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'Carlos Acosta -
Tocororo A Cuban Tale'
The Producer's Diary...
Andy Wood's diary on the coming together of 'Carlos Acosta - Tocororo A Cuban Tale'
by Andy Wood
In Cuba ballet is working class football. Since the revolution up until the present day the state has made massive investment in ballet and baseball. A few years ago when the Buena Vista stars presented their film at Havana's Cine Chaplin, Fidel was expected to be there and the talk was of a reception planned Chez Fidel. It never happened. The Baltimore Orioles were in town that weekend playing the national side at baseball and it was no contest for Fidel's loyalties. Baseball got the supper, music didn't.
On 15 February, 2003 it's a different matter. Carlos Acosta, Cuban working class ballet personified is in town. Carlos commands the world's stages like Patrick Vieira. The eleventh child of a lorry driver whose dad made him dance is premiering his first choreography in the nineteenth century splendour of the Gran Teatro de La Habana and el maximo lider is in the front circle.
I first saw Carlos Acosta dance in the back room of a pub in Brixton four years ago. Every other Sunday the unsuspecting landlords hosted a Cuban bembé in the backroom. It was an informal gathering of Cuban expatriates and musical fellow travellers. Some nights the place was packed and bottles of rum circulated under jackets (probably the reason why the pub lost interest) as the crowd warmed up to Afro-Cuban call and response to the saints in front of an elaborate altar. The night that I saw Carlos dance, there was nobody there. I turned up late and there were two drummers, Carlos and me. Now here we are in Havana putting on the show of Carlos' life in anyway you choose to interpret that.
This diary's author and the producer of Tocororo, A Cuban Tale - Andy Wood
© Nick Awde
Carlos' star is burning brighter. Maybe we can make it in London. We start a series of meetings at the Festival Hall. I like it there. We do lots of shows there and it has a strong track record in getting audiences for Cuban shows and it can be the right kind of democratic people's palace for this show. The breakeven point in our budget though looks remarkably close to the market value of my South London home. Through a series of meetings we take a scalpel and then axe to the show budget. When we started trying to raise the money for the show two year's before we were looking to create it in Havana but on UK or US budgets. Now necessity means that we'll have to call in all the favours that we can, create it with a lot of Havana co-operation just in order to get it made. The scalpel and the axe reveal a more petite budget lurking within and one that suggests a different route.
Carlos had initially been put in contact with me by Sadler's Wells. He'd approached them about the project and they had told him that producing a show (raising the money and overseeing it over time) was not what they did. Since I had just produced a Cuban traditional dance show with them (the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional), they suggested that he talk to me. After two years of not getting the project off the ground we went back to the programmer, Alistair Spalding, at Sadler's Wells with our new slimmed down costs and struck a deal to present the show there. Full circle but maybe the better for the detour.
Carlos has been edging towards an accord with Danza Contemporanea, the Cuban National Contemporary Dance Company. They have a very strong stable of dancers and can provide the legal structure for us to obtain a theatre for the premiere in Havana. Also crucially, in a country where artists are in great international demand, if we can agree things with DC then we know that the dancers coming to rehearsals now in April will remain on contract with Danza Contemporanea and still be here when we come back in December to rehearse. If we assemble the company from nothing ourselves then there's no guarantee that anyone can afford to hang around between our rehearsals.
Carlos Acosta in the rehearsal studio
© Asya Verzhbinsky
December 2002. It's happening now. Rehearsals have begun at Danza Contemporanea's space out by the Plaza de la Revolucion. After much editing the contract is finally signed. Carlos has assembled the rest of his dancers, Alexander Verona from the National Folkloric Company is to play Moro the Afro-Cuban foil to Carlos's classical solos. Alexander has a real earthy solid presence which balances Carlos's classical technique. We're still short a female lead but Carlos is testing new options most days. There's a sense of something going on. The day before I arrive Danny Glover has sat in on a rehearsal and while I'm there Chucho Valdes (in whose honour the jazz festival is being held around town) pops in to check it out.
