Ban Rarra likes playing with fire. The women in this 14-member Haitian-Cuban performance troupe whirl burning batons like wild island cheerleaders; the men spit and swallow flames, brush their shiny bald heads with blazing torches, and extinguish the hot props by stuffing them down their drawers. They also get a kick out of running machetes along their tongues and bare torsos, then gracing the audience with a nonchalant gesture, as if to say, "Look, Ma: No blood!" Meanwhile, polyrhythmic percussionists and dynamic vodu singers drive the energy to a fever pitch. Such is the spectacle of Ban Rarra's simulated spirit-possessions.
During a trip to Havana a few years back, ODC Theater Director Andrew Wood discovered the company's "exotic" show (he's crazy for so-called ethnic dance) and sponsored the group's successful U.S. debut in 1999. Now ODC is bringing Ban Rarra back to the States for an eight-week, cross-country tour. The excursion will include an extensive Bay Area residency complete with a dozen concerts, numerous workshops, and a free symposium on African cultural influence in the Americas.
Led by Artistic Director Dr. Isaias Rojas Ramirez, a prominent dance professor in Havana, Ban Rarra explores the full range of Eastern Cuba's rich folkloric traditions, which have been shaped for generations by Haitian refugees and their descendants. In addition to extravagant rituals with fire and knives, the troupe presents less flashy, though equally engaging, dance forms like salsa, cha-cha, and merengue. For these numbers, the scenes are set with upbeat music, flamboyant Mardi Gras-esque garb, and lively quick-stepping. The performers hurl themselves into the percussive rhythms and chantlike vocals of the music -- a perfectly synchronized, full-body immersion with lots of dramatic faces, flailing limbs, athletic leaps, pelvic thrusts, and rumps a-rockin'. What's more, they sometimes invite audience members onto the stage for a high-octane dance bash that blazes to the end.