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'Havana Blue': Finding inspiration in Cuba

As Afro-Cuban rhythms pulse on the sound system, the couples intertwine on the dance floor, swaying gently to the music.

“With feeling!” implores choreographer Frank Chaves.

“Make sure you're really touching bodies here … make as much effort as possible!”

Considering the sensuousness of the music, by Chicago jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis, and the sinuousness of Chaves' choreography, the couples really aren't having trouble making physical contact. But Chaves is asking for something more: heat and ardor, sensuality and sweat of a sort you can encounter in only one place on earth: Havana.

Chaves knows precisely what he wants because a few months ago he journeyed to Cuba with Davis in search of many things: art, inspiration, personal history. He had left the country with his family in 1960, when he was 6 months old, and long had yearned to return to his birthplace.

Davis never had been to the island nation, but he, too, dreamed of traveling there, to explore the roots of jazz and, perhaps, unlock some ancient family history as well.

In October, the two artists made their long-awaited trip to Havana, joined by a small entourage from Chaves' River North Dance Chicago and Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. The odyssey produced “Havana Blue,” a multimovement piece the dancers are rehearsing on this spring afternoon at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts on North Dearborn Street.

The work will have its world premiere Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre, with Davis' CJP accompanying the River North dancers.

Creating the suite apparently transformed two of Chicago's leading artists.

“It was a pretty life-changing experience for me,” says Chaves, after the rehearsal.

Adds Davis, sitting alongside Chaves, the venture revealed “the seed of Afro-Cuban music,” while unearthing for him his ancestors' roots in Africa.

The two men traveled to Cuba mainly to find source material for their work, which was commissioned by the companies they head and by the Auditorium Theatre. But their discoveries, they say, become the basis not only for “Havana Blue” but also for a deeper understanding of their own lives and art.

Though born in Cuba, Chaves not surprisingly has no recollection of his infancy there.

“My memories were created by everything I heard (later) from my family and uncles and aunts and cousins,” he says. “The Cuba I knew was: They would go to the Biltmore (Yacht and Country Club) and play tennis and then brunch and go to the Copa and have cocktails in the afternoon and have dinner and dance all night. That was the Cuba I had in my head.

“There's nothing like getting there and seeing the real thing … everything in such a state of disrepair. People seemed to be living on balconies. It's hot, all the clothing is out there (drying on clotheslines). It was amazing to me to see everything … totally falling apart. But everything on the inside — the culture, the arts — was so rich.”

That included performances by seven dance companies that Chaves and friends attended, and the opportunity to meet the legendary nonagenarian Cuban choreographer Alicia Alonso, who subsequently invited him to watch her work.

“I was truly star-struck,” recalls Chaves — an understandable reaction considering Alonso's stature in Cuba and in dance. She was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York in the 1940s and later in the decade returned to Havana to form what would become the Ballet Nacional de Cuba — all despite severe visual impairment, surgeries and periods of immobility.

“She's in the studio with 15 opera singers and 15 dancers, and she's choreographing a brand new piece — an opera by Handel!” says Chaves, recounting their October meeting.

“I have these opera singers this close to me, belting this out. I walk in the room (and) people clear a path for me to sit next to her. She whispers to me: ‘It's still not in great shape yet,'” adds Chaves, referring to the choreographer who's now virtually blind. “She has a married couple (working with her): The woman tells her what's happening; the guy is out there implementing. It was surreal.”

But also inspiring, considering the hardships Alonso faces, as well as the one Chaves endures.

“I suffer a great deal — I have degenerative spinal cord disease,” says Chaves. Its effects are seen in a slight limp as he works with his River North dancers.

The time he spent with Alonso and otherwise soaking up Cuban culture, however, transcended such issues.

“It was just beyond inspiring and enriching,” Chaves says. “I had this moment of, ‘Oh my God, I get it. I belong here (in Cuba). It's calling me.' It felt like home. I didn't expect that. I didn't think it was going to be as enriching. The arts, the richness of the culture … really kind of sent me over the top, over the edge. It just filled me up.”

