George Céspedes: Reluctant wunderkind

In his dance Mambo 3XXI George Céspedes, the 30 year-old wunderkind of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, has created a subversive crowd-pleaser. His sensationally smart and sexy choreography gets maximum mileage out of a fabulous score by Nacional Electronica, a Cuban duo who turn the big, juicy beats of mambo king Perez Prado’s music inside out.


Donald Hutera

Posted on

‘The inspiration for this piece is to break the cliché of what Cuban music and dance is,’ says Céspedes. We’re speaking at the DCC’s headquarters, a few small studios and cramped offices tucked into a corner of the Teatro Nacional. This important building sits on the edge of the vast Plaza de la Revolution, a key location in Cuban history and still the nation’s political nerve centre. The setting seems fitting, especially given Céspedes’ ongoing interest and direct involvement in Cuban culture and all that it signifies through his chosen art form.

Céspedes, who has began his dance training at age 10, confesses that he had to be persuaded to make the dance that eventually became Mambo 3XXI. ‘They asked me for a choreography which expresses Cuban rhythm, Cuban movement and Cuban music. So I thought, I don’t wanna do something like a normal Cuban show with all the clichés.’ By this he means grinning, scantily clad dancers in feathers and frills moving in a provocative manner to highly rhythmic music – whether it’s rumba, salsa, mambo or something else. ‘I have another concept of Cuban rhythm,’ Céspedes avows. ‘So I said to them, I’m not the person you’re looking for. I do other, more conceptual stuff.’

Despite his initial reluctance, Céspedes eventually agreed to take this choreographic commission on board. ‘In my professional life,’ he explains, ‘some of the best things I’ve done have been because of limitations. So I started to listen to all the Cuban rhythms and really hear them. And in this cliché I found, for myself and as if for the first time, that Cuban mambo is fantastic music. I knew this maybe unconsciously because I grew up with this music, so I have it in my blood, my body and my culture whether I like it or not.’

What Céspedes discovered first hand is that mambo ‘is an incredible rhythm because it uses a certain kind of mathematical count, or syncopation. To count mambo is impossible. I don’t know how the musicians do it.’ Being a young maverick dance-maker, he wasn’t about to use a form of music as popular as mambo without giving it some kind of a makeover. That’s where his friends at Nacional Electronica enter the picture. As he says, perhaps not quite accurately, they create the kind of conceptual music ‘that nobody understands.’

For Céspedes these young wizards of electronica took the rhythmic patterns of Perez Prado’s iconic music and ‘cut and changed the sound, and put other things inside it.’ It’s worth noting here Céspedes also drew upon one song, the heart-meltingly romantic Mucho Corazon as delivered by the great Cuban vocalist Beny Moré, and in his wisdom left it intact. It sits at the centre of Mambo 3XXI like a gift.

The music dovetails beautifully with the movement Céspedes devised for and with 21 of his fellow dancers at the DCC. The dance sends them on a journey of transformation. They start out as an anonymous group of identically uniformed, joyless technicians responding mechanically to the rhythms they’ve been given. But by the time the dance reaches its climax, however, they’ve been released into a bigger, faster, more colourful and yet more intimately human society. The effect of their liberation acts like a shot of pure adrenalin on the audience’s collective nervous system. At least that’s how the it felt in December when Mambo 3XXI premiered in the auditorium of the neo-baroque dream that is the Gran Teatro Garcia Lorca, a key Havana venue. It was, in a word, exhilarating.

What Céspedes discovered first hand is that mambo 'is an incredible rhythm because it uses a certain kind of mathematical count, or syncopation. To count mambo is impossible.

Céspedes isn’t afraid to drift into a more philosophical realm when discussing his dances. He refers to Mambo 3XXI as ‘a new way to see what mambo is, and more like the way a new generation will one day like to see it, hear it and dance it.’ After a short silence he adds, ‘Maybe this dance is shifting the typical pattern for a new cliché. By this I mean you break something but then in a few years it becomes another new cliché. It will be like this, I hope. Because that is evolution.’ His words tie in neatly with a definition he threw my way in a later conversation: ‘I make a line. Why would I want to break it? And then I break it. That’s contemporary dance.’

Although Céspedes has made only a handful of dances for the DCC, already he’s won both praise and several national and international prizes (including, most recently, an award for a dance set to Carmina Burana that was made for the company). He’s also garnered recognition from audiences in Cuba, even if that can at times seem hard-won. ‘It’s very hard here,’ he says, plainly not joking. ‘They’re all critics. I’m not saying that Cuban audiences are the best in the world, but mostly the people who go to theatre know a lot about what they’re gonna see.’

And what might they – or their counterparts in the UK – expect from a dance by Céspedes? ‘When people go to the theatre I want them to see what they see and then take something in their heads a little further. I don’t do choreography to entertain people. This is not my job. I break my brains trying to do something that makes you think, or ask questions, or talk with each other. It’s a mix of everything. I want you to have fun, to enjoy yourself, or laugh, or whatever, but at the same time I want that something happens to you.’

Céspedes professes not to care how he’s perceived within the Cuban dance scene. He just want to make work, there or abroad. The latter, he admits, ‘would be good for the money and for inspiration, because when you work with new people you can be inspired. Also, there’s a moment when you’re not a prophet in your own land any more. This is normal. This is life. So you need to go out and do new stuff. And maybe you come back a new prophet.’