Movement is a Universal Language: Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba

Here in old town Havana, there’s the rumbling engines of 1950s pink Cadillacs rolling down cobblestone streets and the ubiquitous songs of street buskers perched in shaded doorways, strumming chords on beat-up guitars, a signature Cuban white straw hat pulled down just above their sweat-beaded brows. There’s the crackle of arc-welders as their ironwork rains sparks on perilous balconies with once-ornate adornments from the Spanish and French colonial era. Mothers’ voices echo down the narrow roads, shouting to their boys playing an improvised game of handball, generating low booms as a filthy tennis ball bounces off a black metal garage door bookended by piles of rubble. Bustling cafes hum with small talk and clanking espresso cups, as tourists and locals traverse lunch menus, sampling cortados, Cohibas, and mojitos.

Much of ordinary life in old town Havana happens here on the streets with dodging bike taxis, black-market cigar salesmen, and leisurely strolling cats, but today, a new sound permeates the air. 

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Mechanics work on a car in Havana. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

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There’s a pop-and-rumble of drums and resounding chants: a new pulsating soundtrack added to the everyday sounds. Residents and travellers alike assemble for "Habana Vieja: Ciudad en Movimiento," a site-specific dance festival, which has brought global performers to the streets of Havana. The crowds follow a troupe of whimsically costumed musicians on stilts, snaking between the newly renovated historical buildings, still pungent with the smells of fresh coats of paint and wet concrete. Along the way, the leaders stop at historic buildings, including lavish mansions of former sugar barons and Spanish-style plazas shaded by towering palms. Each stop serves up a different performance: traditional dancers spin and stomp before the audience providing an emotional throwback to the slave dances of Cuba’s plantation years; colorfully dressed women and men sashay to the big-band swing of salsa; and teens in skinny jeans break-dance to dubstep -- the bass-heavy electronic music popular in international clubs in the middle 2000s. It’s a cultural collision of Cuban dance history: the old style of dance and the next generation, prompted by youth who learn moves from Youtube videos downloaded by gleaning Wi-Fi emanating from hotels -- one of the only places where internet is allowed on the island.   

But for the crowd standing at the corner of the expansive Plaza Vieja, something different is about to happen, as performers of Los Angeles’ Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre bring California’s contemporary dance styles to Cuba for the first time. 

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
 Rob Lambaren, Teresa Barcelo, and Nick Heitzeberg perform in the streets of Havana. | Photo: Sean Deckert.

Onlookers stare as a bearded man scales the side of a craggy, abandoned beaux arts theater. He descends behind a wall, where a woman’s head, and another man’s legs peek up from a red tin barrier. The trio then crawl over, nearly in slow motion, as the men fight over the woman, rolling on the ground and on top of one another, perching atop pylons made out of cannons, and eventually scaling up walls and windows of adjacent buildings. While limbs move through the humid air, the performance is redefining how Cubans can interact with their own urban space. Defying expectations and gravity, the space is upended, in a comic and contemplative dance piece that’s equally balletic and Buster Keaton. 

After the performance, young members of the audience begin to use the space too, climbing atop the cannons and jumping from steps; the city has become their playground. In a rapidly changing Cuba -- where new rights have been granted as leader Raul Castro has eased restrictions, and American relations have recently been restored -- cultural exchanges, like Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's otherworldly performance, are the first wave of new ideas bridging the schism dividing two countries just 90 miles apart.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren and Nick Heitzeberg perform in the streets of Havana. | Photo: Sean Deckert.



Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre has been creating performances around the world for more than 30 years. The company focuses on non-traditional spaces, often hybridizing street style moves with contemporary and classical dance choreographies. Whether the company is dancing on cars, in laundromats, or around abandoned buildings, founder Heidi Duckler says that the throughline for each piece is their “site-specific” nature.  

“Site-specific work is where you mine the location for the content,” Duckler says. “We work everywhere, but typically not in a theater; in public locations, private locations, all kind of places. Sometimes, it has to do with the architecture, the history, the geography, and human connection.”

Cuba had been on Duckler’s mind since her first visit 15 years ago. “I became very interested in Cuba from that point on,” she says. “I found it to be a place like no other place. I recall walking down to the sea, and three Cuban men were singing the song about Che Guevara, ‘Hasta Siempre, Comandante,’ and it was the very first time I had ever heard that song, so I asked them to write down the words. To this day, I still have that paper with those lyrics. That was the seed that started it all.”

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Dancers perform a piece based on plantation workers. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Years later, she discovered the "Habana Vieja: Ciudad en Movimiento" festival, which invites international dancers to perform in public locations throughout Havana. But she noticed that from the 20 countries visiting, the U.S. lacked representation. She tried to contact the director of the festival, and found that without internet in Cuba, it proved a challenge. Then at an event, Duckler met a travel agent with connections to Havana and asked her to deliver a handwritten letter to the head of the festival. “In the letter, I asked if we could be invited to participate in the festival,” Duckler remembers. “Several weeks passed, and I was told the travel agent had delivered the letter, and shortly after, [the founder] returned another letter with the same travel agent, which said that she would love to have the company and myself participate in the event.”

After a few attempts to secure funding, Duckler’s company got a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and raised the rest of the money through donors.

Then Duckler selected three dancers to join the adventure.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Teresa Barcelo performs on a rooftop in Havana. | Photo: Sean Deckert.

