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Despite much political uncertainty, a Cuban dance company returns to NYC
Malpaso Dance Company does not waste time. Based in Havana, this adventurous contemporary troupe has evolved at lightning speed since it was founded a little over five years ago. By May 2014, Malpaso had its inaugural New York season at the Joyce Theater, and this week the company returns to the prestigious venue a third time. As with Malpaso's past Joyce runs, this five-day engagement includes the New York premieres of commissioned works by acclaimed North American choreographers, namely Sonya Tayeh's Face the Torrent and Aszure Barton's Indomitable Waltz.
Canadian dance-maker Barton arrived in Havana with a playlist of 50 possible musical options, and spent four weeks crafting her piece with the company. "I didn't want to be too fixed on an idea or make assumptions about the kind of work we'd be creating together before communicating with the dancers in person," she says. "We worked with no music for several days and discovered our dialogue. Then, as a response to the material that was manifesting, I slowly and quietly started playing with some different tunes. It was a heart-opening journey unlike any other commissioned collaboration I've experienced. Their commitment was unmatched."
Collaboration and commitment are what propel Malpaso, which has succeeded against all odds. The company was born when Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana decided to leave Danza Contemporánea de Cuba after eight years to start their own troupe with Fernando Sáez. It was quite the risk. "Everyone in Havana said to them, 'You're leaving a state-run company where you have your salary taken care of? This is a really bad step!'" says Linda Shelton, the Joyce's artistic director. "But they were driven to do this." The trio even showed their defiant enthusiasm by naming the company Malpaso, which translates as "bad step."
"I was trying to develop my choreographic voice and I didn't have enough opportunity to do that at Danza Contemporáne," says Delgado, who serves as Malpaso's artistic director and also performs. His duet Ocaso rounds out the Joyce program.
Shelton began traveling to Cuba regularly in 2000, and soon became familiar with the local dance scene. While the members of Danza Contemporánea impressed her, she recognized that "the rep wasn't up to date." When she brought that troupe to the Joyce as part of a 2011 citywide Cuban festival, she learned of the plans for Malpaso. Shelton and her staff have been actively involved with company's fortunes ever since, making Malpaso an associate company of Joyce Theater Productions, fundraising on its behalf, helping to facilitate its U.S. tours, and making connections with prominent choreographers such as Ron K. Brown and Trey McIntyre, who've both created pieces for the troupe.
"It's very difficult because we are the only independent contemporary dance company in Cuba," says Delgado. Sáez, Malpaso's executive director, concurs. "The whole fundraising adventure is very uncertain. It's a big obstacle and challenge, of course. We have been working hard to develop a network of friends, inside and outside of Cuba. In this sense, Joyce Theater has played a very important role."
The Joyce's unwavering support was urgently needed last fall when U.S.-Cuban relations took a contentious turn and left ten Malpaso dancers and two staffers stranded in the U.S. with nowhere to go in between tour engagements due to visa concerns. Happily, "a lot of presenters jumped in on short notice," Shelton says. With the Joyce advocating on their behalf, the company members found shelter and rehearsal space throughout December at Arizona State University in Tempe, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in upstate New York, and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The Los Angeles Music Center even donated winter clothing to the troupe.
During their stay at Kaatsbaan, the Merce Cunningham Trust arranged for a teacher to give the dancers workshops in the late choreographer's technique, opening a window to yet another style for these hungry and versatile artists.
After five weeks of being artistic vagabonds, Malpaso is excited to embark on the run at the Joyce, which is the troupe's artistic home away from home. But there's also a sense of unease due to the continuing issues between Cuba and the U.S.
"The exposure of the company in the U.S. has been very intense. More and more audiences are getting familiar with us," says Sáez. "But we have to explore how the future is going to develop under the new circumstances that may make it a little bit harder. The situation is complex at the moment. We hope to learn how to navigate through the circumstances and to move forward with our plans."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Malpaso Dance Company in Indomitable Waltz. Photos by Judy Ondrey.
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