The Power of the Drum, a dance theatre adventure into the spiritual heart of the Afro-Cuban experience

The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

The show that opens Saturday on the Westbury stage takes us on a dance theatre adventure deep into the spiritual heart and traditions of the Afro-Cuban experience. 

The Power of the Drum, a creation of the nine-year-old Cuban Movements Dance Academy, is the story of the rich culture brought to Cuba by West African slaves. “You go to Cuba, with its amazing dance and music and drumming, and you ask ‘where is this coming from?’” says Cecilia Ferreya, the writer, director, producer, and narrator of the piece, choreographed by the Academy’s artistic director Leo Gonzales.

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The Power of the Drum, an expansion of the original 15-minute presentation audiences saw at the 2021 Expanse Festival, is all about answering that question. “We’re telling the story of those roots; we’re connecting people with a tradition and a history” that shed light on “how the ancestors could survive the harshest conditions and thrive, and continue to keep a rich culture that was a source of strength and resilience. … We are reclaiming that narrative.” 

Cuban Movements Dance Academy treated Fringe audiences last summer (me included) to a remarkably flavourful dance musical survey of Cuban culture, a veritable explosion of colour and rhythm. The Power of the Drum, an inspiration nurtured by RISER Edmonton — the first iteration of a national program designed to boost indie producers — is different, as Ferreya explains. “It’s a more serious subject matter,” performed by professionals. 

In the course of this homage to spirituality we will see, in full costume, sacred dances of five Orichas, Yoruban gods and goddesses who connect the human to the divine, linked as they are to Nature, the sea, storms, wind…. 

Leo Gonzales, founder and artistic director, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

The three dancers of the cast — Gonzales himself, with Raydel Martinez Portuondo and Ingrid Díaz Céspedes — are professionals, all from Cuba. And they’re joined by drummer Nathan Ouellette, a Canadian musician who has “learned from the best, in Cuba” and devoted himself to absorbing the spiritual traditions built into Afro-Cuban drumming. “You have to have permission to use the drums,” as Ferreya explains. “It’s very special.” 

The production is designed to be “an immersive experience,” she says. In the lobby beforehand, “to set the tone,” you’ll hear a drumming sound score. And you’ll see an an altar of consecrated drums, and a photography/projection exhibition of Orichas conveyed by dancers and drummers, shot in Havana in December, Ferreya and Gonzales had hoped to bring a contingent of those artists to Canada for the show; COVID intervened.  

Gonzales, a Havana-born professional dancer (“I was dancing in my crib!”), founded the Cuban Movements Dance Academy in 2013. “When I first moved here, I was very interested to see people from many different countries,” he says. “A lot of multi-cultures — I really liked that. I didn’t feel like the only one (from another culture)…. I was very happy to share mine.”

In Cuba, where he was a student at the national dance school in Havana, Gonzales began to choreograph, at first informally. He spent his time in the military (Cuba has mandatory conscription) choreographing a company of soldier dancers. 

Cecilia Ferreyra, writer, director, producer, narrator of The Power of the Drum, Cuban Movements Dance Academy. Photo supplied.

The Argentine-born Ferreya, the manager of the Academy, was drawn to Afro-Cuban dance when she started classes with Gonzales. “It’s a feeling of tapping into something that has been done for hundreds of years. Vibrations, sources of energy, whatever you call it, with Leo you feel it in your heart, your body…. “

“It’s a shared experience. Which is perfect for now. In the pandemic we’ve been locked apart. This is the feeling of connectivity! A celebration of community is a beautiful thing.”  

“Leo is channelling memory, body memory, something more than the movement itself,” says Ferreya of a dance tradition set apart from ballet. “Ballet is something that can be mastered. Afro-Cuban dance is not something to be mastered…. The body becomes another drum, if you like.”  

“Leo isn’t dancing alone; he’s dancing with his ancestors.” 

Gonzales puts it this way: “with ballet you have to execute the (prescribed) positions exactly. An arm goes here; a leg goes there….This comes from your body; it’s reaching inside the body, getting to the spirit.” Afro-Cuban dance performances build, and they’re never exactly the same. In the classes he teaches at the Academy, and in guest gigs at MacEwan University, Gonzales’s goal, he says, is that “the students connect with the music. You feel like the music is moving your body. When the people in the class engage, my energy explodes!” 

Gonzales’s two little daughters, ages five and eight, are the beneficiaries of private dance tutoring, he laughs. Sometimes they come to his dance classes. His other students tell them “you’re so lucky; you go to your daddy’s work and have fun!”


The Power of the Drum

RISER Edmonton 2022

Theatre: Cuban Movements Dance Academy

Written, directed, produced by: Cecilia Ferreya

Choreographed by: Leo Gonzales

Starring: Leo Gonzales, Raydel Martinez Portuondo, Ingrid Diaz Céspedes, Nathan Ouellette, Cecilia Ferreya

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Saturday through April 17


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