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Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company Returns to Cleveland with Program of Quiet Brilliance


MDC.Armando-Gomez-Beatriz-Garcia-Esteban-Aguilar-Daile-Carrazana-Lisbeth-Saad-Abel-Rojo-and-Osnel-Delgado-of-Malpaso-Dance-Company-in-Ohad-Naharins.Tabula-Rasa.Photo-by-Nir-Arieli-1152x759

Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Malpaso Dance Company
Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre
Cleveland, Ohio
August 10, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

With previous performances in Cleveland in 2016 and 2017, Malpaso Dance Company’s return this past Saturday to Playhouse Square and the Allen Theatre felt like seeing a dear friend again.

Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with American Dance Festival to close out the third annual American Dance Festival in Cleveland, the Cuban contemporary dance company this time offered up a triple bill of quiet yet emotionally riveting dance works.  

Their evening program began with choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s 2017 commissioned work, “Face The Torrent”.  Choreographed in part during a creative residency provided by DANCECleveland, the work , said Tayeh in a Facebook live interview, was inspired by her recent concerns over “the state of the world” and an urge to “unify, rally and gather.”

Best known for her choreography for Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! The Musical and her Emmy Award-nominated work on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, Tayeh brought some of that same rich emotional content that made her a darling of SYTYCD fans to “Face The Torrent”.

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Malpaso Dance Company in Sonya Tayeh’s “Face the Torrent”. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

Danced to music by cellist/composer Colette Alexander with folk duo The Bengsons, the 20-minute piece for 8 dancers began with the cast in a horizontal line across the back of the stage moving in a slow cautious walk forward evoking a feeling of impending doom in their demeanor, one that Tayeh says she incorporated into the work after having intense dreams of a huge body of water coming at her.  

Led by dancer Abel Rojo who appeared particularly struck by whatever dark forces were descending on the dancers, Rojo often broke from the dancers’ unison walks in lines across the stage to sink into pained cowering with his arms shielding his face and head.

The dancers’ straight line walking then gave way to embracing and intertwining movement with the cast pairing off in male/female couples as Alexander’s haunting cello music became invaded by distorted whispers of a female voice saying “I wonder how to cope with this?” Tayeh’s velvety partnered movement in this section was the picture of beauty and melancholy and Malpaso’s dancers radiated both. Stark, dramatic and carefully-crafted, “Face The Torrent” left a lasting impression.

Next was company dancer Beatriz Garcia’s debut work for Malpaso, “Being (Ser)” (2018). The 12-minute trio set music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso was danced by Garcia, Dunia Acosta and Armando Gomez.

05_Malpaso_Being (Ser)_Photo by Nir Arieli

(L-R) Malpaso Dance Company’s Armando Gomez, Dunia Acosta and Beatriz Garcia in Beatriz Garcia’s “Being (Ser)”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Costumed in all white and dancing in socks, the trio of performers spent the first part of the work repeatedly traversing the stage in idiosyncratic solo movement phrases that entered from one side of the stage and exited the other.  Those solo riffs then turned into duets and a trio as the work progressed. Garcia’s contemporary dance choreography favored movement that bent and twisted the dancers’ shoulders and torsos, and like “Face The Torrent”, had the trio bunching and intertwining their bodies in close-quartered movement phrases. The work was a fine effort for the promising choreographer that fit right in with the style and quality of the works in the company’s diverse repertory. One hopes to see more from Garcia as choreographer for the company in addition to her adroit dancing.

The program then closed with another thoughtful and atmospheric work, Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”, set to music of the same name by composer Arvo Pärt.

Created on nearby Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1986 (and who inexplicably haven’t performed it in over 20 years), the over 30-year-old, 30-minute modern dance piece whose title means “clean slate”, felt like a newly-minted work on Malpaso’s 10 dancers who appeared to own the former Batsheva Dance Company director’s “gaga” movement language as if it were a part of their upbringing.

MDC.-Osnel-Delgado-Beatriz-Garcia-Maria-Karla-Araujo-Esteban-Aguilar-and-Fernando-Benet-of-Malpaso-Dance-Company-in-Ohad-Naharins.Tabula-Rasa.Photo-by-Nir-Arieli-1152x759

Malpaso Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa”. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Naharin’s simply structured unison movement phrases for the work full of leans and sways was an adept counterpoint to Pärt’s passionate string music that tore at one’s soul with a desperate longing.  And while Naharin’s clever choreography did not parallel the music’s aching, the choreographer did incorporate into it a few heartbreaking moments. One such scene had the dancers pairing off with one dancer charging into the other’s arms in desperate embraces. Ms. Acosta made such a charge only to have her male partner turn his back on her at the last moment causing her to crash to the floor stunned and dejected.

“Tabula Rasa” is prime example of Naharin’s early genius as a choreographer. A precursor to his often performed masterwork “Minus 16” (1999), it is itself masterful and was a fitting closer to Malpaso’s program that wowed the Allen Theatre audience with its emotion and exquisite music and thoughtful dancing. A standing ovation was given from the appreciative audience signaling a hope that Malpaso will continue to make Cleveland a regular stop on future U.S. tours.

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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