Tampa City Ballet Finds Muse Again in Ybor
November 3 & 4 at 7 pm
The Cuban Club, Ybor City
Tampa, a modest town, and home to less than 800 residents. Suddenly, a mass migration. The city swells to over 15,000 residents. These statistics certainly look familiar to this 2023 reader, in spite of the fact that it describes a story that took place over 140 years ago.
A story that Tampa City Ballet’s founder and artistic director, Paula Nuñez, hopes to recapture by revisiting her site-specific ballet, Interstices – A Break in Continuity, which I explored when it premiered in October 2021. Interstices will make its second debut at Ybor’s historic Cuban Club this weekend.
“When I am in Ybor, I feel alive,” says Nuñez, who made the Kress Building‘s eclectic arts center on 7th Avenue Tampa City Ballet’s home in January.
Nuñez moved to Florida from Venezuela, and was a former principal company member of the International Ballet of Caracas. In 2018, she began Tampa City Ballet as a nonprofit, professional dance company.
“Coming from another country, I have lived in a space where you cannot communicate as totally as you want to,” says Nuñez. “Yes you live, but a part of you is still there.
“It made me feel how the immigrants must have felt coming to Ybor one hundred years ago. I can relate to the emotions of building your life in a different place, and making a community the way that they did. It’s the same way that we do it today, and that’s something that I feel does not change.”
The US Census Bureau reported that by the end of 2021, at least 850 people moved to Florida every day. Another migration. While Tampa’s identity seemingly becomes indistinguishable from towering construction cranes and dazzling new areas like the Channel District’s Water Street, Ybor City remains a sacred, liminal space that transports you back to Tampa’s roots.
“That again is the ‘interstices,’” says Nuñez, who says the title of the work became a catalyst for the rest of the story. “It is the poetic transitions. The transitions we experience in life that we don’t realize until we really see the past and the present together and the memories.”
Between 1880-1900 Henry B. Plant’s railroad paved the way for the cigar industry in Tampa. An influx of new residents made their way to Ybor City specifically which became the epicenter for thousands of Spanish, Cuban, Jewish and Italian immigrants.
Nuñez took an interest in this history after being gifted a copy of the 1897 memoir Tampa – Impressions of an Emigrant by Wenceslao Gálvez y Delmonte, translated by Noel M. Smith. Delmonte was a Cuban-born baseball player, lawyer and writer who chronicled the storied, liminal space that was early Tampa.
Nuñez says as soon as she began reading the memoir, movement immediately came to her mind. She lifts up the book from her lap to reveal its dog-eared pages, heavy with yellow sticky notes and the binding breaking in the middle.
“All his stories were images, automatically,” says Nuñez, who began translating Delmonte’s poetry into choreography. “He told a story about a man that carried ice from one place to another and how his first impression when he came to Tampa was of the sand everywhere.
“He goes backwards and forwards between the Revolution that he left and his new life, and the other Cubans that were working so hard to send money and help back to their families in Cuba. The images were so rich to create.”
Interstices came at a crucial—and undeniably liminal—time in Tampa City Ballet’s repertoire. At the time of its inception, the world was still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. With theaters shuttered, it forced Nuñez to consider how ballet could exist outside the proscenium.
While the world slowly re-opened in 2021, she held rehearsals on Zoom with her dancers and began staging the work at Ybor’s neo-classical Cuban Club. The venue became a conduit for Ybor City’s past and present, its preserved architecture the perfect backdrop for Delmonte’s stories to be told.
“The stories that happened there are part of our past,” says Nuñez. “We are made of these stories. For me, to be there, we are making these stories come alive.”
The 2021 production of Interstices began in the Cuban Club’s first floor lobby which pulsed with music, the clinking of drinks being poured, and the footsteps of dancers in their roles as affluent club-goers.
For this second iteration of the work, Nuñez is changing where the audience will be introduced to Delmonte’s contemporaries by having everyone enter through the downstairs, “La Cantina.”
With the nostalgic feeling of a 1920s speakeasy, audience members will enter through a small, narrow doorway and be immediately immersed into the behind-the-scenes innards of the club. Here, dancers will portray Cuban workers entrenched in their daily duties — preparing for the big parties upstairs by cleaning, cooking, and partaking in the occasional game of dominos.
Accompanying the dancers will be 18 singers from the Wattaka polyphonic choir as well as violinist Nick Ewing who composed a piece titled Nuevo for the ending of the cantina section.
Nuñez says this new beginning was her ode to the workers at the Cuban Club — as audiences move through the passageway to the first floor, she gives the impression of walking through their lives and routines.
The first floor’s new twist includes cabaret dancers and choreography by collaborator Maria Capitano. Then audiences will travel upstairs to the ballroom for the final, and chorographically familiar, finale of the performance.
Only a handful of the 14 dancers involved in this year’s Interstices were part of the original 2021 premiere. Nuñez has not only reviewed and re-taught material, but asked her company to find their own literal and symbolic connections to the stories embedded in the ballet.
Two of her dancers, who are Cuban, have found personal connections to the character portrayals and rhythmic drivers in the music.
“I was afraid to go back for a moment,” admits Nuñez. “When you build something and then you go away, you don’t always want to go back, but everything has been very rewarding. To come back to the music, to look for the collaborations, to see the dancers happy and very in tune with the process, and to also get into the space and see what is going to happen.”
Nuñez revels in this energy of the unexpected. It is in tune with what might be considered Tampa’s true heartbeat, buried at the center of Ybor City.
Tampa City Ballet has felt this pounding, as have their collaborators who thrive in this vibrant meeting of cultures, immigrants, migration and brick-laid streets. Nuñez is confident this same energy that enlivens her dancers will empower attendees at Interstices.
“It’s important for audiences to know they can go to the theater and sit down and see a beautiful show, but they also have these possibilities to go and be a part of the show – and even sometimes, part of the process,” says Nuñez. “They are definitely narrators of this experience.”
Interstices by Tampa City Ballet
November 3 and 4 at 7 pm
The Cuban Club
2010 N. Avenida Republica de Cuba
Ybor City (Tampa) FL 33605
Ticket information here