Carlos in the rehearsal room works incredibly fast. He can do what he does because he only has to be shown or told anything once to retain it - something that applies in any work situation. He's working with a very talented group but none as fast as him. He is stretching the Danza Contemporanea dancers in ways that they haven't been taken before but which they are happy to follow. "Show us your medals" is what old players say to new football managers but everyone knows that Carlos has the medals and can jump higher than any of them - something the young dancers encourage him to do in the breaks. They also show him their moves which can just about match his breakdance spins and one of them has a running horizontal roll that seems to threaten his career every time he does it.
Up until now the show has all been inside Carlos. Now we can see what he meant. I make a note to tell Salvatore the designer back in London to reinforce the gussets. The style is hard, fast and physical but with a strong grounding in Afro-Cuban drumming and dance.
A better flight back to London today than last April. This show has been a constant background in my life for four years (and in Carlos's for much more) finally it's happening and the sense of forward movement is tangible. The last meeting with the Cuban team this time is in fast food place opposite the comedy club where our production manager has his day job. In Havana we now have the assistant director, the marketing man and the production manager. It feels right and it feels like the right team. Carlos's own youthful success means that he is confident in the input of a young team both on and off stage. Carlos is almost thirty but most of his chosen dancers are ten years younger. For me, after 16 years of working with ageing Cuban musicians, it's a fresh breath to work with people younger than my tattoo.
Back in London in the middle of December and Salvatore, the designer, is doing the shopping for the show while all around it's Christmas. On January 2 he comes to the office with all the fabric we need. An initial thought had been that the materials would be bought in Havana but now we're told that "there's nothing in the shops" and that's not really a figure of speech. The fabric and Salvatore, along with the elastic, the buttons, the thread and even the pins are shipped in quick succession.
Havana in January 2003 feels freezing even after London. I'm wearing jackets that I hadn't intended to put on until I got as far back as Madrid. Carlos and Salvatore meet me at the airport. Carlos gives me his bed in the house that he provides for his father, Salvatore has the spare room. We start work at 7.30am - five hours after I've landed. As a dancer manager Carlos has to do everything and know everything, which tends to mean now that days begin as the sun comes up and end with meetings that start at ten o'clock at night. It can't be right that I've got his bed, I move out to a flat next door to the National Ballet after a couple of nights. Leafy with parrots in cages in the shaded alleyway approach, spoilt by dog shit everywhere.
Heriberto Cabezas, head of marketing at the Ballet Nacional is our guide through how to create this show within the Cuban system. Like all others working on the production he's of Carlos' generation and knows precisely how things happen, or don't, in Havana arts. My new flat is opposite his office and round the corner from Tecnoscena where Salvatore is supervising the making of his costumes.
Tecnoscena is one of two making-houses within a block of the National Ballet's base. It's got a skilled, but un-motivated staff many of whom aren't keen on taking egg-sucking lessons from Salvatore. Linares, our local production manager, presents me with a bill calculated by Tecnoscena. It's ten times what I'd been told to anticipate which means ten times beyond my budget. Cuba operates on a dual economy, pesos if you're Cuban and dollars if you're not. The economy takes its lead from tourism where increasing numbers of tourists shore up the gap left by the loss of the Soviet Union's sugar subsidy and cheap oil. Tecnoscena, working for Cuban performing arts companies is working mostly in the peso economy. They know they can charge us in dollars for the work but don't have an easy benchmark by which to assess what to charge us. Salvatore and I sit down with the departmental heads, I explain that what they want to charge us isn't what we expected. We will see.
Carlos Acosta and the company in Tocororo - A Cuban Tale
Photography by Laurie Lewis ©
The Gran Teatro is an imposing building on the main square in Old Havana, next to the Capitolio (A lookalike for Washington's Capitol but Cuba had it first). It's the oldest surviving theatre in the Caribbean - turrets and angels on the top. Backstage its dust and boards and looks like the kind of place where a young Cliff Richard would say "Hey kids lets do the show right here."
Instant mayhem on Mr Acosta's arrival backstage. Carlos now has a BBC1 camera crew glued to him and this adds an extra level of hyperactivity to everything. If Carlos wants to turn quickly in the corridor then camera, sound and director have to swing round fast in his jetstream. Carlos just got off a flight from Boston (via Canada) at 2.30 this morning so we have a cocktail of a late night, a long journey and the first morning in the theatre. A crazy situation but with no money coming in for us from the impending Havana performances he's been dancing for a week in Boston the week before the biggest opening night of his life.
