It’s been a little more than a decade since Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana walked away from Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, where they were company members, to create their own independent troupe. With Fernando Saez, who brought business management and fundraising to the mix, together in 2012, they formed Malpaso Dance Company. In the decade since, the Havana-based company has grown into one of the foremost modern repertory companies in the world. Under the auspices of New York’s Joyce Theater Productions, Malpaso has built more than a foothold in the international contemporary dance scene by acquiring works from the likes of modernist iconoclast the late Merce Cunningham; Swedish choreographer Mats Ek; former house choreographer and artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company Ohad Naharin; and commissions from Rennie Harris, Aszure Barton, Trey McIntyre, and Sonya Taya to name a few. And simultaneously, both Delgado and Carranzana have been crafting works with an undeniable Cuban flair for the company.
In Washington, the troupe has danced at both Dance Place and the Kennedy Center. Wednesday, April 27, after a two-year-plus delay, Malpaso made its debut at the University of Maryland’s Kay Theatre, presented by The Clarice. Four pieces showcased the ten dancers’ drive, indomitable spirit, and unassailable technical abilities. From my own quick visit to Havana in 2015, I learned that Cubans generally are a creative and musical people. And, wow, everyone can dance. Saturday afternoons, music wafts from dance halls and community centers where couples gather to salsa and socialize.
Barton’s hypnotic “Stillness in Bloom,” choreographed in 2021, is a pandemic piece in the subtlest of ways. It doesn’t feel constrained — like a good-many “living room”-sized and -shaped dances that were made last year for video and small stages. Avant-garde California-based jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire created a score that sets the dancers off into currents of movement then pauses for times of repose. Clad in a variety of workout wear in bright swatches of color, two men skitter backward meeting at center as successive dancers join and fill the space with effortless swift currents of backward movement images of whirlpools and eddies transform the blank canvas of the stage with an ever-changing color palette. As the group effortlessly maps invisible channels in the space, the dancers exit leaving a quartet who together bloom into balances, a pirouette here or there, upper body tilts and arcs, as a moody cello accompanies. A couple remains, the woman dragging her partner, he pushing her in effort-filled counterbalances. As the up-tempo Mingus-esque jazz riffs return, the dancers fill the stage once more. “Stillness in Bloom” coils and unwinds like a Fibonacci spiraling sequence, and the dancers navigate the easy scoots and complex pattern shifts with aplomb.
The program opened with a stunning solo, “Lullaby for Insomnia” by Carrazana, danced by the incomparable Heriberto Maneses. Channeling all the fidgets and fussing we go through on sleepless nights, Maneses, bare-chested wore black shorts, stretched and twisted his body, one leg lifting head high, as his torso tilted off-kilter. The piano composition by Jordi Sabates was mood-filled accompaniment with a touch of Latin flavor. Stabbing moments contrast with gentle rocking and cradling. Reveries gave way to frustrations, and throughout Maneses’s simultaneously bold and soft attack, his ability to shape and mold the empty space was riveting.
Mats Ek’s “woman with water” from 2021 resembles an abstract Bauhaus painting come to life. Vivid colors from a lime green table and dancer Dunia Acosta’s vibrant tangerine shift dress contrast with Osnel Delgado’s dark suit and the bare stage. And there’s a splash of refreshment: a clear pitcher and glass of water. Danced to a score by Fleshquartet, Acosta’s lanky flexibility as she lifts her leg sky high or curves her back against the table edge continues the linearity of the stark green table. She carries the pitcher and glass, pours some water, and drinks. And repeats. Delgado appears as the interloper; in the end, Acosta has collapsed and is literally swept off by Delgado, push broom in hand.
The evening closed with Naharin’s 1986 “Tabula Rasa.” The choreographer created the piece for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre more than 30 years ago and spent time in Havana in 2018 teaching Malpaso’s dancers the work. There have been changes, as Naharin’s approach has changed as have the dancers. As well, the more formal costumes — slip dresses and slacks and puffy-sleeved tops for the men — have now become standard practice wear, t-shirts, leggings, or shorts for Malpaso’s dancers.
The mesmerizing opening, an accumulation of dancers performing a simple side-to-side sway and step sideways, feels both calming and captivating. Naharin favors simple floor patterns — dancers in straight lines, diagonals, or circles — on which he overlays a movement language he named gaga. Gaga demands deep focus and awareness from the dancers and absolute attentiveness to how their bodies move from the inside out, asking them to reach internally for motivation. The result is an often visceral, earthy sense of attack.
In “Tabula Rasa,” which was created relatively early in Naharin’s choreographic career, we can see him thoughtfully breaking down the standard and expected movement motifs of dance’s system to discover a more authentic driver for his own dances. Atop that initial sideways sway step, one dancer stops, interrupting the pattern, the sway. There are unison large group moments along with pairings and solos. Sometimes the repetitive music by Arvo Part crescendos and then it softens. Later, one couple is left alone on stage for a sensual physical duet. They contort and contract, one drags the other like a sack of potatoes, before the group returns in a flinging sequence of arms and runs circling the stage. The piece ends as simply as it began — a dancer alone curled into a fetal position. This “Tabula Rasa” suggests that we are all blank slates at birth.
Running Time: Approximately 100 minutes.
Malpaso Dance Company, an associate company of Joyce Theater Productions, played April 27, 2022, at The Clarice, Kay Theatre, University of Maryland, College Park, Md.