“I selected them very carefully,” she says, “we could only bring three, but a trio also allows for all kinds of combinations. [The dancers needed] a wonderful sense of humor too. Humor is very important in the work, because you relax when you laugh and sometimes you tend to look a little deeper.” To create her team she selected a group of her dancers, each with different specialities. Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo is the associate artistic director of Duckler’s company. Barcelo has Cuban heritage, and a knowledge of urban dance styles she learned growing up in Florida. “She moves with all kinds of contemporary ways but she also has a background in flamenco,” Duckler says. She offered “a melding of the traditional and contemporary, we were looking for in the music and choreography.” 

Angeleno Rob Lambaren had been with Duckler’s company for 12 years and Duckler jokes that they “don’t even have to speak, we know each other so well, we can mind read.” She continues: “He is a fantastic break dancer. He does all kinds of inversions, he is always upside down. That is a really important part of it. He is really great at creating narrative. I didn't want to make a piece that is an abstraction.” And finally Nick Heitzeberg, a contemporary dancer based in Los Angeles, was selected by Duckler because of how he interacts with architecture. “His training is in rock climbing,” Duckler says.

After chartering a seven person plane to fly the short distance from Miami to Havana, Duckler and her team got right to work. The Havana locale offered an opportunity, and a challenge. In just a few short days they had to not only find a performance space, but also choreograph, rehearse, and execute the piece. 

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Dancer Nick Heitzeberg hangs from a window during the performance of "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.

Once the troupe settled into their homestays, they headed out to the festival to meet the organizers for the very first time. They had an idea of where Duckler’s company would perform and showed them around, but the local group’s understanding of what Duckler’s crew could do was limited. “Most places were like plazas, very flat and horizontal,” Duckler says. “They were similar to a stage outside; they had a fountain, and an orientation with an audience around. They were also plazas that you most likely would find anywhere, especially in L.A.”

The bones of the Spanish empire scaffold Los Angeles as well, and the analogous architecture in Cuba bore a vernacular the L.A. dancers understood. But Duckler had another idea. “I was looking for something that could reveal some history, historical sense of the city, but not in a precious way, in a way that was real, and alive. I wasn’t interested in the preservation aspect so much as I was in a living, breathing space, deteriorating in a way.”

After a long search, the troupe found their perfect space, a crumbling theater built in 1906, which had been under renovations for years. It’s a skeleton of its former self, windows knocked out like missing teeth, tufts of rebar emerging from concrete slabs. Workers were dumping rubble from five floors up. It was dangerous. But for Duckler’s crew, it was perfect. 

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren performs "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.

“We’re always looking for things to climb that could be beautiful,” says Barcelo. “Are they restoring it? Are they tearing it down? This is a space of transition. There is some poetry in that, the yearning to be under construction. The building can become a character in the piece.” 

With the space selected, they rehearsed for days, and the piece came together.

“They look at the environment and see what is possible and see what we can use to our advantage,” Duckler says. “They test everything and start to build phrases with each other in an organic way. Then I come in and say ‘This is really great' or ‘We need to work on the timing of things.’ They need that outside eye.”

When he’s not climbing, Heitzeberg plays the role of a piece of architecture, creating sculptural forms with his body or becoming a foothold for Lambaren or Barcelo to use. He is the scaffolding holding them all together. Barcelo is the connector, her body bounces between the two men, fighting to be free. Lambaren distorts the reality as he inverts or moves in ways that are more often seen in animation. Like a video editor logging tape, Duckler chimed in whenever a movement worked, like when Heitzeberg lifted Barcelo, who put her foot on Lambaren's chest, and arched her back. Duckler smiled and said, "I like that movement." 

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Nick Heitzeberg performs in Havana. | Photo: Sean Deckert.

For the main portion of the piece, Duckler selected the song, “You Don't Own Me,” a swaggering girl-group pop song by Lesley Gore. “She was a lesbian singer and the song was released in the early 1960s, right when the whole revolution started,” she says. “You can read that on so many levels, private property, feminism -- it’s political on every level. I thought that would be the perfect song for Americans coming here.”

After a week of long rehearsals, location negotiations, and various problem solving, Duckler made a last minute musical addition. In the moments before the performance began, as the wandering crowds of the dance festival sat before the imposing skull of a building, a street musician stood before the audience holding a guitar. It was a musician that Duckler met on the street, who played "Hasta Siempre, Comandante," the same song that captured her attention in Cuba so long ago. Here, now, in front of the crowd, the woman began to sing “Chan Chan,” the Buena Vista Social Club song that introduced the music of Cuba to so many international audiences.

As she walked away, the performance began and audiences watched Duckler’s team inhabit the space. Smiles spread across the crowd, with each spin, handstand, and leap. In that moment, before wide eyes, movement became a universal language again, rejoining two cultures separated for too long.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
The street scene in front of the building where Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre performed "Sia Kara." | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren performs in Havana. | Photo: Sean Deckert.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren and Teresa Barcelo perform on a cannon during the final performance of "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren, Teresa Barcelo, and Nick Heitzeberg perform "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Nick Heitzeberg performs on a cannon during the final performance of "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in Cuba
Rob Lambaren, Teresa Barcelo, and Nick Heitzeberg perform "Sia Kara." | Photo: Sean Deckert.

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