Danza-Teatro Retazos
Contemporary Dance Company

Habana Vieja, the colonial heart of Cuba's capital, is where everything old becomes new again, where buildings are sandblasted back to their 16th-century splendour, where women in yellow rumba dresses and men in Compay Segundo hats pose languidly for tourists. So it may come as a surprise to learn that this historic neighbourhood is home to one of the city's most avant-garde dance troupes, and to an annual festival that emphasizes artistic expression and community involvement over tradition and preservation.

The dance company is called Retazos ("fragments"), and the festival is City in Motion (also called the Habana Vieja International Festival), the 16th edition of which occurs 11-17 April 2011. Both the company and the festival were created and are now headed by a Chilean-born former ballerina called Isabel Bustos Romoleroux.

"In the beginning I was dancing very traditional roles but didn't feel very in tune with what I was doing," Bustos told us. "So I began an investigation into movement." Her investigation led her to study with Cuba's best choreographers (Ramiro Guerra) and dancers (Loipa Araújo) and later to teaching stagecraft at Cuba's Instituto Superior de Artes. But her real breakthrough happened in January 1987 in her own living room. She pushed all her furniture against one wall so five dancers would have sufficient floor space to perform Mujeres, the first Retazos production. Two decades later Teatro-Danza Retazos resides in a handsomely refurbished building on Calle Amargura, with offices, a theatre, and studios where children from the neighbourhood come to study dance as well as visual arts (painting, papier-mâché, moviemaking...).

"I work with the forms, techniques, knowledge, situations I find around me," Bustos says. "That's what Retazos is– fragments of emotions, of life, of sensations. Each one of us is fragmented. The form in which we carry these fragments is how our lives develop. And that's how Retazos has come together. From fragments."

Bustos first came to Havana in 1963, studied ballet at Cuba's National Arts School (ENA), went to Paris to study choreography at the Sorbonne, then came back to Havana for good. Today she is known throughout the dance world, from Europe to North and South America where Retazos has been invited to perform, but she is particularly revered in Habana Vieja. For seven days each spring the City in Motion festival jolts the neighbourhood's ancient cobblestones back to life, as dance spills into parks, balconies, stairways and streets. With the festival as with all the works performed by the Retazos troupe, the emphasis is on experimentation and artistic discovery, and the result is typically unpredictable. The Retazos website talks of "looking to highlight the dissimilar crossroads of the cultural imagination of our era."

You might think dance would be enough for Isabel Bustos, but as it happens she also designs sets and costumes and is an accomplished painter. "I feel much closer to the plastic arts, to cinema," she says. "The image is the key. The discourse comes through the image."