by Kathleen Smith

In the Dominican Republic, 2016 is the Year of Dance. But, in the capital, Santo Domingo, there were few manifestations of this federal designation — no banners, no billboards, no newspaper ads. Nonetheless, the program at the 12th annual EDANCO Festival Internacional de Danza Contemporánea was rich and varied, reflecting a healthy depth of training and talent in the region, as well as a burgeoning and enthusiastic audience for contemporary dance.

Held at the grandiose Palacio des Bellas Artes, set in manicured grounds a few blocks from the city’s famed oceanside promenade, the festival featured mixed programs of Dominican artists, as well as guests from elsewhere in the Latin-Caribbean diaspora, and as far afield as Canada, Finland, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Edmundo Poy, a much-loved professor of contemporary dance at the Escuela Nacional de Danza, programs the 13-day event each year. Poy typically gives a lot of space to emerging artists, so it’s fitting that the festival kicked off with an offering by youth ensemble Endanza Juvenil, made up of Poy’s own students.

El Bolero de Raquel, choreographed by local stalwarts Dayme del Toro and Marcos Rodríguez, is built around a giant table on wheels that the dancers take turns using as a pedestal or manipulating around the stage. In addition to precision group work and solos, the choreography features some complex table-to-ground dynamics involving handstands and spectacular leaps. The work has a lot of moving parts, but the youthful cast handled it with aplomb, solid technique and some beautiful lines.

Next up on the opening program, del Toro (who is a member of the National Contemporary Dance Company), choreographed and performed Gleba, mostly confined to a huge mound of beach sand centre stage. Framed by the music of Laurie Anderson and Wim Mertens, del Toro digs, scrabbles crab-like in the sand, and strikes poses as she lowers herself deeper into the shifting pile.

Dispar (Dissimilar), an athletic duet for Patricia Ortega and Erick Roque of the National Contemporary Dance Company (they also choreographed the work), 
followed. The combative nature of the dance suggested an abusive relationship, a theme I noticed again and again during the festival. Here, both partners are equally formidable, but the power dynamic constantly switches — he lifts her, then vice versa; he applies lipstick to her mouth, she wipes it off later using his shirt as a cloth. Is it abuse if each partner gives as good as they get? The question was not resolved, but the ending of Dispar was a lot less despairing than several other short works that chose to leave power unbalanced, or proposed violence as a solution.

To close the evening, the Ballet Nacional Dominicano took the stage with Francisco Centeno’s Guara ar iu filin? (How does that make you feel?). Centeno is from Costa Rica, but is a large presence all over Latin America and the Caribbean where he is much in demand as a guest choreographer.

Guara is a sprawling full-length ballet and we were only offered excerpts, which could explain its slight incomprehensibility. The work showcased some great company dancers; I couldn’t take my eyes off petite principal Laura Benítez with her long back and fiery attack.

Centeno’s movement is very athletic with a strong emphasis on the shoulders and upper body — and the company wears it well. Some of the men were remarkable, more buffly muscular than is typical of North American classical dancers. Alexander Duval was especially entrancing as he lip-synced to some truly crazy trills from 1950s’ cult Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Even though I caught the general breeze of cultural references — 1930s Hollywood, film noir, Cocteau — I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the piece. Didn’t really matter.

Centeno choreographed another major work at the festival, Confesiones de un 
primate en el Km. 50, which was created for Fernando Hurtado on the occasion of the Spanish dancer’s 50th birthday. The work is a tour de force hour-long solo in which the performer seems to be communicating with an invisible tormenter. Surrounded by mirrored cubes and Mylar squares taped to the floor, Hurtado grimaces, jerks and poses like a bodybuilder. Sometimes he speaks (there is a long monologue in Spanish delivered as Hurtado eats a banana), he re-arranges his prop furniture, he changes his clothes and he dances.

As the week’s programming advanced, first warnings of the looming category 4 Hurricane Matthew failed to deter audiences to the festival. Neither did security concerns (there were armed guards at each entrance) or power outages (a government-run institution, the Palacio must have its own means for generating power — the building and surrounding garden were lit up every night).

One convention at EDANCO left me furious. For each performance, the first row of seats in the theatre was occupied by photographers shooting stills and video, complete with glowing screens, loud clicks and beeps and, all too often, flash. During Hurtado’s show, the flashes and lights were reflected in the mirrored set, becoming part of the mise en scène. During another show, a photographer answered a phone call and spoke for several minutes while audience members hissed and shushed.

EDANCO is a lengthy festival and there were dozens of works. Some programs attracted large crowds (anything featuring Dominican dancers), but not everything was memorable. A few pieces absolutely were. And there was a wonderful cross-referencing of talent; several dancers who performed showed up later as choreographers.

For example, Duval also choreographed and danced a brief ballet with Benítez. Desde el silencio takes athleticism in classical technique to a new level. As it began, a pair of pointe shoes was spotlit centre stage. Duval and Benítez dance barefoot, then sit and put on ballet shoes (there is a pair of men’s slippers tucked inside the pointe shoes), all of this in silence. The music (by Spanish composer Cesar Benito) begins and a second dance starts, full of complicated lifts and extensions that highlight Duval’s brute strength and Benítez’s flexibility. Danced precisely and at maximum speed, the duet barely lasts three minutes.

I had hoped for more representation from Haiti, fewer than two hours by car to the west, but there was only Raphaelle Bertoni, a Haitian artist who lives in Santo Domingo with her piece Et on continue (And one goes on).

Accompanied by singer Fabienne Denis and percussionist Jose Carlos Oviedo Luciano, Bertoni performed a contemporary expression of the Haitian voudou ritual Yanvalou, a dance of supplication and fertility built around undulating movements of the spine. Bertoni’s depiction of a woman carrying on after being laid low was dignified, stunningly fluid and emotionally uplifting. For me, it was a highlight.

Although I wasn’t able to see all of it, there was quite a bit of Canadian content at EDANCO. Michaela Dennison and Natasha Dennison from Four Season Dance Academy in Brockville, Ontario, contributed several pieces to an emerging artists showcase held on the closing weekend, which also featured dancers representing Aurora Dance Academy in Thompson, Manitoba. I did catch Montreal’s Andrea Peña and her company in Kairos, a well-made investigation of individuality. Detail in the scenic transitions and striking imagery gave it a gothic, angels versus demons quality, sort of like a medieval triptych come to life, darkly atmospheric.

It was refreshing to watch dance through the new and unfamiliar lens of southern island culture. The things I found strange — the photographers, the prevalence of crudely sketched heterosexual dynamics (to be fair, there’s lots of it here as well), the frequency of swimsuits as costumes, the ripped musculature on many of the performers — were offset by the quality and range of dance on display and the unquestionable vitality of the contemporary scene in Santo Domingo.


Raphaelle Bertoni (centre) with Jose Carlos Oviedo Luciano and Fabienne Denis in Bertoni’s Et on continue | Photo: Sandra Garip
Featured photo of Raphaelle Bertoni (centre) with Jose Carlos Oviedo Luciano and Fabienne Denis in Bertoni’s Et on continue | Photo: Sandra Garip