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Review

Turning Up the Heat 

By Robin J. Miller
  • Hannah Stilwell of DJD in "¡Bullla!" / Photo by Trudie Lee Photography 
  • Ahmed F. Hodelín in "¡Bullla!" / Photo by Trudie Lee Photography 
  • Yusleybys Stoker Fernández in "¡Bullla!" / Photo by Trudie Lee Photography 
  • Laura Laycock in "¡Bullla!" / Photo by Trudie Lee Photography 
  • The Company in "¡Bullla!" / Photo by Trudie Lee Photography 

¡BULLA!

Hannah Stilwell, Kimberley Cooper, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks

Victoria April 5-6, 2005  

It’s too bad Victoria doesn’t get snow, because it would have been fun to watch it melt under the heat of “¡BULLA!”, the latest full-length show from Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, subtitled “A Loud Cuban Jazz Experiment”. And loud it was. Also raucous and sexy and colourful, and very definitely hot.

The normally staid Victoria audience swayed and tapped, visibly longing to salsa in the aisles to the Latin rhythms of an eight-piece Cuban band who played, not from the orchestra pit, but as equals with the dancers on stage. The music really was the star in this production, every now and then even making the dancers seem a bit extraneous – although they fought back hard. 

“¡BULLA!” (pronounced “boo-yah” and defined as making a racket or kicking up a fuss) grew out of Canadian dancer Hannah Stilwell’s two-year experience in Cuba. There, she fell in love with Afro-Cuban rhythms, as well as the sinuous and sensuous Cuban dance style. Back in Calgary, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks Artistic Director Vickie Adams Willis offered Stilwell the DJD dancers and production team to see what she – and co-choreographer Kimberley Cooper – could come up with.

The result is an attempt to fuse North American and Cuban jazz music and dance, Canadian and Cuban musicians and dancers, and for the most part it works. “¡BULLA!” is a fast-moving, high-powered and energetic evening of short sequences – each beautifully lit by Harry Frehner – that revolves around lusty men, come-hither women and that most fascinating subject of all: sex. But while the production as a whole is great fun, even exhilarating at times, there are some distinct weaknesses. 

Stilwell’s own program notes go a long way to spelling out the primary problem: “Our goal was not merely to teach Cubans how to dance Jazz (there is no Jazz dance as we know it in Cuba) or the Canadians how to move like a Cuban (impossible anyway), but rather to try to fuse the two highly-related forms into something we had never seen before.” Well, the Cubans proved they could learn jazz dance – they are fabulous dancers – but she’s right: the DJD dancers could not move like the Cubans. (Except Stilwell herself, who obviously now has Cuban music and movement in her soul. She was the only Canadian dancer to truly get the loose-necked, boneless-armed, flat-footed style, and her duet with blond-haired Cuban guest dancer Ivan Nuñez Segui, whose smile alone could send shivers up and down the spine, was the essence of sultry.) Add in an unnecessarily exaggerated racial divide and some oddly dissonant choreography, and there were times when it seemed like two rival jazz gangs (think “West Side Story”) on stage at one time.

The male dancers were all black, three Cuban and one from Zimbabwe. Of the seven female dancers, six were white and one was black (the wonderfully expressive Yusleybys Stoker Fernández, visiting from the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba) – but the black woman was, for at least the first half of the show, not part of the women’s group; she had a special role to play (out of Cuban folklore, I think, but the program did not make it clear). So it was the black men and the white women in sexually charged combinations – the white girls looking like they just got off the cruise ship for a little extracurricular high-life. They just didn’t quite fit together, and nor did a few of the dance segments and even the fabulous music. 

Stilwell and Cooper – and their musical collaborator Chris Andrew, who composed the score with the “¡BULLA!” band – were going for a hybrid of North American and Afro-Cuban music and dance. What they ended up with was more of a dance-off between two distinct styles, and the North American side definitely lost. Every now and then, the music would swing from hot, percussion-driven Latin to cool, intellectual New York night-club jazz, and the dance would follow, becoming spiky and angular and almost Bob Fosse- or even Martha Graham-like in its feel. Then back would surge the Caribbean heat and subtle, bred-in-the-bone, curiously innocent sensuousness, only to be challenged again by a much more overt American sexuality: in one segment, the male dancers grab their crotches, à la Michael Jackson, while the women clutch their breasts. (There is even a truly odd 1940s boogie-woogie dancehall sequence.)

Sheer joy in rhythm finally won out, however, in the last quarter of the program and particularly in the extended finale. The whole troupe, dressed in bright and swirling white, wove on and off the stage in a free-form river of movement that ultimately more than made up for any earlier lapses in taste or choreographic judgement. You couldn’t help but love it. 

The Victoria audience’s enthusiastic whistle and stomp response bodes well for the production and the extensive, thirteen-city Canadian tour currently underway. It took three creative partners in addition to DJD – The Arden Theatre in St. Albert, Alberta, Brock University’s Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, Ontario, and the Victoria Dance Series – and a whopping $700,000 to mount. It was clearly well worth it, though, to bring in the no-doubt expensive Cuban guest musicians. The band’s solo segments, which included a virtuoso display of drumming on (carefully tuned) wooden boxes, were special treats, and there’s definitely a market for the soundtrack.

“¡BULLA!” premiered at the opening night of the Havana International Jazz festival in Cuba in December 2004, and is now on a cross-Canada tour, with its final stop at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ home-base in Calgary, June 1–5, 2005. Tour dates and locations are available from DJD’s website: www.decidelyjazz.com/sched.htm 

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