In its December 2, two-performance appearance at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Music Center in Los Angeles, the Cuban dance company Malpaso featured “Indomitable Waltz,” a 2016 work set on the company in Cuba by noted choreographer Aszure Barton. It was a first-time collaboration between Barton and the company.
In reviewing the December 2 evening performance, Laura Bleiberg of the Los Angeles Times, moved by Indomitable Waltz’s pliant forcefulness, described it as “the gem of the night.”
Barton, born and educated in Canada, has received recognition as a protégé of Mikhail Baryshnikov. As director of her own company, Aszure Barton and Artists, she has been the recipient of Canada’s prestigious Arts and Letters Award. Barton has set work on major international ballet companies, and choreographed for Broadway on “The Threepenny Opera” revival project. She is now resident in Los Angeles.
The following is a backstage interview with Barton and Fernando Saez, Founder and Director of Malpaso, and member of the Board of Directors of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba since 1998.
Toba Singer: What brought the two of you together?
Fernando Saez: Admiration! It’s a little bit scary to admire someone’s work so much and then propose a creative collaboration with her. The creative process is uncertain. Luckily, after watching videos and hearing from friends that it could be a great match, she accepted. Through the Joyce Theater, we applied for and received a NEFA/NDP: New England Foundation for the Arts/ National Dance Project grant, allowing us to move forward. The starting point for me was unconditional admiration.
Aszure Barton: I received a call from Martin Wechsler at the Joyce Theater, and he asked “How would you feel working with the Cuban company Malpaso?” He told me about their mission, and collaborations with Trey McIntyre, Ron Brown, and others, and invited me to see them at the Joyce. I thought to myself, “I would love to experience my favorite city, Havana!” and I was deeply moved by their physical capabilities, and sensitivities. So yes, absolutely! I was tickled that he asked me. Within six months we had gotten the grant.
TS: What did you learn from how each of you works that opened up new pathways?
AB: Mostly to trust my gut and intuition when making work, and that anything is possible creatively with the right group of people, and when you make great work collectively, it is incredibly satisfying. Aside from working with my group project, there is the comforting creative process, where you’re feeling trusted and loved. It may sound like we fell into this easily but in the end, it was the commitment that I admired. Being in Cuba felt like home, very familiar, where the things that are important to me were all in place at a point that a universal gift was planted. On the personal side, my had father fallen very ill, I was confronted with the possibility of loss, but as one does as a professional, I went down to Havana, felt the warmth, and found there, a healing atmosphere in which to create with people I came to love. It was an incredible moment, where I was thankful, and found human, honest conversation, and a place where I could be myself. [Happily, Barton’s father recovered.]
FS: Aszure brings a unique joy and capacity that meets up with a current that runs through the dancers, its essential element posing the question: Where do we come from? The dancers come from a specific culture that informs how they work. Aszure was faced with the problem of how to create a work of art without being familiar with that culture. She demonstrated her capacity to go deep, discovering and offering a new vision tied into her relationship with each dancer, each of who has his or her own obsessions, insecurities, and values.
There are many roads to Rome, but I appreciate how her talent connected to my sensibility. In Cuba, we artists and intellectuals share the responsibility of defining ourselves as Cubans. We are aware of our tradition, and legacy, and how they project themselves into our work. None is a lie or a myth. Many streams in those traditions come into play. Our responsibility is to create out of that. To host someone with Aszure’s capacity to see and act upon that convergence is a unique gift. She connected deeply to my idea of what collaboration should be. It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a growth process. We like to say that it’s the process, not the result, that we work for. This collaboration has been unique in that aspect.
AB: [In anticipating the grant requirements] the Joyce asked what I wanted to make, and my initial response was, “Something super, bright, and celebratory!” The costumes were colorful. But as we were going along, I had to come to terms with the reality that there is weight in this piece. S we ended up having to lose the costumes and go for simple [black] clothing instead.
TS: Aszure, you’ve worked with many companies in so many settings. How does working in Cuba with this company compare to other experiences?
