In muted light, a culebra slinks across the floor very close to those who sit in chairs only a foot or two away. Music plays as the dancer mimics the snake writhing and slinking. A celestial orb—sun, maybe moon—provides little light to the audience as they feel the momentary danger of the menacing serpent moving so close to them. In moments, the part of the room that serves as a stage will erupt in a lively dance typical of the Caribbean, or more specifically, of the island nation of Cuba.
These are only a couple of scenes giving a glimpse of the world of Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, a world captured in the latest production of the “poetry dances” series by Teatro Dallas. Guillen, once national poet of Cuba, incorporated history, social justice, the African and Spanish of his heritage and the rhythms of nature indigenous to the island. Verse combines with rhythm and melody and history to inhabit the actors and bodies of the dancers in one of the best productions I’ve experienced by the 30 year old theatrical institution.
In the early 1990s, Teatro performed in a larger theater in downtown Dallas, the place where they introduced one of their most memorable productions, a play capturing the life and untimely death of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez. “Santos,” killed by a Dallas police officer in 1973 during an act of Russian roulette, portrayed that short life in a play immersed in sound and light that places the theatergoer into the scene. A shot is not just a sound in this production. It is the herald of a young life cut short. And the beauty of Jeff Hirst’s work creating those scenes never detracts from the characters representing those who loved a boy lost.
Since then, vampires and ghosts regularly visited—both the larger venue and, after a fire, the smaller location in a nondescript strip shopping mall tucked away between freeway and the city’s hospital district.
I confess I had not heard of Guillen before seeing the play that incorporates so much of his passionate poetry into this multi-media gem. Just about everything that Teatro does is visceral with tragedies interwoven even what seems to be comedic. This is no exception.
Guillen’s poetry and dance on the Teatro stage breathed its last (for now) on July 7, but there will be more poets, more dance, more music in the future, I suspect. I will not miss the next opportunity. As Guillen wrote in his “Son (Cuban style of music and dance) Number 6,”
“Let the heart-warming ‘son’ break out,
and our people dance,
heart close to heart,
glasses clinking together
water on water with rum!”