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BALANCING THE PAST WITH THE PRESENT:

An interview with Tania León of DanceBrazil

  

picture - Tania LeonDance Theater Interview
by William Gooch

published April 3, 2009

 

As the winds of change sweep through the global economy, many of us are rethinking the way we view the role of government, society, and even our own belief systems.  Many are looking to traditions of the past and creating a new reality by reworking the concepts and beliefs of our ancestors into modern-day expressions. This synchronization of cultures and beliefs is not new for Tania León. An expert at melding the sacred with the secular, Tania León has always found the musical relevance of indigenous sounds and rhythms. By brilliantly combining these musical expressions with the pedagogy of European masters, she has a created a hybrid form that is always fresh, innovative and culturally relevant.

 

Ms. León took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her latest score to DanceBrazil’s new work, Inura.

 

You came to NYC from Havana in the late 1960s.  How did you manage living in such a frenetic, diverse metropolis without a good command of the English language?

 

I arrived in NYC in 1967, and it was a major culture shock. The biggest Spanish-speaking group that I was able to connect with was the Puerto Rican community because I lived near 'El Barrio' on 92nd Street and Second Avenue.  I came to New York City because I thought I could make something happen here. My family back in Cuba had made so many sacrifices for me to go to the conservatory and I really wanted to be able to give something back to them. I wanted to make them proud of me. It was the drive to succeed that kept me going.

 

Did you continue your musical education after you arrived in NYC?

 

Yes, I did. It was never an option for me to divorce myself from music; however, I did have to support myself. When I first came to NYC, in addition to music studies at NYU, I worked as an assistant to an accountant in a textile factory on 34th and Ninth Avenue.

 

How did your affiliation with the Dance Theatre of Harlem come about?

 

I was studying at NYU and a friend of mine there played for dance classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. My friend became ill and she asked me if I could replace her one Saturday. I was a little nervous because I had never played for a ballet class. Arthur Mitchell happened to be at the school that Saturday and heard me play and approached me about being music director at Dance Theatre of Harlem. And the rest is history. What is so interesting about that experience is that that particular Saturday was my first time ever in Harlem.

 

William Gooch: How has working with the Dance Theatre of Harlem informed your compositions for other dance companies?

 

The music that I composed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem was very eclectic. The music that I collaborated with Geoffrey Holder on for the ballet Dougla had very strong African rhythms and the music for the ballet Haiku was Japanese in nature.  I have also composed music in the neoclassical style, so you can see the music I’ve composed has encompassed many styles.

 

Have you composed music for dance companies other than The Dance Theatre of Harlem and DanceBrazil?

 

Those are the only dance companies I’ve composed music for. In the 1980s I was very active composing music for theatre. I composed a lot of music for INTAR, which is a theatre company that produces Spanish-themed plays. I worked a lot with Brenda Feliciano, Paquito D'Rivera’s wife, who was associated with INTAR.

 

Where does your ability to compose music that synchronizes so many styles and cultures come from?

 

I think I developed that affinity because of my upbringing. I try to find the musical structures that represent different musical communities. In the conservatory in Cuba I learned all the classical masters, but outside of the conservatory I had this infusion of Cuban music that has roots in Africa, Moorish Spain, and indigenous cultures. I had trained at the conservatory in Havana to be a concert pianist and never in my wildest dreams did I believe I would one day compose music that incorporated the drumming of Santeria or Candomble or anything polyrhythmic. Polyrhythmic music really speaks to my heart and I feel very at home composing that type of music. Looking back, I realized that my cultural background prepared me for just that.

 

In 2005 you collaborated with Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka on Scourge of Hyacinths. Could you talk about that experience?

 

Working with Wole Soyinka was tremendous and I learned a great deal from him. Scourge of Hyacinths is based on his radio play by the same title.  He is Nigerian, so he appreciates the Yoruba traditions, which are dominant in Scourge of Hyacinths. Just talking with him and being around him caused me to look deeper into the Yoruba traditions, which we also have in Cuba.

 

How did your collaboration with DanceBrazil come about?

 

When I was approached by Brandon Fradd to compose music for a ballet he had in mind for DanceBrazil, I was a little reticent, to say the least, because I had not composed music for ballet in quite a few years. When I went to see a performance of DanceBrazil, I was introduced to the company and artistic director, Jelon Viera. After talking for a while, Jelon told me that Walter Raines, a choreographer who I had worked with in the 1970s, had suggested many years ago that Jelon and myself collaborate on a ballet. I had forgotten that Jelon had studied at the Ailey School back in the 1970s where Walter Raines taught, and around that same time I had composed music for Walter Raines’s ballet, Haiku. You see how the worlds of music and dance collide?  Jelon had wanted to work with me for many years and finally we were going to get the chance to collaborate on something together.  I knew that this was the right opportunity, happening at the right place and time.

 

You wrote the music for the DanceBrazil’s new ballet, Inura. What was the inspiration for this work?

 

Inura is all the forces of the universe merging, or the positive force of energy we have inside ourselves. In Candomble, it is the orisha spirit Eshu Elegua. This ballet takes me back to the Santeria religion in Cuba. My grandmother was very involved in that tradition. I believe that spirituality is something that all human beings need to help us understand our place and purpose in the universe. It is continuous quest.

 

Will audiences recognize the musical structures in the score?

 

The only musical structure that is very recognizable is the bossa nova. All the other rhythms I have put together as a diaspora of musical rhythms.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 

read William Gooch's review of DanceBrazil

 

 

 

 
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