By Laura Molzahn
Originally published by the Chicago Tribune

Though restrictions on travel from the United States to Cuba have eased a lot in the past year, trips for the sole purpose of tourism are still prohibited. So why not make things easy on yourself? Visit, or revisit, Cuba’s rich mix of cultures and incredible array of music and dance via the work of Cuban choreographer Lizt Alfonso, who’s been inspired and guided by the stew of influences in her culture over the 25 years of her company.

Alfonso’s history with dance, she says on a call from her Havana offices, began at age 4, when she took her first ballet class. “It was so amazing that, from that moment until today, I keep it in my memory,” she says. Ballet was just the beginning, though. She also studied Spanish dance; in fact, Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba began life as a flamenco troupe. “But then I say, ‘This is not us. This is not Cuba, this is not our body movement, this is not our language.’ It’s in our roots, but it’s not our way,” she says.

“Our way” — the Cuban way — is sultry, influenced perhaps by all the social dances permeating the fabric of everyday life in Cuba, where “almost everybody” dances, Alfonso notes. “Danzon, cha-cha-cha, mambo, in the street or in the park, with the people. Because it’s usual for us, it’s normal.” More, it’s a time when Latin dances seem to be proliferating — fusing various traditions, then dividing and multiplying again — creating a tidal wave of new social dance.

Alfonso has combined all these influences in her company, marrying Cuba to Europe and Africa, moment by moment, move by move. “I look for that,” she says. “All the time we keep focusing on fusion dance, a mix of everything.” This weekend, Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba brings its founder’s unique vision back to Chicago for the first time since 2010, in “Cuba Vibra!” (“Cuba Lives!) Saturday and Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, accompanied by an eight-piece traditional Cuban band, featuring lots of percussion and a singer.

In the American imagination, time stopped in Cuba once the U.S. imposed trade sanctions in the early ’60s, and our country’s influence (and goods) disappeared. But change has come to Lizt Alfonso Dance over 25 years.

Though the company does showcase the mambo and cha-cha, popularized in the ’50s, it also dances the more recent Brazilian-influenced batucada, a style of samba. And a year ago Alfonso’s company was the first Cuban troupe to perform onstage at the Latin Grammy Awards. Teamed with Afro-Colombian hip-hop group ChocQuibTown, rapping “Salsa & Choque,” the dancers delivered some pretty smokin’ moves, if the video is any indication.

Alfonso has also branched out into dance musicals, the first of them in 2007: “Vida,” produced in Toronto, told the story of a woman, similar to Alfonso, from childhood to old age. “I love the Broadway musical from the beginning,” Alfonso says. “I have the influence of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, all the great musicals that you have in the United States. It’s a way to communicate with people.”

While working on her 2007 dancical, Alfonso also added men to the company, which since 1991 had had only female dancers. “I think (women) have a lot to say,” she notes. “And in some ways, we are always in this second line, and I want to be in the first line.” But to tell the “Vida” story required men. “So I invite some (male) dancers to join the company — and they don’t want to leave, they want to stay, because they like it. So I say, ‘Well, OK, you can stay.'” Chicago will see 15 female dancers and two men.

The two-act program of 13 dances takes a very loose chronological approach. In the first act, the 1950s-style “Tea Party” and dances set to Latin favorites like “Quizas” and “Besame Mucho” sit side by side with “Spirituality,” devoted to white-robed Afro-Cuban santeros. The second act opens with “Hombre,” revealing the percussive influences of Spain and Africa on Cuba, and closes in the present day.

Alfonso answers passionately when asked about U.S.-Cuban relations. “For always, we don’t have problems between our two people,” she says. “It’s a problem with the government, how we fought.” Having toured her company to five continents, and many times to the U.S., she says, “I think we are the door. We need to continue working in the very good way that we can do.”

Besides, Alfonso says, “I want to go there, to Chicago, because I love the city. I love the people and the audience there: very good audience. They know and they enjoy. I love that.”

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