'Havana Blue': Finding inspiration in Cuba

Choreographer Frank Chaves and trumpeter Orbert Davis traveled to Havana to find cultural inspiration -- but also discovered a bit of their own pasts

'Havana Blue' rehearsal

Jessica Wolfrum, left, and other members of the River North Dance Company rehearse for "Havana Blue," which unfolds in six movements with two musical interludes. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune) (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune / March 29, 2013)

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.

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