Cubania – say it with the accent on the "i" and you're halfway there – is the word Cubans use to describe their particular sunny-island outlook, their Cuban-ness.
More than a hybrid of Spanish and African, Cubania bespeaks a certain spontaneity, energy, and cheerful stoicism. So you expect some of that to inform the work of Cuba's flagship contemporary dance company, which dates its existence from the very year of Castro's revolution.
With such a rich stew of indigenous dance cultures to draw on, why look elsewhere for ideas? I admit to a small pang of disappointment on seeing that, of the four pieces the company is offering in various combinations on its first ever UK tour, three are commissions from European choreographers, one of whom is humourless, tin-eared flavour-of-the-moment Rafael Bonachela. While Bonachela's name may be suitably Hispanic and his current trading value high, his credo has always seemed to me the opposite of energy and fun, his dances wilfully obscure, determinedly sour.
Demo-N/Crazy, the Bonachela that kicked off the triple bill in Brighton, at least recognised the Cubans' bodily beauty. The opening moments are entrancing, as couples in nothing but tiny white briefs glimmer in semi-darkness. And when one of the girls breaks into private, unaccompanied song – a verse of a pop song, sweet and true – for one hopeful moment I warm to Bonachela. But then he reverts to type, with 25 minutes of wrenching, self-important angst. Whatever the significance of the title – political demo, romantic turmoil, or just sounds-kind-of-edgy – it left me deeply unconvinced.
Folia, by Dutchman Jan Linkens, is more satisfying on every level, an elegant court-dance developed by degrees into swirling, joyous abandon, with the men as well as women in long scarlet skirts that unfurl like bougainvillea and flutter en masse like banners. It may be an old cliché to fill the stage with bodies running in concentric circles, but it makes for a fabulous, feel-good climax, and we needed one.
It's left to Mambo 3XX1, by the company's own George Cespedes, to provide the chilli-pepper hit the crowd has come for. Cespedes creates a tight outer framework of catchy routines (step right, step left, eyes left, eyes right), then asks the dancers to let rip, free-style. Here, at last, are the irresistible rhythms of Cuba, fuelled by the pneumatic beats of mambo king Perez Prado, updated by current funk duo Nacional Electronica.
When a pint-sized, ponytailed girl with a mile-wide grin wriggles a rhythm like an eel on a hook, it's so perfect an expression of youth that the only response is to laugh. Men bounce off their chests and show off juddering, stuttering street-tricks. Every pelvis thrusts, every entrance is a sprint. At last, you feel the Carib-bean heat overpowering the British chill. Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is surely misguided in looking to Europe and its glum conceptualist ways. Rather than hanker to be Rambert or NDT, it should stick with its own USP.
Consider Richard Alston. That fine veteran dance-maker is now reaping the benefits of staying true to his roots. His company has just returned from America, where the work's cool, asexual, very English restraint was widely, even wildly, praised. Well, call me jaded, but I could have done with that outsider's eye at Sadler's Wells on Wednesday. It all looked very safe and staid. Nicely crafted, yes, but so is my kitchen pepper grinder.
Just to check, I look back at my reviews of Alston's work 10, 12 years ago. I see I liked it better then. Perhaps it's that my tastes have changed and he simply hasn't, which is rather admirable. We don't expect our visual artists (Howard Hodgkin, say) to re-invent themselves every few years, so why should long-serving choreographers, if only to service reviews?
On tour, Alston's well-mannered inventions will, I know, give enormous pleasure, aided by his sterling efforts to use live music whenever he can. His 10 dancers are a credit to him, too. Long may they thrive.
DC de Cuba: touring to 20 Mar, details at www.danceconsortium.com. Richard Alston: touring to 19 Jun, details at www.theplace.org.uk/radc
Jenny Gilbert reassesses La Fille mal gardée on its 50th birthdayReuse content