Havana-Rakatan-09

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