In the dress rehearsal, now with 6 dancers in the car and me in the stalls, the car appears in view up the ramp from the street and then rolls gently back down. No more cracks in the ramp though. I still don't manage to see a whole run through as urgent discussions with DC manager drag me out of auditorium.
Dress rehearsal, says Carlos is much better than yesterday - which I had missed - but this increasingly technically heavy show looks like it needs a couple more technical rehearsals (which we don't have) in order to be ready. We still don't have all the shoes.
Early evening and all the shoes have arrived but Carlos snakeskin pair look almost ruined after one rehearsal. Carlos's sister takes the costumes home to wash.
Back down Obispo for dinner with Salvatore, Heriberto and Magaly the shows marketeer. Magaly says there are tanks on the streets of London which appears as an inversion of the normal developing world stereotype. We have a Valentine's dinner (no option it's the only menu today) in sleepy Old Havana and the tanks roll in London. Marketing a show in Havana is a strange business. Our original plan had to been to hire six billboards (the kind that normally feature giant pictures of Ché) on prominent junctions in the city and paint them with show ads. Now we've abandoned that idea but there are no leaflets, no posters, just a TV ad but it's on the one TV channel and editorial in all the papers. Will it be enough to fill a 1200 seat theatre for a fortnight.
Our production manager asks me to bring in five bottles of rum for the technicians. It's tradition he says. Don't open them too early I say. At five I get a call from the theatre saying that it's crawling with secret service and all the cars parked in front are being moved. It's not certain but this is the best indication that Mr Castro is going to be in the house.
Heriberto and Magaly handle protocol it's spelt with a capital P round here and Heriberto's early concern has been to get the show on the map with the "Havana Jet Set" - a lovely term from a bygone age of international innocence. I'm told that if the president doesn't come I can sit in the front of the balcony. If he does then there has to be at least one line of Cuban nationals between any foreigner and him and I'm at the back.
8.28pm and Mr Castro enters the building, just after the man from Sadler's Wells who landed in Havana with ten minutes to spare and who is suitably impressed by the late arrival. Enthusiastic applause from the audience and the ten TV cameras focussed on the stage swivel to catch the leader taking the applause then his seat.
Carlos & Veronica
Photography by Laurie Lewis ©
Afterwards onstage the maximum leader is doing a meet and greet. I get pulled towards him by Carlos - he's shorter than I thought he would be and very quiet. But he's just pacing himself as the handshakes and the conversation extend longer than the show itself. But it's all good stuff, an acute dissection of the show from a very sharp minded critic who caught all the musical and cultural references and asks to meet specific members of the cast. "What does a producer do?" he asks me, "Couldn't somebody Cuban do it?". I hadn't expected him to be here and I hadn't expected to meet him.
Everyone who wants to meet him from the show does. Miguel Iglesias, director of Danza Contemporanea the national contemporary dance company whose dancers we have borrowed, has a particularly long innings. Something more significant is maybe happening. The national ballet school a couple of blocks away has 12 immaculate full size studios with sprung floors and immaculate sound systems. Our last month of rehearsals were hosted here. Danza Contemporanea, where rehearsals began, meanwhile has a picturesque space with palm trees outside of the broken windows in a building behind the other, modern, national theatre building out of town. It's got overflowing toilets and a broken parquet floor which would be put to shame by the facilities at my daughter's south London church hall ballet class.
Carlos Acosta the Cuban classical dancer bar none of his generation, the greatest Cuban dancer since Alicia Alonso matriach of the Cuban Ballet Nacional, has created his first show back in Havana. But it's not a ballet in any conventional sense. It's a fusion that only he could make (a line we have pitched to so may theatres down these recent years but nonetheless true) which takes his training and his experience on the worlds great stages but then brings it home and puts it together, in a contemporary dance framework, with the Afro Cuban street dance that is the real dance beat of Havana. In Havana Carlos could have done anything - a chosen son who had never really left but had so seldom danced here. But what he had chosen to do was to create a show which says - look at this dance, this is my dance, this is our dance. Here is ballet and here is our dance and see they have the same value.