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Watching L-E-V and Chucho Valdés: Hypnotized

Editor’s note: Helena Mesa is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Helena saw LEV, the dance company led by former Batcheva dancer and choreographer Sharon Eyal, and Chucho Valdés, the legendary Cuban pianist. Below is her response to the performance.


October arrived with techno beats and L-E-V, the dancers like liquid as they pulsed across the Power Center stage. Dressed in black body suits resembling latex, the dancers slid through space, but before I knew it, Sara, the 13-minute dance, ended, the lights stunned the auditorium, and our voices rose in response—each murmuring to the next. I’d come to the performance as part of the UMS artist in residence program, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write in response to dance.

It was later, during Killer Pig, the longer second performance, the dancers dressed in earthy tones, that my mind shifted, and instead of thinking about how to think about what I watched, I gave myself over to the music, to the conversation between body and sound. The dancers were hypnotic, shifting from ballet to modern dance, the forms blending, so I couldn’t tell what was what—what was classical, what was modern, what was the beauty of a body, and what was the beauty of the choreography. Their movements felt raw, one body’s motions echoing another’s, at times coming together, at times breaking apart, until one of the dancers broke off into her own, and the music, too, broke, into sharp sounds that almost hurt in its emotional cacophony.


And then, November arrived, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked through downtown to the Michigan Theater. The streets bustled. Folks strolled, enjoying the unexpected mild fall. Entering the theater to see Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, I was surrounded by Spanish, the Cuban kind, the accent familiar, the words turning my ear in ways that carry me home. I settled into my seat, chatted with the woman beside me, fingered my program, and when the show finally began, the piano and bass and drums cracked the crowd’s murmurs. The notes spoke to one another. And the horns talked back.

chucho valdes and afro cuban messengers

And with time, so did we. We raised our hands and clapped to the beat, we stood and swayed our hips at our seats, and when the singer asked us to sing, we sang back, pio pio pio, and later ella, and suddenly, I found myself again hypnotized, giving myself over to the performers, but also, giving myself over to a familiar story: My father sitting on the couch reading the paper, my mother pulling him up from the couch, and the two giving themselves over to the piano and bass and horns of a Cuban big band, and dancing the way Cubans dance—with a joy to be alive.

That evening, I walked out into the twilight and felt the eerie feeling of being pulled out of myself. The music was still with me, and I felt that familiar feeling we often experience when we’re young—the desire to stay with the crowd for as long as we can, to feel part of something larger, and a strange sadness to walk off alone, the music still lingering. A horn to the chill in the air. A beating drum to each step toward the parking garage. The step back and half-turn up the stairs. My own humming.


When I was first learning to write, I wrote thick lyric poems that never made sense, and instead of thinking about how to write a clear narrative that a reader might understand, I focused on the poems’ music. At the time, I’d never studied meter or rhyme; I’d never thought about the structure of the line, but I wanted my poems to mimic Arturo Sandoval, an early member of Irakere. I’d listen to “A Mis Abuelos” (“To My Grandparents”) again and again, and then I’d color-code my poems, trying to find a way to mimic not only the rhythm, but the shift in tone between a solitary trumpet that suddenly breaks into a congregation of big band sounds—horns, piano, guitars, and conga drums.

Thankfully, I’ve lost all those badly written poems, but now I realize that I was trying to find a way to break open a poem, to evoke an emotion I didn’t know how to express, to say something unexpected and meaningful, much like James Wright captures at the end of “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” I often, jokingly, tell my students that if I were ever to bear a needle long enough to get a tattoo, I’d print Wright’s lines along the inside of my forearm, as a reminder. Those transformative moments happen so rarely. You can’t force them—they just happen. Nonetheless, I want a poem to transform me as a reader, much like L-E-V and Chucho Valdés transformed me as a viewer.

I do not yet know how L-E-V and Chucho Valdés will shape my poetry. I can picture how the lines of a poem might begin to move through the white stage of a page, and I can imagine how I can play with both traditional rhythms and modern speech. And I know I want to find a way to layer different sounds and voices, like Chucho Valdés weaved tango, funk, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But right now? I’m hung up on hypnotism, how the music compelled and enthralled me. How I couldn’t turn away from the elastic muscles and mirrored movements; I couldn’t turn away from instruments stretching and teasing until it seemed the song might break. In the dark, I leaned forward, wanting to memorize every movement and sound.

Photos are courtesy of the artists.