IN PERFORMANCE

A tender look at Cuba in Chaves and Davis' 'Havana Blue'

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Last October, choreographer Frank Chaves and jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis traveled to Cuba to research a suite they hoped to create together. By immersing themselves in the movement and music of the island nation, they sought to bring something of the spirit of the place back home to Chicago.

On Saturday night, Chaves' River North Dance Chicago and Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble presented the ambitious "Havana Blue" to a packed Auditorium Theatre, but the world premiere defied convenient expectation.

Certainly anyone who anticipated an exuberant celebration of Cuban dance and Afro-Cuban music would have been caught off guard by the subtlety, grace and structure of "Havana Blue." For this multi-movement work mostly implied rather than proclaimed its connections to Cuba, and the piece made greater impact because of it.

There was nothing obvious and little that was overtly Cuban about "Havana Blue," in other words, even if its choreographic gestures and musical pulse clearly drew inspiration from the culture of the place. Instead, "Havana Blue" amounted to a series of contemporary dance pieces informed by folkloric turns of phrase and accompanied by freshly original, Cuban-tinged jazz, the two idioms linked by the consistently elegant tone of Chaves' and Davis' work.

That's not to say, however, that "Havana Blue" unfolded as an entirely abstract series of vignettes. On the contrary, each movement carried a specific theme or message, as articulated in the printed program and expressed on stage.

The biggest surprise of suite came at the start, the dancers performing much of the "Sabor" ("Flavor") opener in pairs, the dance and music only hinting at the work's Cuban aspirations. Yes, the flowing legato lines of both ensembles drew upon the sensuousness of Cuban culture and geography, but only as a starting point for an intensely lyrical work.

For all the visual and musical beauty of this piece, however, its delicacy represented too genteel and low-key a beginning for such a vast opus. A somewhat more striking opening – or at least a more vivid performance of this one – would have better set the stage for the musings yet to come.

That said, however, "Havana Blue" quickly gathered momentum, each subsequent movement providing additional degrees of heat and tension. Certainly there was no missing the intense romantic longing of "Solteras" ("Single Ladies"), the yearning, open-armed gestures of the women reflecting the gentle cry of Davis' trumpet solo.

With "Lo Masculino" ("The Masculine"), "Havana Blue" achieved its first tour de force, the ensemble of shirtless men delivering stark rhythmic accents and thrusting movements aimed downward, toward to the earth. The muscularity and machismo of the "Lo Masculino" choreography gave "Havana Blue" the crisp, bold statement it needed.

From this point forth, the work cohered quite well, all the while continuing to revel in the unexpected. Anyone who has been to Havana knows "El Malecon" as the majestic seawall along the city's coast, but to Chaves it's a source of melancholy – a symbol of the distant place where he was born. The dancers walked onto the stage slowly, and in silence, before the strings offered a darkly brooding melodic line. Soon, the nobility of the ensemble choreography and the swelling grandeur of the music expressed the towering stature of Havana, as well as Chaves' enduring connection to the city he left as a child.

Not until the work's finale, "Azul Vivo (Vivid Blue): Havana at 12," however, did the suite explicitly reveal its Afro-Cuban core, the flowing skirts of the women and pelvis-forward stance of the men drawing upon the populist roots of Cuban dance. Here, Davis' score openly celebrated the history of Afro-Caribbean jazz, the Philharmonic's surging rhythms and explosive, staccato chords driving the dance to an exultant climax.

With gently muted lighting design by Joshua Paul Weckesser and evocative, Caribbean-inspired costumery by Jordan Ross, "Havana Blue" ultimately amounted to a profound look at the meaning and value of Cuban culture today. A little more juice at the start would make it stronger.

Earlier in the evening, River North presented the Chicago premiere of Chaves' "Eva," danced to recordings by singer Eva Cassidy. Jessica Wolfrum's ecstatic, virtuosic solo in the "Stormy Monday" section left the most lasting impression.

And the Philharmonic's world premiere of Davis' "Orlando's Walk" foreshadowed the eloquence of his "Havana Blue" score, its screaming trumpets and pulsing backbeats attesting to how deeply that trip to Cuba has influenced one Chicago's most admired jazz artists.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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