Seeing Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company is like watching a newborn foal rise on spindly legs to find its footing. Young in both longevity and the age of its dancers, Malpaso is making a revolution within a revolution in Cuba, and winning hemispheric support in the process.
Its founding members are two veterans of Cuba’s Danza Contemporánea, Fernando Saez from Santa Clara, Cuba, and Osnel Delgado from Havana, as well as Daileidys Carrazana from Matanzas. Delgado, 30, is also its resident choreographer. A company of ten members, it picks up guest dancers when needed.
While the Cuban Ministry of Culture admires Malpaso’s work, its prior commitment to the major Cuban companies left the cupboard bare when Malpaso requested funds. So by needs, Malpaso became the first dance company on the island to rely exclusively on philanthropic support. It turned to the Ludwig Foundation, a German concern from Achen with a desk in Cuba. Now New York’s Joyce Theater Foundation has signed on, as has Toronto’s Sunny Artists Management, Inc. Collaborators such as choreographers Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre, and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble founded by Arturo O’Farrill, have lavished their uncommon talents on the company. When the company completes its nine-city tour of the U.S., it will return to Cuba to work there with Azure Barton, who will set a new work on the dancers. Among the U.S. cities Malpaso will have toured by the end of May are Cleveland, Seattle, New Orleans, Houston, Portland, Virginia Beach/Newport News, Boston, and New York, and it will appear at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this summer.
The Portland White Bird-hosted program opened with Delgado’s “Ocaso.” [Twilight] It’s a duet that begins with Delgado’s and Beatriz García’s backs to the audience, and involves a series of manipulations under and over arms, falls to the floor, limbs looped around each other, punctuated by long embraces, until the two dancers swing away from one another in more stagy displays of floor rolls, or mini barrel turns, which she is as adept at as he is. Delgado closes in on the floor, with a leg extended like a panhandle that drives the circle his body describes. As the music speeds up, García bounces up into wide-leg jumps in second position, and as it slows to a madrigal pace, Delgado lifts and sways her into a connotation of a softer surround. In a full-out gambol, he lifts her on one patch of his raised thigh while his foot is flexed. While there is a surfeit of hugging, the abrazos are very much in keeping with the work’s youthful spirit. As he grows, Delgado will learn to resist super-exploiting a good idea. For the time being, he is finding his vocabulary, and it is a new and welcome idiom in Cuban contemporary dance.
“Under Fire,” was gifted to the company by U.S. choreographer Trey McIntyre, set during the several weeks he spent with the company in Havana. Its inspiration came from McIntyre having burned personal documents in a bonfire, only to find that when the fire died out, his life’s record had been reduced to its traces. He saw the process as a metaphor for the successive flaying of layers of encumbrances to reveal who one really is at heart.
Reid Bartelme’s costumes have the women in black tulle overskirts that cover smoky teal, or brick leotards, seen under lighting by Al Crawford that lends a shadow aspect. Grandma Kelsey’s enchanting chalky voice solos make for a slow burn of a score.
The dancers break out of a cluster as if seeking air, with Manuel Durán executing a heat-packed solo with the strength, acuity, excitement, and polish of a veteran virtuoso. Granny Kelsey’s “Truth Is My Savior” seems to speak directly to this company’s brand, as well as to dancers throughout Cuba, whose pristine training points to a career rewarding a discernible vein of honest and committed work. The singer’s cadences ask for downward accents, with sturdily planted feet, such as those of Carrazana. Delgado’s long limbs extend the depth finding. The auburn-haired and similarly spiky-limbed Dunia Acosta dances a fiery solo that sends sparks flying when her helicopter arms forecast her purchase. An acrobatic duet by two men lights up the stage. A metronome-like adagio pas de deux follows, with Delgado lifting Acosta toward him mid-air, and then sliding her across his turned-out thigh, cradling her and flipping her over while parallel to the floor. This daring yet slow movement suggests the self-discovery moment which surfaces after everything extraneous has burnt to ashes.
To a 2/4 cadence, García and Acosta turn and lift each other, and then do low-to-the-floor turns, arms in a dropped first position. Acosta could be a sylph or a cane cutter by turns, and the transformations mesmerize you. Like creatures that come out of hiding after a natural event, such as a hurricane or flood, the dancers leap frog over one another, exploring their newly charged environs. They turn up as friends of Grandma Kelsey’s urgings, and partisans of the natural world.
The closer, “24 Hours and a Dog,” to a composition by Arturo O’Farrill played by the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, was the evening’s tour de force, especially forceful considering that it was in some places a challenging score to match steps to. The costumes emphasize the youthful profile of the company, the women wearing wide pleated skirts much in the style of Cuban girls’ school uniforms, but in muted colors with colorful jersey tops.
The combination of variegated musical themes and the street wear costumes by Erick Grass, lend a “day in the life” mood to the work, appropriate considering that O’Farrill composed the score in about 24 hours, during a quotidian day with his dog. Its opening solo with Delgado includes arpeggios over trills, a long descant and a caesura of complete silence. Osnel arches his back, not in the traditional cambré, but lengthened on an angle. He covers his partner, Maria Carla Araujo, who is stretched underneath, and parallel to him, then pulls his head and neck back. He reprises the floor circles with the one extended leg that we saw in his earlier piece. Steps go languid over the course of the descant. The most difficult moments for the choreography are when it goes more athletic, perhaps drawing on Delgado’s earliest days as a gymnast, but the accompanying music is staccato, forfeiting melody in favor of antic single notes.
A killer trumpet solo heralds a change in mood, and from that point on, the piece launches asteroid dancing that is the most innovative to issue from the Caribbean island in recent years. The Yoruba flavors meld with the jazz rhythms, and the dancers peel themselves like pieces of fruit filled to the brim with spiritual juice. Limbs are singing to Pachanga beats that I haven’t seen danced to like this in 50 years, before the Pachanga was generically rechristened and marketed as “Salsa.”
Malpaso, with its spiffily trained dancers, and its still coltish dancing, is not the Cuban company that has defensively perfected every breath and gesture to demonstrate the self-worth of its culture and revolution to a hostile capitalist-run world. On the contrary, Malpaso reaches out fearlessly, over the heads of handlers to its audiences. It is unfazed by the “corporate” culture. It’s the revolution within the revolution that so many have spoken about, that more often than not arrives first through the expressions of artists, and then bursts through its chrysalis so that the mariposa within emerges for all to admire and emulate along an unpredictable flight pattern.