Each of the dances viewed for this paper were striking in very different ways, portraying different historical influences and styles. At the beginning of the Cossack Dance, the orchestral introduction provides appropriate expectations for what the viewer is about to see; a formal display with military influence. The dancers are dressed in military-inspired uniforms and move very much in unison and as a team. By times they hold arms and work in pairs, at others times they display their individual skills, and sometimes they move in group formation altogether. There are twelve men in the troupe and they perform on a well-lit stage with the orchestra, in a darkened theater space. Their steps are often staccato and bouncy. They incorporate sword play in pairs and as a group. In the individual sections, solo dancers display skills such as high-jumping over a sword held in the dancer’s own hands, spinning low on one foot and executing aerials across the stage. The steps and skills they exhibit are traditional East-Slavic dance elements.
By contrast, the Gumboot Dance immediately conveys a much more utilitarian spectacle, with the performers wearing blue coveralls and rubber boots. Their stage is set outdoors in front of their audience and it is performed in daylight with no artificial lighting. Like the Cossack Dancers, they are all dressed the same but in blue coveralls and black rubber boots. They do not have music to back them up, however. Rather the 6 men and 3 women create the music by stomping their boots on the stage clapping their hands together and slapping their hands on their boots or legs. The techniques they use are less traditionally based and more in the realm of modern interpretation. Other than a few actions performed by singular dancers, such as calling out or modelling a sequence, they act in unison.
The Cuban Mambo begins with rhythm and flow immediately. There is no formal stage for these dancers. Instead, they appear to have taken over some type of village square. As with the Gumboot Dance, there is no artificial lighting, however their audience appears to surround them on three sides, instead of just at the “front” of their dance floor. The dancers are dressed informally in colorful, though faded, tones. The women’s dresses have fitted tops and skirts that twirl high when they spin. The men wear light-colored, collared shirts and white pants and shoes. Their movements are rhythmic as they sometimes strut together by gender and sometimes pair up in twos. Often their body gestures are in sync with one another, such as when pairs raise and roll their shoulders as they circle around each other and look at each other’s faces. The training is in traditional mambo style.
In the Cossack Dance, the men entered with their heads bowed, then they raised them and progressed with skips and leaps. Their arms were often raised demonstratively throughout the performance and they were usually all doing the same thing, other than the soloists. They made use of most of the stage by running in time to the music in various formations; sometimes lined up and sometimes in circles. At other times, they would pair up and circle each other, working off of their partners. Their movements were large, for the most part, and consisted of different sequences wherein groups or individuals repeated one skill for a number of measures until the group moved on to the next phase. The momentum moved forward quickly and with flow. The sequences seemed to build upon each other in canon form.
The Gumboot Dancers related to one another in a much less formal and less intermingled way. They repeated rhythmic slaps, claps and stomps as one and worked together to create various formations, however they did not pair up to reflect or complement each other’s actions. Their performance was also in canon form and they danced in unison, other than when one or another would step forward to display a type of call to action that the rest would follow or repeat. They used most of the space on the stage but not in the flowy way that the Cossacks did. Instead, their steps were taken in place, and every now and then they would smoothly seem to float to a new spot on the stage, replacing one another and forming different shapes and formations. Their limbs were not used to display expression. Their arms, hands and feet remained fairly tight to their bodies as they utilized them for sound and rhythm. The men and women did not exhibit different roles; they all made the same movements, regardless of gender.
In the Cuban Mambo, the group used the entire dance area, flowing and gliding smoothly from corners to the center throughout the performance. At times, the women moved in unison while the men drew slightly less attention to themselves, focusing their attention on the women. At other times, the men and women worked in pairs, creating texture and nuance, and using their bodies to bend toward each other, almost like animals or birds performing a mating ritual, or like trees bending their limbs in wave-like patterns. These dancers used pulse and rhythm to flow from step to step, playfully weaving among one another. They employed their arms dynamically and followed a cause-and-effect pattern between the genders; when the women made certain gestures, the men responded in kind.
The apparent intent of the Cossack dance was to artistically display the prowess of Cossack military history. The choreographer was trying to show the audience that the army that the dancers represented was strong, full of vigor, skilled and agile. The performers executed the intention of the dance effectively, portraying an army with many strong fighters with very unique talents, who all worked together to create a victorious force.
The Gumboot Dancers appeared to represent more of a working class group, or perhaps slaves or prisoners. The way they moved separately yet identically to each other, following the lead of one or another’s call, reflected a group following the orders of their master or boss. The group accomplished the portrayal well, diligently carrying out their repetitious “work” without showy or flowery expression.
The Cuban Mambo exhibited the flirtatious custom of teasing, luring and playfully enjoying a partner of the opposite sex. The intention of this display was to spiritedly entertain the audience with a depiction of courtship between man and woman. The performers moved lithely and inspired movement in the observer. It was fun to watch and it reminded one of innocent rites of relationship passage of a bygone era.
I believe that in all three performances, the choreographers were successful in their intentions. In each piece, I was able to come to an interpretation effortlessly and, I believe, accurately. The Cossack Dance made me want to see their skills and observe their dexterity, just as an army would want to create an air of intimidation in its enemies. The Gumboot Dance evoked in me a sense that the “prisoners” were making the best of a situation by incorporating rhythm and unison into their monotonous work. The Cuban Mambo felt playful, making me want to move the way they did to the compelling rhythm, and join in the informal and enticing ritual.
All of these performances evoked interesting and unique impressions. Whether the intention was to portray a robust army, tell a tale of suppression, or entertain an audience with desire-inspiring rhythm, they all achieved their intended purpose. From each, there is something to learn, not only about the art of dance in its different forms, but also about human nature and societal customs.
- Chen Lizra, “Cuban Mambo danced by professional dancers in Havana, Cuba.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 13 August 2008. Web. 26 March 2016.
- Waterford Kamhlaba. “Gumboot Dance.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 16 April 2013. Web. 26 March 2016.