Wednesday, September 14, 2016

HiFF ’16: Cold Nights Hot Salsa

Don’t tell the Quebecois language police, but you might be able to hear a little Spanish in Montreal salsa clubs. It turns out there is quite a burgeoning salsa scene in the French Canadian city. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two of Montreal’s most talented salsa dancers, who have a serious enough chance at the World Salsa Championship to attract a documentarian’s attention. Edwin Gailits follows the partners (on and off the dance floor) as they train and compete in Cold Nights Hot Salsa (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Harlem International Film Festival.

It is easy to see why Gailits thought Morales and Contreras were such an appealing couple. They represent both the new and old conceptions of salsa. Once considered a smoldering couple’s dance perfect for encouraging close contact, it has become style that showcases physical virtuosity. They became a couple through dance and they are good enough to compete on an international level.

It seems like salsa has more competing titles than the sport of boxing, so Contreras and Morales will have several chances to stake a championship claim. As they start to place higher, they try to pick up a few steps from salsa’s royalty: elite champions-turned judges Billy Fajardo & Katie Marlow and the Mambo King godfather of salsa, Eddie Torres.

There is some spectacularly cinematic dancing and a good deal of correspondingly hot music (including a Bobby Sanabria selection) in Cold Nights, but none of it is played live. However, Gailits was arguably a year or two too early. In subsequent tournaments, Morales and Contreras would go on a championship run, but they were still underdogs while Gailits crew was around. They would also miss a lot of off-stage financial drama involving championship impresario Albert Torres’ former organization.

Still, it is rather fascinating to see salsa start to establish itself as a global competitive pursuit. Montreal is still not Miami, but it seems to be well represented at each competition. It is a nice film, but a shorty by feature standards, barely stretching seconds over an hour in total running time. Still, fans of salsa and those who appreciate the music and culture that spawned it should enjoy this intimate account of potential champions finding their voice (in terms of choreography) when it screens this Friday (9/16) at MIST, as part of the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival.