Review: Cuba Caribe presents "Mouth of a Shark' March 31-April 2, 2023, ODC Theater, San Francisco
“No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.’ The first two lines of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s “Home” are the inspiration for choreographer Ramon Ramos Alayo’s elucidating Mouth of a Shark, about the experiences of immigrants. It’s premiere at the ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District opens the 17th annual Cuba & Caribe Festival of Dance and Music.
Musician Einar Leliebre Nuñez leads the Elegua outside ODC Theater with dancers Hilary Snider, Julianna Cressman, Mela Amaiya and Pablo Berriel Duquezne; Photo J. Norris
Bringing a taste of the streets of Havana, the performance begins outside. Four characters weave playfully through the assembled crowd, approaching a guest from behind, tapping a shoulder and ducking quickly away. Their mischievous pranks are offerings to the spirit of Elegua, whose approval one seeks before all ceremonies or rituals in Cuba or Puerto Rica.
Accompanied by a live drummer’s complex rhythms the dancers’ bodies undulate from their pelvises to the crowns of their heads. Their posture is low with arms flowing and shoulders rolling, a blur of energy. They beckon us to follow, encouraging us to join in the percussionist claps, a polyrhythmic beat which is surprisingly difficult to match.
Our next stop is the ODC Theater lobby in which a film is projected on the wall. As we cluster cooperatively so all can see, in vibrant color we experience Cuba during COVID lockdown. Theaters are closed and dancers have lost their livelihoods. Alayo speaks of his return to his native Cuba to employ dancers by creating a new work. Shots of dancers rehearsing becomes the backdrop for a live duet. A singer summons us into the theater. As a call and response develops from door to stage, we migrate through a phalanx of posed performers to find seats.
Audience and cast members watch film in ODC Lobby part of Mouth of a Shark; Photo J. Norris
Filmmaker Reinier Charon Morales’s sumptuous film now fills the back wall. In stunning outdoor settings dance sequences occur on rock formations and waterfalls along the sea. Interviews with Cuban dancers reinforce the richness and importance of Cuban artistic customs and traditions. They communicate that leaving Cuba to live, work, or perform elsewhere is always a sacrifice.
As the film ends, the theatrical piece starts in earnest. It is a revelation. We are transported to the mouth of a beast. Growling, panting and snarling, its breath is heavy. The darkness is broken only by shards of throbbing light. A prisoner struggles between his captors before breaking free with a powerful leap. The way to safety is circuitous. Lantern in hand, a figure ducks through a tunnel of arched bodies. The sonorous voice of Nakachi Clark-Kasimu as the Elegua or Orisha, a deity of the roads, recites “Home,” reminding us that “you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.” Seated back-to-back, linked at their elbows, a trio struggles to stand, before fleeing to disparate dark corners.
In a balletic section three men leap backward, their bladed arms cutting through space as Clark-Kasimu sings the deeply mournful spiritual “Lawd, How Come Me Heah?” Making her way to center, her face turned to God, she quakingly delivers, “I wish I never was born.”
People migrate via many means and pathways, so it is apt that recent Cuban immigrants Maylin McDonald Gómez and Thalia Cueto Ramirez weave their way down the many steps of the seating platform to join local artists Fredrika Keefer and Jordan Wanderer on stage. With arms at their throats, the four women move as one tortured being accompanied by another Shire poem. This one conjures what is to be a migrating woman, unwelcome, buried in bureaucracy, struggling to learn English, victimized by men at every turn. Clark-Kasimu voices “I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging.”
Alayo weaves the poetry, music and movement together well with his uber-talented cast. While the verses and lyrics resonate, the dancing stands above it all. Cuba’s dance program requires students train extensively in ballet, modern and Afro-Cuban dance. A series of four male-female duets demonstrates the performers’ enormous range, and the poetically intuitive way that they are able to merge movement styles. Performing to Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” Keefer and Delvis Savigne Frinon make a sensual pairing winding around each other. While Gomez and Alejandro Perez impress with synchronous nested body waves. Ramirez and Marco Paolmino excite us with beautifully matched stag leaps. Wanderer and her partner Adonis Damian Martin Quiñones explore more grounded contemporary choreography with slow running strides.
The women rock invisible babies as the men row us toward a new shore. The cast, including the Elegua dancers from the sidewalk, Hilary Snider, Julianna Cressman, Mela Amaiya and Pablo Berriel Duquezne, gather around the Orisha for the final stanza,
“no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here.”
Review by Jen Norris, published April 5, 2023
Nakachi Clark-Kasimu in turquoise bows with cast of Mouth a Shark, ODC Theater; Photo: J. Norris
Full texts of poems and songs can be found below credits.
Mouth of a Shark World premiere by choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo and Alayo Dance Company
March 31-April 2, 2023 ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Friday, March 31 at 7:30pm
Saturday, April 1 at 7:30pm
and Sunday, April 2 at 4:30pm
Text of poems and songs:
Home by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you fire under feet hot blood in your belly it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck and even then you carried the anthem under your breath only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet sobbing as each mouthful of paper made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey. no one crawls under fences no one wants to be beaten pitied no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching or prison, because prison is safer than a city of fire and one prison guard in the night is better than a truckload of men who look like your father no one could take it no one could stomach it no one skin would be tough enough
the go home blacks refugees dirty immigrants asylum seekers sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up how do the words the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child body in pieces. i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home told you to quicken your legs leave your clothes behind crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hunger beg forget pride your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
“I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officers, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men, who look like my father pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.”
Nina Simone “Four Women” lyrics
Four Women Lyrics
My skin is black My arms are long My hair is woolly My back is strong Strong enough to take the pain Inflicted again and again What do they call me? My name is Aunt Sarah My name is Aunt Sarah Aunt Sarah
My skin is yellow My hair is long Between two worlds I do belong But my father was rich and white He forced my mother late one night And what do they call me? My name is Saffronia My name is Saffronia My skin is tan My hair is fine My hips invite you My mouth like wine Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy What do they call me? My name is Sweet Thing My name is Sweet Thing My skin is brown My manner is tough I'll kill the first mother I see! My life has been rough I'm awfully bitter these days Because my parents were slaves What do they call me? My name is Peaches!
Lyrics “Lord, how come me here?*” a- traditional Spiritual
*An anglicized version of, Lawd, how come me heah?
Lord, how come me here? Lord, how come me here? Lord, how come me here? I wish I never was born There ain't no freedom here, Lord There ain't no freedom here, Lord There ain't no freedom here, Lord I wish I never was born They treat me so mean here, Lord They treat me so mean here, Lord They treat me so mean here, Lord I wish I never was born They sold my chillen away, Lord They sold my chillen away, Lord They sold my chillen away, Lord I wish I never was born