Going There with Malpaso
Last July, as I wrapped up the presentation of my book “Fernando Alonso, el padre del ballet cubano [Fernando Alonso, the father of Cuban Ballet] on the patio of the Cuban National Ballet Company’s Havana studios, a friend I’d made several years ago approached the podium. Usually easygoing, Malpaso Dance Company’s Executive Director, Fernando Saez, wore an urgent expression. After an exchange of hugs, he asked, “Would you be willing to write a book on the history of Malpaso for our tenth anniversary season?” I didn’t hesitate even a second. “Yes, of course! It would be my great pleasure!”
Eight months later, I find myself on beautiful Victoria Island, in Canada’s West Coast province of British Columbia. I am seated in the sheltering house of the Royal Theatre, watching a tech rehearsal for Malpaso’s first two-night appearance here, made possible by the Joyce Theatre Foundation. As I listen and watch, I think back to the first time I saw the company. It was in Portland, Oregon, some eight years ago, when company choreographer Osnel Delgado mounted his “Dreaming of Lions,” with a score by jazz great Arturo O’Farrill. I reviewed Malpaso a second time in Los Angeles, when it debuted Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz,” and then again, after company choreographers Daileydis Carrazana and Osnel Delgado collaborated with Chicago’s Hubbard Street to set work on that company, and then brought Hubbard Street’s Robyn Mineko Williams’ work “Elemental” to Beverly Hills. This company, which named itself after the Spanish word for “misstep,” has, ironically, never taken a backward one in its ten-year history. During its Victoria season, it would perform four works, one Carrazana, and three others by Barton, Sweden’s Mats Ek (who years ago, suggested that Delgado and Saez start their own company), and Israel’s Ohad Naharin.
Referring to itself as “family” might seem a bit precious for an 11-member company. In the United States, cutthroat competition in ballet schools and companies large and small, can implicate the kind of family values that most of us would prefer to avoid. In Malpaso’s Cuba, however, there truly is a different approach to collegial relations between dancer: It promotes them. The company is only as good as its weakest member and it’s every dancer’s responsibility to help that dancer strengthen his or her “condiciones”—their physiques—as well as their artistic purchase on the work they are performing. Malpaso refers to itself as a family in the best sense of the word, where helping each other through the hard stuff—including tough times imposed by the US economic blockade—is the dominant value and most precious asset the company shares as a working body. Pedigrees from the more cosmopolitan schools carry little weight there. I found myself in conversation for an hour with two dancers from Guantánamo—one of who, Osvaldo Cardero, participated in a competition in Havana three years ago, and was invited to join Malpaso on the spot. He is one of its strongest and most versatile members.bit
The company’s secret sauce results from doing the opposite of George Balanchine’s admonishment to his (female) dancers, “Don’t think, dear,” which just happens to be the title of new controversial book by Alice Robb. [“Don’t think, dear, do!” is reportedly the full Balanchine quote.] Malpaso’s dancers “do” and do what they do masterfully, fearlessly, and inventively, but this is also a company whose members do no work without first giving it a good think.
Dunia Acosta, for example, could not dance the beat-by-beat exquisite work required by Mats Ek’s “Woman with water” without putting her thinking cap on to both interpret the symbolism and a set of distinctive combinations in the piece. Company Artistic Director Osnel Delgado, could not dance Daileydis Carrazana’s “Lullaby for Insomnia,” in shin-high bulky boots, without a creative yet emotive schematic to guide his brain through a labyrinthine solo on a dimly lit stage. Who knows? Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz” may have been in part been inspired by traffic patterns in Grand Central Station, and the dancers somehow make ten of themselves look like fifty, as they do in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa.” However similar those two pieces may appear to be structurally, they gain their individuated moods and social resonance from the dancers’ athleticism—certainly—but the fine tuning that leaves the Malpaso stamp on the evening comes from the undeniable cerebral contribution of each and every dance artist. They come prepared with all of it not only in the ligaments, muscles, and bones, but in each and every archival cerebral fold.