René de Cárdenas

For 30 years René de Cárdenas danced with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, working under the direction of the great Alicia Alonso and alongside a generation of Cuban dance legends —Jorge Esquivel, Andrés Williams, José Zamorano, Romel Frómeta. As a dancer he has performed in Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Belgium, Venezuela, Poland, Colombia, Spain, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

As a choreographer Cárdenas has created about a dozen short pieces that have entered into the repertories of various Cuban dance troupes. But as he tells it, all of that was a mere prelude to Sonlar, his first evening-long production and the first to be performed by his own Compagnia René de Cárdenas before a Cuban audience.

Sonlar opened in December 2004 in Havana's National Theater and has been touring the world ever since. Foreign critics have compared it to Broadway musicals like Stomp and A Chorus Line, and the irony isn't lost on Cárdenas, who insists his inspiration for Sonlar came from a much more obvious source — his hometown. Sonlar shows a day in the life of a Havana solar, a kind of communal house where several families all live together. "What's interesting is the rhythm, Afro-Cuban rhythm, and all the rhythm happens without musical instruments," Cárdenas explains. "The music comes from pots and pans, brooms, wash basins, hammers, fans."

"I wanted to tell a story that was very Cuban, very habanera. One day I took my daughter to her friend's house, near the Malecón, and I found myself in a solar. I went in and heard all these sounds. It was early in the day and a man was fixing a bicycle, pounding it with a hammer. A woman was sweeping. Someone was shouting 'Pass me the sugar!'"

Cárdenas grew up in Havana (not, however, in a solar) and his mother, a professor at Cuba's National Art Academy, wanted him to play the violin. "I was a failure at the violin — I didn't have an ear for it," he recalls. "Maybe that's why so many other things make music in Sonlar." His mother then decided her son should audition as a dancer, which wasn't bad career advice given the shortage of dancers in the years after the Cuban Revolution. Cárdenas was reluctant: "I didn't want to be a dancer — I thought it wasn't something a man should do."

After three decades of dancing and touring, and after a foot injury that made his work increasingly painful, he knew he would have to stop performing. "There was no trauma," he insists. "I think I went as far as I could as a ballet dancer." He was also well along the road to his future as a director and choreographer. And if the international success of Sonlar is any indication, his greatest achievements may still lay ahead.