Mention the name “Los Van Van” to most Americans, and they’ll have little to no idea who or what is being referenced. But say the name to someone of Cuban descent, and it is sure to get a reaction.
For many, the legendary band, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, created the soundtrack to their lives.
DC Casineros began 13 years ago under the direction of Amanda Gill and Adrian Valdivia, who sought to teach various styles of Cuban popular dance styles such as Rueda de Casino, Afro-Cuban Rumba, Cha Cha Chá, Mambo, Danzón and Yoruba Orisha, on local, national, and international stages. This quest has taken the growing troupe from DC venues to Salsa Congresses worldwide.
The performance of “Bailando con Juan Formell y Los Van Van: A 50 Years Journey on the Musical Train of Cuba and its Legendary Founder,” which premiered Nov. 3-4 at the Dance Place, was met with standing ovations and glowing reviews.
The impetus for creating the performance piece came during May’s Kennedy Center festival, Artes de Cuba, in which the group participated. During the two-week festival, they were introduced to a number of people who came for the event that made the full-length production possible.
Through those contacts, they were able to secure film footage of interviews with key current and former members of the band, including former pianist Pupy Cesar Pedroso and the legendary founder’s son and current leader of Los Van Van, Samuel Formell, which had also performed in the festival as well.
Los Van Van is possibly the most popular and enduring band of Cuba’s post-revolutionary era. Founder Juan Formell’s legendary big band defended Cuban music on and off the island while inventing the uniquely Cuban style of dance music known as Songo.
DC Casineros looked at the band’s music from the 1960s through today, exploring the development of Los Van Van. Using a multimedia format of documentary film, live dance and recorded music by the band, interspersed with monologue, DC Casineros captured the intersection of movement, theater and history to discover why Los Van Van inspires Cubans and audiences around the world.
Highlighting pivotal points throughout the history of Cuba’s post-revolutionary past, the show was focused on each decade and how Los Van Van’s music reflected the pulse and the plight of the island nation’s people.
With narration by Orielena Lopez, a Cuban national now living in the area, the pauses between original choreographed dance pieces lent a personal touch to the performance as she described how the music played into her life growing up in a small village on the island.
With special guest Jonathan Burke, the dance troupe used mostly original choreography, and when employing classically choreographed ruedas, personal touches were added by individual dancers as they interpreted Cuba’s little known history through movement.
“Before the last five years, DC Casineros had only been doing five-minute rueda pieces. We originated as a dance social,” said Amanda Gill, co-director of DC Casineros. “We would get in front of an audience or go to a community festival and do the circle dancing. But now that we have been around 13 years, we are taking more of a direction of educating audiences and helping them get deeper into Cuban culture. We were so inspired by this band, so this show is first and foremost inspired by the songs of Van Van.”
Co-directed by Gill and Adrian Valdivia, DC Casineros “reflects on how we can start to get the things that are obscure out into the open,” Valdivia said. “Part of it is about telling the stories that are never told.”
“We don’t call Casino Cuban salsa is because it is a misnomer,” said Valdivia, who has a long career in the education field. “It really is not. The definitions of ‘Son’ and ‘Casino’ are the true definitions of what Cubans want and would like to have their dance and their story to tell. So what we do is try to find that spirit. This story of Juan Formell, who is like the Michael Jackson of Cuba, many Americans don’t know unless you are a fan of Cuban music.”
“For us it was like let’s tell this story,” he concluded. “It reflects the political and social things that people were going through.”
Plans are to travel the show to different venues, and possibly produce a filmed version of the performance. In the meantime, DC Casineros continues to offer classes in Cuban dance forms at the Dance Place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
For more information, go to danceplace.org, or call 202-269-1600. The legendary Brookland is located at 3225 8th Street NE.