BALANCING THE PAST WITH THE PRESENT:
An interview with Tania León of DanceBrazil
Dance 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
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
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
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
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
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read William Gooch's review of DanceBrazil