"I'm really trying to find out what makes people dance," says choreographer Jan Bartoszek. "It's got to come from the whole body — it's not just intellectual, not about mimicking."
Bartoszek, who's helmed contemporary troupe Hedwig Dances for nearly 30 years, is quiet but passionate, driven by curiosity about many things, but particularly other cultures.
She's chosen the right art form. For whatever reason — because dance can communicate without language, because even the worldwide community is relatively small — dance artists tend to have international connections. Bartoszek has pursued those with particular vigor. "My background is in anthropology and sociology," she explains. "By training and as a person, I'm interested in other cultures and in dance as a manifestation of culture. Throughout the years, I've had dancers from other countries."
Bartoszek hired her first Cuban dancers — the married couple Victor Alexander and Maray Gutierrez Ramis (now Hedwig's artistic associate) — 12 years ago. Since then three other Cubans have joined Hedwig, and today four of the five company members are from Cuba, including Maray's sister, Jessie Gutierrez Ramis, and Edson Cabrera.
Fascinated by her performers and wondering about the environment that produced them, Bartoszek started traveling to Cuba in early 2012, hoping to create a joint work with a Cuban contemporary company devoted to dance theater, as Hedwig is. The result — "Trade Winds/Aires de Cambio," choreographed and performed with Havana-based DanzAbierta — will be on view Oct. 9-11 at the Dance Center of Columbia College.
Uncovering the riches of Cuban culture and creating people-to-people connections isn't a straightforward process, however. Given the United States' history with Cuba, travel back and forth is complicated. When Bartoszek first visited, it was on a dance tour she custom-designed with Evanston's Art Encounter, which has a license to travel there. During that trip she met Susana Pous, DanzAbierta's resident choreographer and co-director with Guido Gali, and started talking with her about collaborating. The Cuban choreographer was excited but skeptical.
"If I'm sincere," Pous says, "I thought that it was impossible. Because never a company like my company, anything like this would happen: going to a country not so far — but really far."
In 2011, when the eminent Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival invited DanzAbierta to make its U.S. debut, the company's visas arrived the day before the show; the members got to Massachusetts only in the nick of time. Though Pous says their experience at the Pillow was good, it was also "really hard with the timing, the papers."
Because Bartoszek and Pous knew that getting together would be difficult, they chose a structure for their piece that would work long-distance. "Our thought was to do something that interlocked," Bartoszek explains, each company devising its own sections but also sometimes commingling onstage. The six members of DanzAbierta will arrive in Chicago, if the stars align, in late September to finish up the piece; its leading co-producer, Links Hall, is supplying rehearsal space.
"The idea came up of using the seasons as a springboard for talking about life — the seasons aren't just nature but what happens to people, the seasons in their lives," Bartoszek says. The piece starts with fall (Hedwig) and continues through summer (DanzAbierta), with a concluding section for both companies. Videos of Havana and Chicago establish the places' differences — and similarities. "In both cities, life is around the water," says Pous. "I'm in Chicago, I see the lake, I feel like I'm on the malecon ('seafront') in Havana."
Though neither Hedwig nor DanzAbierta is a folkloric troupe, Bartoszek recognizes and prizes the influence of Afro-Cuban music and dance on her performers. The way slaves were treated in Cuba, she says, accounts for its "purer strain" of African culture: "The folks that came to Cuba were not separated from each other but stayed together, and many of the African traditions were kept intact. But in the United States, families and communities were separated at auction. It was just different: the blues came out of that, and jazz. African culture also changed and evolved in Cuba, but the very complex African rhythms remained."
From an early age — "it's like learning to read and write," Bartoszek notes — Cuban performers take classes daily in Afro-Cuban dance, moving to chanting and drumming. "The form allows such freedom of expression," she says, "getting inside the movement and letting go in a communal way, becoming part of something larger."
Bartoszek believes her Cuban performers have made her focus harder on movement's intention. "Yes, that was happening before they came," she says. "But I think it's really flowered with the dancers I have now." She also feels "blessed" by their technical polish, their integration and fluidity, which she attributes to early, intensive training in multiple dance forms.
Pous, who grew up in Barcelona and first danced there, moved to Cuba more than 10 years ago: "I discover the Cuban way of dance and Cuban people, and I fall in love of course." She was surprised to find that, unlike in Spain, Cuban theaters were always "full of people. Doesn't matter if it's classical ballet or contemporary or folkloric — they like, and they dance."
Bartoszek says, "Dancing is really, truly part of the culture."
Pous adds that Cuban people "find humor about everything," even about what they call la luchita: "the little struggle," the tiny daily battles to live and work. "It means fighting every day, everywhere, with everything, but nothing happen. And life go on," Pous says.
"And you go with it," says Bartoszek.
To be a dance artist in our country, especially for 30 years, likewise requires coming to terms with la luchita. Bartoszek has continued to produce the emotionally rich, quality work for which she's known partly by searching out "new ventures," she says. "Doors open, and there's a whole new world." She recently returned from Germany, where she visited Pina Bausch's Tanztheater; with Art Encounter, she's planned another "Touch Cuba" tour for late January.
She also credits support from her family and the company. "Maray and Victor believe in what they do," Bartoszek says. "To have that consistency, that kind of trust and ensemble work, is priceless."
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 9-11
Where: Dance Center of Columbia
College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $26-$30 at 312-369-8330 or colum.edu/dance_center