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por Katiuska Bianey Bautista
lunes, 30 julio 2007

Havana Journal

A Super-Size Troupe

Leaps From Ridiculous to Sublime

José Goitia for The New York Times

Juan Miguel Mas, above, a 300-pound choreographer, formed the Danza Voluminosa troupe in 1996; its dancers are heavy, but light on their feet.

HAVANA, July 28 — The prima ballerina of the Danza Voluminosa troupe weighs 286 pounds, and as she thumps gracefully across the floor, she gives new meaning to the words stage presence. Her body is a riotous celebration of weight — of ample belly and breasts, of thick legs and arms, of the crushing reality of gravity.

“I always liked to dance,” the dancer, Mailín Daza, said later. “I wanted to dance in the classical ballet, but my mother told me fat girls could not dance. I always dreamed of being a ballerina. With this group, I feel I am a ballerina.”

Formed a decade ago by Juan Miguel Mas, this company of obese dancers has become a cultural phenomenon in Cuba, breaking stereotypes here of dance, redefining the aesthetics of beauty and, along the way, raising the self-esteem of heavyset people.

While the troupe is not the first to employ larger dancers, its popularity comes as a surprise in a country known for its muscular, lean dancers in every genre from classical ballet to salsa. After all, food is rationed here, most people must walk or bike to work and the streets are filled with hard, lean bodies.

Mr. Mas, a 300-pound choreographer and dancer who moves like a pampered cat, admits that he often uses the stereotypical humor of his dancers’ proportions to bring in audiences. The troupe is well known for its parody of “Swan Lake” and engages in hilarious renditions of dancing clichés like the cancan.

But Mr. Mas and his troupe are deadly serious about dance, and once the laughter dies down, they are capable of performing moving pieces that drill into the universal themes of love, death and erotic longing. The audience forgets the joke and begins to feel the dance, he said.

“We use humor to get the public in,” he said. “Then we can hit them with something stronger.”

Mr. Mas, 41, also choreographs pieces on themes like the tragedy of gluttony, love between obese couples, the prejudice that fat people face and the psychic toll of obesity.

One of the troupe’s recent successes, “Sweet Death,” tells the story of a woman who, after being rejected by her family, tries to commit suicide by eating huge quantities of candy. The work has surreal elements, as the dancers use their bodies to create furniture in the performance. Another piece, “The Macabre Dinner,” explores gluttony.

Mr. Mas said it would be a mistake to think that his work was intended to glorify or sanctify obesity, or even to deliver a moralistic message that one should not discriminate against the overweight. Rather, he said, the troupe’s art tries to face the reality of obesity while giving larger people a chance to express themselves through dance, a chance they are denied from childhood in most dance classes.

“Although we are obese and dance, we are against obesity,” Mr. Mas explained, saying parenthetically that he admires New York City for banning artificial trans fats from restaurants. “We are always trying to lose weight.”

But something strange happens when the troupe takes the stage. Classical and modern dance often give the impression of human beings flying, freed of the earth. The usual female dancers are like nymphs, the men like Greek statues. They soar, spin, leap and reach for the sky. Because of the size of the dancers in Mr. Mas’s troupe, however, the work of Danza Voluminosa conveys something more earthy and human. Fat people move differently, he said, and the choreography must change. “We are more mountainous,” he said with a smile.

The dancers’ movements are often slower than those of their slender colleagues. These dancers favor limbs swinging in pendulous arcs and wavelike motions that seem to ripple through their bodies. They seem to grip the floor rather than abandon it, keeping a low center of gravity, often crouching or dancing while kneeling or lying on the ground.

And when their dance becomes frenetic, the sheer weight of the dancers thudding across the stage conveys an excitement akin to a stampede, something out of control and wild, yet made of human flesh and blood. It can be a riveting sight.

Mr. Mas said he had borrowed from the work of Martha Graham and Jose Limón, but he also incorporates moves from African dance, jazz dance and the folkloric dance of the Caribbean, often with West African roots. “I use whatever I can,” he said.

For the dancers, working with Mr. Mas has changed their lives. Several said they suffered from constant embarrassment and guilt over their weight before they began dancing. But dancing has taught them to accept, if not love, their bodies. They also say that after a performance, they feel self-esteem that is foreign to most them, having suffered from the gibes of their peers since childhood.

Barbara Paula, 29, who weighs 275 pounds, has been dancing with the troupe for five years. She said it still felt strange at times to be on stage, as if she were constantly discovering the potential beauty hidden inside her body, which for years was a source of shame for her.

“It’s something new,” she said. “I don’t have this complex anymore that because we are obese, we cannot dance, we cannot walk in the street.”

The reaction of audiences has been immensely positive. The government lets the troupe practice and perform in the National Theater of Cuba. Mr. Mas now receives a state salary to continue his work. The dancers who have been with the troupe for years say that when the group started in November 1996, they faced ridicule and laughter. These days, people take them seriously.

“We have always had those who laugh at first, but by the end of the show there is a standing ovation,” said Xiomara González, 43, a 180-pound mother of two who gave up her job to dance. “And this is a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing.”