Recent Israeli tourists to Cuba will tell you that though the country is full of poor people, dance is a natural cultural expression that spontaneously breaks out on the streets. It used to be like that in Spain, but in recent years, you will find that kind of special dance mostly inside the cabarets. It’s also in the cabarets in Cuba. And, in one case, a professional Cuban dance company is taking a unique mixture of Cuban dance to the world.
The Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba troupe recently performed in Israel. With a gala presentation on opening night at the Tel Aviv Opera House, they showed a high standard of excellence in flamenco dance, with flexibility as movement artists, marking their distinction as an innovative Cuban fusion dance company.
Throughout the evening, doing quick changes back stage into colorful costumes, this all-women dance troupe expressed their exceptional ability to go from the foundational cultural roots of flamenco into ballet, Afro-Cuban dance, popular rhythms (mambo, cha cha cha, conga), modern, and a bit of jazz, They brought their dance expertise to the Israeli scene blending different dance disciplines together in a familiarity that many Jewish immigrants can identify with in this diverse society. The applause said it all. The troupe went beyond their ending number to a few more dance pieces, to the delight of the audience, most of whom were fully engaged in the group’s unusual rhythmic movements. From moving in precision line-ups, to the complicated foot work, to hand gestures that looked somewhat Middle Eastern, the dance ensemble showed the resilience, discipline, intense effort and energy that goes into the artistic direction and choreography of Litz Alfonso.
This writer spoke to Alfonso, back-stage after the dress rehearsal. She stressed the importance of cultural rhythms that help the dance movement. “I think that all of them, from classical music, folkloric music, from here, from everywhere -- it’s music; it’s inspiration.”
Alfonso started the dance company in 1991. Surprisingly, she chose to bring her repertoire to Israel that did not include many of her latest dance works, but mainly those that she choreographed in the early days, going back to 1999. “This show has gone around the world. It’s the first one that went internationally. The first step is this one. And, then we continue. Because in order to understand everything we did in 2006, 2007 and 2008, this is good. And, at the same time, in this show, we put fragments of different shows. You can see and compare.”
The dance troupe is highly trained and strongly influenced by Latin rhythms, though not those heard on the typical drum set. Their accompanying musicians play “live” music for the troupe, using such drums as the congas, the djembe, the dabouka, and other percussion sounds. Their first dance introduced on stage at the Tel Aviv Opera House included castanets, a traditional flamenco percussion hand instrument. Many of the rhythms are familiar not only in Latin America but to Sephardic Jews living in Israel, as well. Alfonso commented on the similarities and added, “The other instrument that I think is very powerful for us is the guitar. We use it a lot, in our shows and in our lives.”
The average age of a dancer in the company is 21. But, there are those who are as young as 16, and others who are in their 30’s. All of the company members are in excellent physical shape and look young. Their commitment involves long hours of training and rehearsals. They work on various dance routines, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Eat lunch, then come back at 2:00 pm, and continue until as late as 6:00 p.m. depending on the quantity of work they have to prepare.
When I asked Alfonso what was the dance company’s most outstanding performance, in the most memorable venue, she couldn’t provide a specific answer. Her response was, “Every day it is a new world. Every day is a challenge. Everybody needs to say, ‘yes it’s good…’ People love the company.”
Alfonso shared a story about one situation when she worked with musicians in Spain. The musicians said it was impossible to do fusion dance with Afro-Cuban movements while adding a flair of flamenco. Alfonso pushed for that type of creativity and explained the results: “We tried to do it, and they discovered that, in the end, the base is the same; the compass is the same -- the beat.”
During her preparatory rehearsals, Alfonso does not like the idea of picking one outstanding principle dancer for a single performance. She allows her dancers the opportunity to reach an advanced level. The outcome is that every dancer has the opportunity to become one of several principle dancers in different choreographed pieces.
