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Cuba’s Malpaso Dances Its Way Into Cleveland Audiences’ Hearts Again


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Malpaso in Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz.” Photo by Judy Ondrey.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

While Cuba may only be 103 miles from the United States at its closest point, for many it is worlds away in its mystery as a land seemingly caught in time. So when Cuban contemporary dance company Malpaso returned to Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre (they previously performed there in 2016) for two free performances, that immense curiosity once again translated into packed houses to see them.

Sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation as part of their Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition, and presented by DANCECleveland as a launch to their 2017-18 season, Malpaso proved once again they are more than mere curiosity, they are a world-class dance troupe with a unique fusion of influences and styles.

Their program on June 3, began as their previous Cleveland one did with company artistic director Osnel Delgado’s 13-minute duet “Ocaso” (Sunset), set to music by Kronos Quartet, Max Richter and English electronic music duo Autechre.

As the stage lights came up on dancers Daile Carrazana and Abel Rojo they had their backs to the audience. Side-by-side, arms wrapped around each other they then walked toward the back of the stage like lovers out on a stroll.  At times, each dropped and dipped their body at the other’s side; perhaps a metaphor for the ups and downs common in a romantic relationship. This vision of a couple’s intimate bond played out throughout the duet manifesting itself in changes in the mood of the work, and in the emotions conveyed by the two dancers who were intently expressive in their happiness as well as in their strife in Delgado’s illustrative choreography.

Never straying far from each other’s touch, the dancers swirled around each other like milkweed seeds floating on a breeze. They embraced, leaned on each other and occasionally pushed themselves apart from the other at an energetic pace. From time-to-time that pace was broken by a dancer reclining on the stage floor such as when the tall, but surprisingly nimble Rojo, tenderly lowered mighty mite Carrazana to floor as if she had fallen into slumber.

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Malpaso dancers in Osnel Delgado’s “Ocaso.” Photo by Robert Torres.

Of the handful of works Delgado has choreographed for the troupe he co-founded in 2012, “Ocaso” is perhaps his most complete. With its engaging choreography, compelling narrative of a couple’s life together and adroit dancing, it was a wonderful lead in to the brilliance that was to follow.

Inspired by a transitional moment in choreographer/filmmaker Trey McIntyre’s life when he was burning stacks of old papers from his recently defunct Trey McIntyre Project, “Under Fire” created on Malpaso in 2015, had a cathartic feel to it to go along with McIntyre’s signature ease of movement.  A somewhat folksy mood pervaded the piece and like in choreographer Nacho Duato’s works, McIntyre’s innovative, contemporary dance-styled choreography seemed to glide atop a cultural foundation that felt much older in spirit.

The 22-minute work for 8-dancers, set to five songs by Boise, Idaho-based singer/songwriter Kelsey Swope (a.k.a. Grandma Kelsey) had Malpaso’s dancers moving about the stage interweaving with one another in patterns a la country-western dance.

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Malpaso dancers in Trey McIntyre’s “Under Fire.” Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

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Malpaso dancers in Trey McIntyre’s “Under Fire.” Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

In the opening section of the work, all eight of its dancers clustered into a group only to have several of them suddenly dart off the stage, leaving behind a smaller group of dancers to carry out a finely-crafted movement phrase. This pattern continued on with delightful invention several more times before a song change sent the dancers off in another equally delightful direction.  Most memorable were an athletic solo by Rojo and a powerfully moving duet performed by Delgado and dancer Dunia Acosta to an emotionally searing cover of Dolly Parton’s 1973 ballad “Jolene.”

The program closed with choreographer Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz” (2016), an exploration of the soul under extreme emotional circumstances. Set to an eclectic mix of music from composers Alexander Balanescu, Michael Nyman and Nils Frahm, the 26-minute gem was co-commissioned by DANCECleveland and the Cleveland Foundation.

Enchanted by what she saw as the beauty in the decay of Havana’s architecture, Barton created choreography for the dancers to reflect that. Broken ankle-like steps revealed a kind of ugly beauty.  Arms wriggled about, dancers hunched like apes traversed the stage in unison, rocking back and forth to the music in a dreamlike waltz and partnered group dances ended with half the dancers being caught in backward falls by their partners who cradled the back of their necks.

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Malpaso in Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz.” Photo by Judy Ondrey.

Throughout the work you got the sense of seeing images related to the dancers’ personal lives and of life in Cuba. Childlike playfulness, solemnness, and an overcoming of obstacles were all filtered through Barton’s quirky movement lens.