AB: The Cubans exude a deep gratitude for being able to be dancers full time. In Cuba, everyone has said to me, “I absolutely love what I do!” I haven’t felt that as genuinely or to the same degree from other companies. There is an incredibly grateful climate of commitment in the studio, where we had four weeks. We started at 8 or 9 in the morning, and worked straight through until nine at night. The work was essential—not me, not them—but the work. We can get caught up in the roles we play, or the roles others assign us, and I was needing a break from that. I felt that I was at home with my own collaborators.
TS: Did it alter your thinking about ranked companies?
AB: I’m often working with ranked companies, and when I do, I am required to give casting very far in advance if I don’t cast the principals or soloists according to their established ranks, and that makes it difficult for me. In Cuba, we were there together, everyone respectful of everyone else as an equal. The work was the thing. It taught me that no matter how grateful I am to be hired, and I am, I no longer want to just take a gig for the sake of taking a gig.
TS: Fernando, how did working with Aszure affect the company as an ensemble? Where do you feel the company can go from here as a result of its work with her?
FS: I think that stakes are very high when you raise your standards and are ambitious in the right way, because you have to travel from that point to one further along. It’s a challenge you can take on via collaborations. In that respect, some collaborations are tactical. From this point on, your work has to have the quality of Aszure’s. It has to go further. This kind of challenge can happen at different points in your development—when your company is five years old, as Malpaso is, or at 20 years old, but you are very lucky when it takes place at an early stage.
AB: Another consideration is, “How then do you keep the integrity of Malpaso, and not become like all the other companies that perform Barton and other choreographers? How do you maintain your identity? We have to be respectful of the value of the company’s own work and persona.
TS: Are there openings in the dance world for the Malpaso choreographers to set work on companies outside of Cuba?
FS: Osnel Delgado (Founder, Artistic Director, and Choreographer) has been choreographing mostly inside but also outside of Cuba. When he was with Danza Contemporanea he choreographed a lot for them. Two years after the creation of Malpaso, Osnel was setting work on Zenon, a company in Minneapolis, and as long as he feels happy about it, that’s OK. There is, as you know from Ecclesiastes in the Bible, a right time for everything, and if he comes to me for advice, mine is that he has to focus on developing his own work, full-time, with the gang of his own dancers. It’s also good to explore beyond that group, and he has, and that is how he brought new people into Malpaso. And as Malpaso, we shouldn’t only talk about Osnel when we discuss choreography. Osnel wanted to develop his choreographic career outside of Danza Contemporanea. It may sound like a cliché nowadays, but he always hoped to develop a choreographic lab. He wanted to do that, but even though we’ve gotten busier and busier, we made the radical decision to give other company dancers, such as Beatriz Garcia, Abel Rojo, Manuel Durand, and Esteban Aguilar, opportunities to make work now or in the future, in an atmosphere where there is no pressure, with plenty of time, and space, as we are not a dance factory, and this is very important to their happiness as artists.
AB: They seem curious, and I would encourage them as much as possible. For example, Osnel will be setting a work on Hubbard Street, working with Robyn Mineko Williams.
TS: Is there a way to build a consortium of dance collaboration that breaks through the wall of isolation imposed by the US trade and travel embargo against Cuba?
FS: We have to be very honest with ourselves. I have to confess I have more in common with Aszure than with most Cubans, who are possessed of a clear vision, but based on narrow nationalism. That’s not who I am. I can’t be that. I have more in common with fishermen in Iceland than with my neighbors in Vedado (a well-tended Havana neighborhood). Oddly, I think that yes, that makes me deeply Cuban from a certain perspective of bridging with my sister souls. I can offer whatever tiny portion of Cuban culture lives in me the artist, in order to share with others, if it helps, if it proves useful to developing artistically, if it’s relevant in finding what is best in humanity. Working with US and North American companies and choreographers, offers more motivation. That conversation was disrupted long ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have it. I have to connect with my equals, my counterparts, and maybe a better understanding is a by-product of that connection, one we can share with American audiences, alongside the growth process I mentioned earlier.
AB: I think I was naïve in my expectation that Cubans would be very different. As it turned out, I felt the closest of connections with the people I interacted with during my time working with the dancers in Cuba!