It is around seven years to the day since I first encountered this potted history of Cuban dance at The Peacock Theatre, where the company now returns for its sixth season. Not a bad outcome for an initial ‘cold call’ of the show’s DVD landing on Alastair Spalding’s desk. On that day, the Sadler’s Wells head honcho was searching for a vibrant summer show to fill a gap in The Peacock’s schedule and he needed to look no further.
The fact that I have now seen the show on four of its London seasons clearly reveals all that I need to say about my regard for its enjoyment quotient but, having come to London five years in a row, Havana stayed away in 2012/13 and so I wondered if this hiatus had led to any changes, either in the show itself or my perceptions of it.
Havana Rakatan has changed a lot since 2007, especially in terms of decluttering. In the early years, this spring clean detached some of the historical backdrop to how dance in Cuba evolved out of the various influences from tribal Africa to colonial Spain, halving the musical numbers in the first act from ten to five. I can’t say that I miss the ritual dances to the Yoruba Gods! Two numbers were also cut from the second act. There are no additional changes in the current menu from the show I last saw in 2011. What has been jettisoned is the backdrop of photographic representations of street scenes in Old Havana, which helped to capture the nostalgic flavour of the place and was missed.
Several of the original cast in Nilda Guerra’s Havana Rakatan dance entourage soldiered on for the next five years but now (barring any unknown name changes) it seems that Yoanis Reinaldo Pelaez Tamayo is the sole survivor from that original show (with Yalma Santana Ricardo joining later in 2007). More than half the company are new to Ballet Rakatan since the last London season. Their effervescent enthusiasm is an infectious part of the show’s success and it is very hard not to succumb to this all-out offensive. As another Cuban, the divine Gloria (Estefan) once said: “(The) Rhythm is Gonna Get You”! And, it does.
The first act – shorn of the history lesson – is now a cute journey through the streets of Havana, largely seen through the eyes of an incomer from the countryside with a side story of his amorous flirtations with a city girl. The second half moves into a time-travelling nightclub, taking us from the mambo and bolero of the 1940s, through the rumba and cha cha cha of the 1970s to the salsa of modern Havana. The relationship with the first act is unclear, not least in the disappeared side story of the two lovers, but, by now, the music and the dance have completely taken over!
In this new ensemble, the men are generally slicker and stronger than the women who also suffered various costume malfunctions ranging from hair-slides that flew across the stage to a hem that came unstitched during a particularly complex routine, threatening to lasso the legs of the poor girl encircled within the looping material. To her great credit, said dancer treated this nuisance with a ruthless disdain, continuing her steps until the opportunity arose for a discrete exit. She managed to dance the mambo successfully while skipping at the same time (one act we have not yet seen on Britain’s Got Talent)!
If most of the dancers have changed through the years, the musical team remains essentially the same under the continued direction of guitarist, Rolando Ferrer Rosado and again featuring the impressive vocals of Geldy Chapman and Michel Antonio Gonzales Pacheco. Although the musicians had an occasional opportunity to have the stage to themselves (such as in the old classic, Guantanamera) the second act lacked such diversity with the dance numbers seamlessly morphing into one another without a pause for breath. The incessant pace of the rhythms and the sameness of the choreography became a little too repetitive for my taste, although there is no doubting that it whipped the audience into an accelerating, climactic enthusiasm which had mostly everyone on their feet for the Salsa Rakatan finale and a well-timed encore.
Latin Americans appear to be born with a specific dance gene. It was my privilege, a few weeks ago, to attend a family party in the home of South Americans living in Spain and it was notable that everyone – young and old – had rhythm flowing through their bodies like current through the wiring. Even the elderly can mambo sway their hips with impeccable timing. The Havana Rakatan ensemble possesses this Latin thrill in spades, even if theirs is a version that is carefully packaged for the export market; one that extracts all the pizzazz and glitz while worrying less about authenticity.
There is, however, no doubting that this is a fun, sparkling show that is especially great to see with mates. I have returned to see it again and again and I certainly hope to come back to it. The divine Gloria also sang “Can’t Stay Away from You” and it seems that many of us can’t stay away from Havana Rakatan!