Review: Malpaso Dance Company at the Kennedy Center’s “Artes de Cuba” Festival

Make no mistake about it, there were no missteps in the lusciously agile performance of the Malpaso Dance Company at the Kennedy Center on Friday night. The company has been growing strong since 2012 and performed for the first time at the Kennedy Center as part of “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World,” the Kennedy Center’s current two-week festival focused solely on the richness of Cuban art and culture.

Malpaso Dance Company performs 24 Hours and a Dog. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Malpaso Dance Company performs 24 Hours and a Dog. Photo by Bill Hebert.

With a growing reputation as a world-class international modern dance ensemble, Malpaso fully embodied the notion of collaboration in a program of three evocative works choreographed by Aszure Barton, the Brooklyn-based Canadian ambassador of contemporary dance, and Osnel Delgado, Malpaso’s Artistic Director, founder, choreographer and dancer.

Malpaso’s story is an interesting twist on what friends tell you and what your heart knows to be true. When dancers Daileidys Carranza and Osnel Delgado decided to break from the state-sponsored Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in 2011 to found an independent modern dance company, friends told them they were making a “misstep” (malpaso) to risk government funding and take on the perils of having to raise money to start and to keep a new troupe up and running.

But fear did not contain their need to break loose and mount a new contemporary dance company that had a global outlook and a more collaborative approach to working with international artists.

Havana-based contemporary dance company Malpaso—whose name, jokingly, means “misstep” in Spanish—skillfully blend unfussy ballet, their native Afro-Cuban tradition, and intensely physical modern dance. Photo by Judy Ondrey.

Havana-based contemporary dance company Malpaso—whose name, jokingly, means “misstep” in Spanish—skillfully blend unfussy ballet, their native Afro-Cuban tradition, and intensely physical modern dance. Photo by Judy Ondrey.

Enter Joyce Theater Productions, based in New York City. An Associate Company of Joyce Theater Productions, Malpaso Dance Company is actively bringing the uniqueness of Cuban culture to the United States through Joyce Theater’s generous support and ongoing commitment to artistic exchange.

Aszure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz is a graceful etude in human flow. The piece moves you through the full range of human emotions and what they look like when they express in passionate extremes. Dancers glide like milk and honey streaming between bodies in seamless connection. There are no separations as the parts become the whole.

The easy fluidity and beautifully smoothe changes in positions deeply imprint the subconscious narrative of this elegant work. Dancers move to new highs or emotional lows with vertebra-by-vertebra flexing spines, swiveling hips, whole-body roll-ups, shivering shoulders or exuberant somersaults, jumping like Maasais in joy or sadness and every human emotion in between.

Distant strains in minor keys by the Balanescu Quartet and Nils Frahm add a melancholy element while Nicole Pearce’s dark mood lighting frames the dancers in moments of intentional connection or asymmetrical knees and arms in seemingly awkward agitation. As if needing to give or receive support from the buffeting winds of change, the final tableau depicts two dancers simply walking away from it all holding hands–in resolved acceptance–as the lights go down.

Malpaso is a company of technically strong, athletic dancers – the males and the females. Their muscular, toned bodies were unadorned in simple black leotards or bras with tight tank tops in Indomitable Waltz. Fritz Masten’s unflashy costuming adds a dramatically simple statement to the complexity of the human experience as danced by all ten dancers of the company in this lushly appealing work.

In Ocaso (“Sunset”), Osnel Delgado, who danced his own choreography along with the gorgeous Beatriz Garcia, performs a sensitive duet emoting the ups and downs of intimacy in relationships. Galactic-sounding, thunderous music by Autrechre, Kronos Quartet and Max Richter pierce the sound barrier as the couple moves in swan dives to the floor only to be lifted up holding hands or embracing in sensuously supportive clinging or synchronized backbends in response to an emotional crisis.

Malpaso Dance Company performs 24 Hours and a Dog. Photo by Bill Hebert,

Malpaso Dance Company performs 24 Hours and a Dog. Photo by Bill Hebert,

A day in the life of 10 dancers in Havana in 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite) looks very much like the street games played out in barrios that could be just about anywhere. I felt a palpable connection with the jazzy-cool, upbeat youthfulness of 24 Hours and a Dog.

Osnel Delgado, who marvelously takes the lead dancer role, choreographed the piece in collaboration with Malpaso’s dancers. It’s a zinger of a work with its brightness, energetic hopefulness, boy-meets-girl innocence and street-smart pop. Flirty schoolgirl-style pleated skirts and tights on the girls with street punk trousers on the guys by designer Eric Grass brought back a feeling that linked my memories to the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story fame.

Jazz hands and tango back-flip high kicks mix genres between Fosse-like Broadway panache and Last Tango’s Latin flirtation. Floor rolls and deep dives seem to be a repetitive element in Delgado’s choreography, and they evoked the same buoyant feeling with similar moves that I enjoyed in Ocaso.

Popping, bopping, with head rolls and the fast fury of Arturo O’Farrill’s swinging music as recorded by The Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble give a playful mood to the company’s synchronized straight-up high jumps in 24 Hours and a Dog. Head-to-head or shoulder-to-shoulder, the whole ensemble grooves together with outstretched arms and acrobatic somersaults or hulks along in deep-knee crouches with On the Town fun.

Al Crawford’s colorful lighting in vivid fuchsias or blue-green brilliance bathes the space with a vivacious quality lending value-added to the dancers’ fast-paced, nonstop energy. Not to forget that we are looking at a day in Havana, a samba rhythm adds Latin grace to this jazzy piece.

Malpaso Dance Company seems to be on a high. Their contribution to the “Artes de Cuba” festival infinitely expands the notion of what Cuban culture can be when it reaches out beyond its shores — from the island to the world — and embraces the unlimited potential of dance in its many-splendored forms.

Running Time:  One hour and 45 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

Malpaso Dance Company played May 11-12, 2018, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The “Artes de Cuba” Festival runs through May 20, 2018. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324 or go online.

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