Davis, too, was profoundly affected by the experience, in part because he has been searching for his ancestry — musically and otherwise — for so long. Many years ago, he says, he embarked on what he calls “a trek of understanding the African roots of jazz.” In 1996 he traveled to Brazil and discovered “how slavery in South America was so different from North America, and how it affected the music and the growth of the music.”

The trip to Cuba represented an extension of that mission, a “quest of musical self-discovery” in an island nation that, like the United States, was linked to Africa via the slave trade.

In Cuba, Davis spent days and nights improvising with Cuban musicians — in restaurants, hotel lounges, on the streets and alleyways of a city that never really pipes down. He played “literally everywhere except for in the cab,” says Davis, with a laugh.

When he began spending time with the octogenarian Cuban musician Orlando Lopez Alonso, who tapped out complex rhythms on a hollowed-out log with a stick, Davis says he achieved a kind of breakthrough.

“Orlando took us on a 5-mile walk through old Havana,” recalls Davis. “During lunch, I asked him important questions about his African ancestry. … He took us back (in conversation) to the very village in Africa where his grandfather lived.

“I said: ‘As an African-American, I don't know who I am. I can trace my grandfather — I know that his family was from North Carolina. That's it.'

“And he said: ‘You are from Nigeria.'

“‘How do you know?'” asked Davis.

“He said: ‘The way you play.'

“I said, ‘But I was (musically) trained.'

“And he said: ‘No, you are playing what's in your blood.'”

For the first time, says Davis, he gathered a sense of where his ancestors came from.

Having thus immersed themselves in Cuban culture, Chaves, Davis and colleagues returned to Chicago and began work on “Havana Blue.”

Chaves encouraged his River North dancers to improvise movements based, in part, on what he had learned.

“The take-away for me, which I did expect,” he says, “was how rooted (Cuban dance) was in African dance, and how much that played a part in the development of Cuban dance. So I came home with the idea of not wanting to re-create, but to be inspired.”

Davis began composing music in a different way. Instead of staring at a blank page of score paper, he began drafting musical portraits of specific people and places he had experienced.

“We didn't want to necessarily come back with an expose on Cuban music and create Cuban music,” says Davis.

“Or Cuban dance,” adds Chaves.

“It's about how Cuba inspired us,” says Davis. “It's the feeling of Cuba. I think even in Cuba itself, especially with the young musicians, there's a sense of moving forward.”

So Chaves and Davis sought to create a work that shows American artists drawing from Cuban sources but not mimicking them. “Havana Blue” unfolds in six movements, with two musical interludes. The first several sections evoke the people, flavor and geography of Cuba; the finale bids a kind of farewell to the nation, just as Chaves' family and so many others once did, while celebrating the enduring global influence of Cuban culture.

Whether all of this coheres on stage won't be known until Saturday, but certainly the rehearsal shows great promise. The dancers move with the grace and nobility one associates with folkloric Cuba, but these gestures are embedded in a broader, contemporary dance perspective.

Davis' music, too, bristles with Cuban rhythmic accents and turns of phrase, but also with a 21st century American jazz sensibility. All of which, though, raises an unavoidable question: Will audiences care half as much about Cuban culture as Chaves and Davis do? And should they?

“Cuba is so close to the United States, and it has been a forbidden land for all our childhoods,” says Auditorium Theatre executive director Brett Batterson, who brought Chaves and Davis together for the Cuban experiment. “We heard the stories about the great casinos and the great musicians. We've seen the dance, the ballet.

“So I think there's a fascination with what's so close and so far away. … The whole influence of American organized crime in the '50s, and how that was just ended in one night. They made movies about it. And Castro came to power, and none of us could go there anymore,” due to the U.S. embargo (though many have visited on academic, cultural and journalistic missions). “I think Cuba's history is tied to America in so many ways.

“I think that soon, in our lifetimes, the relationships (between the two countries) will become normal again,” adds Batterson. “And the more we understand, the easier that transition will be.”

In the meantime, “Havana Blue” will try to bridge the gap, offering two cultures speaking to one another in motion and music.

'Havana Blue'
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway
Tickets: $32-$76 at 800-982-2787 or | Twitter @howardreich

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