Diane Parkes interviews choreographer Annabelle López Ochoa

Choreographer Annabelle López Ochoa has worked with top dance companies across the globe – and yet she says there is something special about Danza Contemporánea de Cuba.

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Diane Parkes

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Which is why she’s delighted that the Havana-based company is now bringing her work Reversible to the UK on a national tour.

Having worked with more than 40 dance companies worldwide, Belgian-Colombian dancer turned choreographer Annabelle says it’s the passion and energy of the Cuban dancers which she finds irresistible.

And in fact her work Reversible, which plays with ideas of gender, sexual power and rivalry, was created specifically for the company, which was formed in Cuba in 1959.

Danza Contemporanea De Cuba

“I first went to Cuba to choreograph for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the classical ballet company of the country. When I was there I went to watch a rehearsal of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba,” recalls Annabelle. “I had seen them perform at a festival in Colombia a little while before and I had noticed that each piece was very strong and abundant with energy. They are very generous and high powered dancers which is very common for them – but quite uncommon in the rest of the world.

“I don’t know where they find that power but they dance like it’s the last time they are going to dance. I think they feel blessed that they have found happiness in what they do. It literally is an escape from their hard daily life.

“In other companies dancers tend to “mark” the choreography when they have to do it many times to save energy but the dancers of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba will do it full out over and over again as if they are performing. It’s very humbling to witness that.”

Reversible, which is set to a soundtrack featuring Jean-Claude Kerinec and Staff Elmeddah, Kroke, Scanner and Eric Vaarzon Morel, was very much inspired by Cuba.

“In Cuba, the game between the sexes and seduction is an obvious one,” says Annabelle. “The way both sexes dress and act. Women move and express themselves through their hips and men through their upper body.

“When I came to choreograph for the dancers of Danza Cuba, I used their power and extravert nature but I also wanted to infuse poetry and sensuality to the piece. That sensuality is omnipresent in Cuban culture.

“For me the soul is genderless – we all carry both genders in us,” Annabelle explains. “But somehow we are born with a specific identity that separates us by our gender. The two genders are craving to unite and this initiates the game/battle of the sexes. I also wanted to put both ying and yang in the dancers of Reversible by interchanging their garments to distance them from the clichés of what men and women usually wear.”

And these gender roles, which initially seem so specific to male and female, quickly become confused – and reversed.

“The piece is built in four parts; the first part is a tribal dance between Adam and Eve which is followed by a Caribbean intermezzo based on the bachata rhythm where the women use their sensuality as a playful weapon. In the third scene I mingle the men and women’s energy, blurring the lines of separation, which culminates in the final scene where both genders unite into one single breath.”

Choreographing the piece so closely with the company means Annabelle believes Reversible very much belongs to DCC.

“This was done specifically for them, especially the bachata section – even I cannot dance the bachata the way they do. The way the women are swaying with their hips and how the men gracefully partner them is so natural to Cubans. If I wanted to take Reversible to another company I would have to re-do that whole section. It is really the Cuban flavour of the piece. The theme of gender and soul is universal but the dancing is specifically Cuban.”

Formed more than 50 years ago, DCC has always drawn from the many artistic influences present in the Caribbean island of Cuba. Now under the artistic directorship of Miguel Iglesias, DCC has performed its works on stages across the world including Spain, France, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Australia and the United States of America. On the UK tour, DCC will be performing Reversible as part of a triple bill along with Theo Clinkard’s The Listening Room and Matria Etnocentra, created by the company’s resident choreographer and dancer George Céspedes.

Danza Contemporanea De Cuba

The tour is presented by Dance Consortium, a group of 17 venues across the UK, which work together to promote international dance to local audiences. Since its formation in 2000, Dance Consortium has presented 39 tours by 22 different contemporary dance companies from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Israel and the USA. Dance Consortium last brought DCC to the UK in 2012 when the company performed a different triple bill.

Annabelle spent four weeks creating Reversible with the company in Havana in 2015 and then returned in late 2016 to prepare for the tour.  Now she is looking forward to seeing how British audiences respond to her Cuban piece.

“I hope it warms the hearts of the public and brings some warm energy, vive and sunshine in the middle of the winter,” she says. “We all have that sexuality in us but not all cultures allow us to expose or express it so openly. Cubans are very warm people and extremely physical – they touch you when they talk to you, they hug you, they are very playful with each other. I hope people will be energised by watching it.”

An internationally renowned dancer before she turned her talents to creating dance pieces, Annabelle has been a full-time choreographer for more than ten years. Today she is one of the most heavily in demand female choreographers, having worked with companies as diverse as New York City Ballet, Ballet Black, Dutch National Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Moscow and West Australian Ballet.

In 2012 she won awards for her work <em>A Streetcar Named Desire</em>, which was created for Scottish Ballet, and in 2016 her piece <em>Broken Wings</em>, based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo which was created for English National Ballet, received huge critical acclaim.

Despite her heavy schedule, Annabelle hopes to find time to work with DCC again at some time in the future.

“It wouldn’t be soon because right now I am busy until 2019 and I have already made two pieces for the company,” she says. “I always say to companies that I wouldn’t want to be a resident choreographer because I think it is essential for dancers to work with lots of different choreographers in order to get acquainted with other ways of moving and other ways of working, but yes, the love story with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba and me is going to continue.”