Balletronic: The Australian/Cuban combination at the Fringe

It’s unusual to find more than one person choreographing a dance show, but an Australian/Cuban combination is set to work its magic again, writes Kelly Apter

‘IT’S rare to find a Cuban with two left feet – they exist but they’re an anomaly.” So says Australian Aaron Cash, co-choreographer of Ballet Revolución and complete convert to the Cuban lifestyle. For the past five years, he has toured the world with one of Cuba’s most popular shows, playing to packed houses.

Now the Ballet Revolución company is back in the UK, with a brand new show, Balletronic, premiering at this year’s Fringe. For Cash, it’s another welcome chance to work with Cuba’s unique brand of music and dance talent.

“I love going to Cuba because I feel I’ve choreographed some of the best work I’ve ever done there,” he says. “They give you their heart and soul, they don’t hold anything back, and they’re so high energy. Dance in Cuba is innate, it’s such a part of who they are, it’s imbued in them.”

It’s not just the people that Cash finds intoxicating – it’s the environment. Things are slowly changing, but Cuba still struggles with basic utilities, and access to the internet is hard to come by, which not only makes the dancers very adaptable, it also leaves a lot more time for creativity and face-to-face communication.

“We rehearse in these run-down dance studios and the water gets turned off a few times a week,” says Cash, without a trace of complaint in his voice. “But you deal with it, you just get on with it. Because it’s also an incredibly creative place, so you forget about all that – it’s about the art. And you don’t get any of the nonsense that goes with first-world problems, like the internet is running slow. Nobody’s caught up in Facebook or Instagram or worrying about how many likes they’ve got.”

Cash co-choreographed Ballet Revolución and Balletronic with Cuban-born Roclan Gonzalez Chavez. It’s a partnership that has fed both shows with a rich diet of classical ballet and West End glitz from Cash, plus contemporary dance and Cuban folkloric dances such as salsa and mambo from Chavez.

Dancers in both shows either trained in modern dance at the Escuela Nacional de Arte or classical technique at the Escuela Nacional de Ballet. But all of them will have immersed themselves in folkloric dances outside of training, on the beach, in people’s houses, bars and clubs. Which means switching between styles comes a lot easier than for many dancers.

“Communism has its foibles but it’s certainly made the Cubans very adaptable,” says Cash. “If a choreographer comes in with something new, they love it, they see it as a challenge. And if they don’t get it at first, they work really hard until they do.”

That work ethic has much to do with the status dancers and musicians enjoy in Cuba. With travel limited for most people, finding work as a performer is a route to seeing the world. So while the two dance schools take much of the credit for Cuba’s abundance of talent, desire to achieve also plays a part.

“The training in Cuba is great, but there’s also a real drive to be good,” says Cash. “Because if you’re good, there’s a chance of a better life. If a nice car drives past in Havana, people think, ‘Oh, there must be a famous musician or dancer or actor in there’ – whereas we think, ‘It must be a doctor or a lawyer’.”

A graduate of the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte himself, Roclan Gonzalez Chavez knows just what the institution has to offer. Having grown up and worked with so many versatile dancers and musicians, to what does he attribute Cuba’s reputation?

“I think it’s because this island has the influence of Afro-Cuban rhythm, Spanish guitar and then jazz from the US,” he says. “That melting pot has been in our blood for hundreds of years. And then, our strong education – we have one of the best dance schools in the world.”

All of which means the producers of Ballet Revolución and Balletronic were spoilt for choice when they held auditions in Havana. For their Edinburgh premiere, they’re bringing 11 dancers and 11 musicians, including a five-piece string quartet and five-piece rhythm section.

As the title suggests, Balletronic looks at how electronics have influenced us, both musically and in our everyday lives. Chavez and Cash are well-placed to note the stark difference between electronic use in Cuba compared to elsewhere.

“In Cuba we don’t have much, but we have an easier way to live, less stress,” says Chavez. “We dance on the beach with a bottle of rum, we have more communication. When I’m not in Cuba, sometimes you sit down at a table for dinner with six people – and four of them are looking at their iPhones.”

While it may be standard practice for a dance company to programme mixed bills by different choreographers, it’s unusual to find more than one person at the helm of a commercial show. But if Ballet Revolución proved anything, it was that audiences like an authentic approach.

Cash spent years touring with Cher as a dancer, as well as starring in the hugely popular Tap Dogs, so he knows a thing or two about crowd-pleasing. His dance pedigree also stacks up, though, having been recruited by major players such as Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Chavez’s knowledge of Cuban dance is unparalleled, having toured shows all over the world, as well as choreographing for Cuban television and its national music awards each year.

“I think it’s a very interesting way to work,” says Chavez of his collaboration with Cash. “We made Ballet Revolución together, so we know how each other works. Aaron’s influence is completely different from mine. I have all this Afro influence that gives the show the Cuban flow, and then Aaron brings his influence from West End shows and neo-classical ballet.

“I think it’s a very good combination. It worked for Ballet Revolución, so why not use it again for Balletronic?”

Balletronic, Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 August, 9:30pm / listings

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