In the end, as with many of her works, one is left to marvel at Barton’s choreographic peculiarities. With “Indomitable Waltz” that sensation also came with a poignancy that touched the soul as well.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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Cuban troupe Malpaso makes its Pittsburgh debut


Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

By Steve Sucato

The members of Havana’s Malpaso Dance Company were still decades from being born when, 54 years ago, the U.S. enacted a trade embargo with Cuba. But the effects of that embargo have overshadowed their lives and the lives of other Cuban artists ever since. But while the two nations, separated by 90 miles of water, have been politically at odds for more than half a century, their arts communities have been more tolerant. Even before the recent news that the Obama administration was in talks with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, artists from both countries — including Malpaso just last year — had managed to overcome bureaucratic barriers to create cultural exchanges.

Malpaso’s performances this weekend, for the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater’s World Stage Series, are part of those efforts.

The non-state-sponsored Malpaso was founded in 2012 by Fernando Sáez Carvajal, Dailedys Carrazana and former Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancer Osnel Delgado. The 10-member contemporary-dance troupe’s name means “misstep” in English. The ironic name was inspired by naysayers who told Delgado it was a mistake to leave his popular former company to start his own. On the contrary, Malpaso shortly burst onto the world stage and attracted the attention of such international choreographers as Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre.

Kelly-Strayhorn executive director Janera Solomon says that the company’s Pittsburgh debut arose from a casual conversation she had last summer at an event in Chicago with Martin Wechsler, director of programming at New York’s Joyce Theater. “The idea of bringing a contemporary-dance company from Cuba to Pittsburgh just seemed like an immediate yes,” says Solomon.
Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

The challenge, she says, was financial. “We are not the Joyce,” says Solomon. But even for the Joyce Theater, finding partners to help defray the cost of bringing in international artists is critical. Embargo laws have kept Cuban artists from touring here by prohibiting American presenters from paying fees to them, instead allowing them to pay only a small per diem and travel expenses. Ironically, those same laws helped the Kelly-Strayhorn afford to bring in Malpaso. The theater still needed additional help, however, from area donors and from the Joyce, which handled much of the logistical legwork.

Malpaso has been well received so far in the U.S. Reviewing the troupe’s May 2014 show at the Joyce, for instance, New York Times critic Siobahn Burke wrote: “They have the pristine technique but none of the rigidity that comes with [ballet] training. … They’re both humble and sparklingly present.”

Pittsburgh will host the U.S. premieres of the two works Malpaso will later perform in Washington, D.C., the Joyce and the Jacob’s Pillow Festival. The first work on the program will be the latest by Malpaso artistic director Delgado, entitled “Despedida” (“Farewell”). The 28-minute piece, says Malpaso executive director Carvajal via email, was inspired by the short poem of the same name by Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. Malpaso’s dancers will perform a mix of contemporary ballet, modern dance and capoeira movement styles. Set to an original score by Grammy-winning Cuban-American musician Arturo O’Farrill, the poem speaks of intense longing, and having to say goodbye to a loved one. Carvajal writes the “personal circumstances of the choreographer and other members of the company” played into its creation.

The other premiere on the program is choreographer/filmmaker McIntyre’s 21-minute “Under Fire,” set to five songs by Boise, Idaho-based singer/songwriter Kelsey Swope, a.k.a. Grandma Kelsey.

The work, says McIntyre by phone from Durham, N.C., was inspired by the recent demise of his Boise-based Trey McIntyre Project. McIntyre burned stacks of old papers from the company in a bonfire in his backyard. He found that when he stirred the fire, it had burned only the outer edges of the papers and compacted them, “making them more perfect as a source of fuel,” says McIntyre.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Roberto Leon.

“I thought it was a really interesting metaphor for human life,” say McIntyre. “That in the process of trying to change our exteriors in some ways, it makes us more of who we are essentially in the ways that we are formed.”

For Malpaso and the Kelly-Strayhorn, the timing of this tour couldn’t have been better, with the recent and well-publicized thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

“The opportunity of revisiting one of the main sources of the Cuban modern-dance and ballet tradition, and continuing a conversation that was interrupted between cultures that are deeply interconnected, is important,” writes Carvajal.

Forming artistic relationships and reaching out to new audiences is something artists and presenters from both countries hope will be a lot easier in the years to come.

Malpaso Dance Company performs 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 27, and 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 28., Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $10-25. 412-363-3000 or kelly-strayhorn.org.

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper  on February 25, 2015. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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