In Cuba, dance isn’t just something you learn; it’s something that’s born into you.
“I think that we dance before walking,” laughs Lizt Alfonso, on the phone from her office in Havana. “We love playing music before walking.”
Don’t take that to mean, mind you, that there isn’t a great deal of dance training in Alfonso’s life. She may not quite have been born dancing, but she started formal training in the form of ballet classes at age four and hasn’t looked back. Alfonso is the founder and general director of Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, an internationally acclaimed company that’s bringing its Cuba Vibra! show to the Massey Theatre on March 8.
The show, which includes 17 dancers and eight musicians, presents a tour through some of the “best of the best” moments from various shows in the company’s repertoire in a style Alfonso describes as “dance fusion.” It incorporates elements of flamenco and African dance with popular rhythms from Cuba past and present – chacha, mambo, rumba, salsa – with a blend of contemporary dance and ballet.
“It is the way that we are: very colourful with a lot of passion,” Alfonso says.
The show is joyful and celebratory, she says, but with stories that also speak of more sombre subjects: the impacts of war; the journeys of refugees by sea in search of new lives – whether that’s from Haiti to Cuba, from Cuba to the U.S., or from Africa to Spain.
The live musicians onstage are integral to the show, Alfonso says, and they bring a far different vibe than simply having recorded music.
“Music live is very good because they can feel everything that happens during the show. In every step, every moment, every minute, they can provide more emotion,” she says. “In some parts, they are part of the choreography.”
And, she says, the audience always responds when the musicians have their moments in the spotlight: “The reactions everywhere are fantastic.”
Travelling the world with this show is the continuation of a long-held dream for Alfonso, who dreamed of setting up her own company very early on in life. Cuba, she says, has many exciting dance companies – its prestigious Ballet Nacional, along with Afro-Cuban and contemporary dance companies – but there wasn’t anyone doing the kind of fusion she envisioned. Even at 15, before she went off to university to study theatre arts, she would tell people she wanted to set up her own company and travel the world.
So she did. She was 23 years old – and, 27 years later, she hasn’t slowed down one iota.
In its formative years, Alfonso’s company was for female dancers only – because, at the time, women didn’t have much of a place in the public and artistic discourse.
“We have a lot of things to say, and we didn’t have enough space,” says the now-51-year-old Alfonso. “Now it’s a little easier, but then … . I think always I had something different to say.”
Men were only introduced into the company back in 2007, when Alfonso and her company produced their first musical, VIDA!, with David Mirvish at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. At that point, she needed some male performers to tell the story, so men were invited to take part – to this day she has some shows with all women, and others with men (male performers are part of Cuba Vibra!).
She hopes that the audiences who see Cuba Vibra! experience the many facets of Cuban life not just through the dance, but through the music, the scenery, the costume design, the lighting.
“We have so many influences here on this island, it is amazing,” she says, adding that she strives to create the feeling that the audience is inside the stage, with the performers. “It’s very interesting for us, the way that people connect with this show. … You can see the audience, that they laugh, or they clap, or they cry, it depends.”
She says audiences in the U.S. and Canada, in particular, have responded with pin-drop silence to aspects of the show.
“People are totally quiet, and then they start to bravo and to clap,” she says.
Besides dazzling audiences around the world, Alfonso has also earned international recognition for her work both with her dance company and its associated dance school, which has more than 1,000 students starting at age six. She’s a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She was named one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2018, a list that recognizes a variety of influential and inspiring women from around the world. She earned an International Spotlight Award from the U.S. Presidential Committee for the Arts and Humanities, which was presented to her in the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2016.
Through it all, she maintains a constant presence in her own dance school, where she works to ensure that her company dancers are an integral part of the institution - every company dancer is a teacher, too.
Alfonso still makes sure she knows her students personally. Today, in fact, she needs to leave in a moment. Because one of the girls is having birthday cake, and they’re waiting for “teacher” to get off the phone from Canada so she can come and sing Cumpleaños feliz.
Then it’s back to daily life and work in Havana until the company leaves for Canada – the tour starts Feb. 21 in Burlington, Ont. and travels around Ontario and Quebec before heading west. Alfonso is looking forward to returning, even if she does encounter cold and snow.
“We love Canada,” she says. “It’s like our second home. Many, many, many good times happen there.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
What: Cuba Vibra!, presented by Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba
When: Friday, March 8, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $60, or $50 students and seniors, through www.ticketsnw.ca or 604-521-5050