When Alfonso was 23, she formed the dance troupe. After a long trip to Spain, she suffered a knee injury and at age 33, she stopped performing. Since then, she has been both the artistic director and the main choreographer. She is now 50 years old and going strong. She is involved in every aspect of the company from selecting the materials and styles of the creative costuming, to deciding what dance works will be ready for performances both at home and abroad. She gives her artistic input daily, playing an integral part in shaping the image of the dance company. “I need to see everything, because I want everything to be perfect. It’s very difficult. I can’t say impossible. But, I try to do it.” Currently, Alfonso is including other choreographers in her dance repertoire. Often, they have already been dancing with the company for some time.
According to Alfonso, she runs a dance academy in Cuba, founded in 2016, where people of all ages, including children, are able to apply and be accepted into the school. Reportedly, the school has more than a thousand students every year, and includes a Children and Youth Ballet. Young career dancers are also trained in Alfonso’s unique fusion style dance through a curriculum recognized in Cuba by the National School of Art (ENA). Those movement artists who create choreography for the students in her school are from her own dance company. “All the dancers are teachers of one group in the school. And, they prepare the choreography for that group. So, I can see the development of the dancers as choreographers in the groups. And, we prepare a choreography competition every two years. So, the best ones go on to do choreography for the company.”
Israeli journalists were invited a few months ago to Cuba to see Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba perform inside the country before the group traveled to Israel on tour. Alfonso says that getting to Israel was a coordinated effort that took about five years to become a reality. “We looked for the moment because it is not easy. But, in the end we know that everything is possible. It’s just that they put all the minds together in the same note, like the music. And, now, we think that it is the moment.”
Alfonso has a lot of ideas for the future. She wants to continue to work together with Israeli tour companies and public relations teams. “We are very disciplined and very strict. If we are here it means something.” Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba has been to five continents and has built an excellent reputation globally. The company has performed on stage in more than 20 countries and over 200 cities. Company performances include original music, with authentic expressions of Cuban culture. It make the presentation so unique that it has led to invitations for festivals and events in such countries as the United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Martinique, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand, China, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and Bahrain.
For Israelis who are working in culture and business, the dance company provides another avenue to open up some unofficial government communications between Cuba and Israel. According to reports, Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, went to Cuba on a private visit earlier this year. She called it a “family vacation”, but it was the first time an Israeli cabinet member visited the country since Cuba broke diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973.
While Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment about current relations with Cuba, several Israelis are involved in agricultural and construction ventures in the country. Next month, an Israeli business delegation is going to Cuba, organized by a non-government organization called the Israel-Latin American Chamber of Commerce. One of the purposes is to promote trade between both countries, even though there are no formal diplomatic relations. Israeli executives involved in food production, real estate, water, renewable energy, agriculture and pharmaceuticals are expected to join in the visit. Reports indicate that Israeli businessmen will communicate directly with the Cuban regime, interacting with government-owned companies.
The Cuban people are looking for solutions to improve their quality of life, and Israelis are looking to fulfill their business interests, in what could become a “win-win” situation. Those who enjoy the culture of Cuban dance and the arts will be enthusiastic to hear that they can visit Litz Alfonso’s Dance Cuba studios, as well as her dance academy, while in the country.
Alfonso is happy with the dance company’s accomplishments and she wants to keep improving relationships for future performances in Israel. She talks about eventually holding master dance classes with Israelis as she has done in other countries, and it appears she will be persuasive enough to convince people that this is a good way forward. She is also willing and eager to work with Israeli organizations on diversified dance projects. “I think we will keep the relations in a very good way and continue working together. This is just the first step.”
However, the main focus of the company in Cuba and around the world is still practicing and improving various techniques that makes this troupe so unique. It keeps Alfonso busy maintaining a formidable dance style not often seen in the dance world. It is obvious that a lot of hard work goes into acquiring the harmony and unison that the ensemble portrays in their collaborative movements.
Meanwhile, those Israelis who have seen the compelling performances of Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba can already look forward to the group’s next tour to Israel. Observing an increased interest in the Israeli cultural dance arts community may encourage an even larger cultural exchange between Israel and Cuba in the future.