Cuba’s MalPaso Dance Company Captivates the Joyce

A dynamic performance at the Joyce Theatre by Cuban contemporary dance company MalPaso had the New York audience on its feet applauding for more—awarding the young company a future of promise.

“Dance in Cuba is a social service, like medical care [prepaid by taxes],” said MalPaso choreographer and artistic director Osnel Delgado. MalPaso is one of the few dance companies that isn’t subsidized by the Cuban government.

“The government already sponsors a large number of diverse companies and has a long waiting list. We did not want to wait.”

Inspired to innovate fresh choreography, each of the ten MalPaso members resigned from the particular state-run dance company where he or she had secured a stable future as a dancer and independently formed MalPaso—their dream.

The dance company received help from friends, families, and The Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a non-governmental, non-profit organization that promotes contemporary Cuban artists plus international cultural exchange. Through the Ludwig Foundation’s work, MalPaso found its way to the Joyce stage, where it made its U.S. debut on May 27.

An Evening of Dance

The night featured performances resulting from a collaboration between MalPaso and Brooklyn-born choreographer Ronald K. Brown.

Delgado choreographed the first half of the program. Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog,” in which dancers reacted to an imaginary dog that bothered them as on a typical street in Havana. Delgado said this ensemble “stimulated his vision of modern urban life.”

Mexican-born GRAMMY award-winning composer and pianist Arturo O’Farrill composed the music for the piece and accompanied its performance with his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble.

Delgado entered the stage alone with head and shoulders slumped down in an expression of humility.  Following his slow entrance, Delgado’s sense of humor emerged as he stretched his long torso horizontally and undulated fluidly. He extended and lifted the ripple-effect through his long, lean-muscled limbs.  

Other dancers joined him as they filled the stage. The pace grew exhilarating. His dancing stood out as he whirled and leaped widely with precision.  More lyrically, he performed a duet he choreographed expressing love tenderly.

Every dancer executed a variety of professional techniques drawn from inside and out of contemporary dance with strength and flexibility.  Amazingly accurate, they remembered a speedy, plus challenging choreography.  

MalPaso’s co-founder Daile Carrazana Gonzalez excelled as she projected solid, controlled legwork and well-aligned body placement. She pushed and pulled passionately in a love duet with Delgado. Female dancer Dunia Acosta Arias shone expressing pure joy in dance, extraordinary freedom of movement and candid Cuban charisma.

The second half of the program introduced a more natural setting. Here Delgado portrayed a Yoruban god who opens “spiritual paths.”

The recorded music that Mr. Brown chose started with Belgian-Congolese singer Zap Mama and included a remix of the Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. 

The effect energized the dancing with clearer definition than conveyed in the more abstract “24 Hours and a Dog.”  During a more rural stage set, all the dancers rolled their shoulders forward with arms and palm open, plus knees bent as “folkloric” dancers in Cuba and Africa would.  With Brown’s choreography the New York audience could more easily distinguish fluid Cuban movement that transforms contemporary dance.

The audience related more enthusiastically to Brown’s choreography.  A full house stood up and applauded rhythmically and solicited an encore.

What does this difference in audience response mean for Delgado’s further development? “24 Hours and a Dog” relates weakly to the New York City dog who does not appear on streets unless leashed, per regulation.  NYC viewers perceive dogs less as “bother,” more as family.  Including such a contrast choreographically could ease entry into the Cuban experience that NYC audiences seek.

Delgado has demonstrated exciting possibilities for Cuba’s authentic contribution to contemporary dance. MalPaso has expanded its international appeal focusing on African roots with Cuban contemporary dance. