Hot fusion
A new arts festival celebrates the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

By Rita Felciano

Tropic of dancers: Arenas Dance Company performs Yo soy Cuba. Photo by Andy Mogg.
LEAVE IT TO the modest Dance Mission Theater to pull together the Cuba Caribe Festival of Dance, Music, and Theater. This first-annual event features four weekends of premiere performances, plus master classes, panel discussions, lectures, and a book signing with Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. While at first glance Cuba's influence on local culture may seem less than pronounced, many African Americans – particularly those of a certain generation – are fully aware and grateful that long before the '60s, Cuban music offered a valuable link to their own West African heritage.

"In the United States, slave owners didn't let the slaves play their drums; the connection to Africa was broken," choreographer José Francisco Barroso, who speaks about the Afro-Yoruban spiritual tradition as part of the festival, has said in the past. "In Cuba we had cabildos, places where the slaves met and danced. The cabildos let us keep our culture." Nowadays, Cuban dance is most strongly associated with the remarkable accomplishments of Cuban ballet dancers who have spread around the world – or with the kind of performing seen in shows like Havana Night Club, a recent Las Vegas attraction.

The Cuba Caribe Festival aims to tilt the balance toward a more realistic perspective on who dances what in Cuba. In some ways Dance Mission Theater is the logical place for such a festival. With its numerous salsa, rumba, rueda, Afro-Cuban folkloric, tap, and Latin cabaret classes, it has become a veritable center for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. "Four of our instructors are Cuban," artistic director Krissy Keefer explained in a recent interview. "They all talked about putting on programs of their own, so we decided to combine resources." But Keefer had other motivations for taking a chance on this endeavor: education and the arts are her major passions, and – whatever the shortcomings of the current regime – Cuba excels at both. The country boasts a 98 percent literacy rate, and government support for the arts is strong.

During Cuba Caribe's first weekend, Keefer directs the premiere of Dear Fidel – not a love letter to the aging president, but rather a theatrical acknowledgment that the Bush-ites are not speaking for everybody in the United States. The work's genesis can be found in the Condoleeza Rice Senate confirmation hearings, during which the current secretary of state likened Fidel Castro to an international terrorist. "I am sure mistakes were made in Cuba," Keefer said. "But this is ridiculous." Fidel, which was written by Keefer, includes choreography by Jose Navarrete, video by Joe Williams, and live music by Lichi Fuentes.

Like Keefer, Susana Arenas Pedroso and Ramón Ramos Alayo are storytellers. Last fall Arenas Pedroso choreographed Patakin, a dance theater piece based on some of the hundreds of Yoruban fables that survived the voyage to the New World. Her latest, Yo soy Cuba, is an homage to the multiplicity of influences that make up Cuban dance and ritual. Alayo, who also dances with Robert Moses' Kin, presents two works with his four-year-old Alayo Dance Company. Reflecting his training in contemporary and traditional dance, A Piece of White Cloth aims to, in Alayo's words, "weave threads of modern, Cuban folkloric, and African dance" into an evocation of the ancestral and spiritual world. The company's other contribution, world premiere La madre, honors Alayo's mother; it's also a reflection on death and loss as mediated through dance, music, and theater.

Cuba Caribe Festival of Dance, Music, and Theater runs through May 1. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., S.F. $18-$20. (415) 273-4633, www.dancemission.com. "Vamos Andar," featuring Dear Fidel, runs Fri/8-Sat/9, 8 p.m.; Yo soy Cuba runs April 15-16, 8 p.m., and April 17, 2 and 7 p.m.; A Piece of White Cloth runs April 22-23, 8 p.m., and April 24, 2 and 7 p.m.; La madre runs April 29-30, 8 p.m., and May 1, 2 and 7 p.m. See Stage listings for information on the book signing; go to Web site for information on other festival events.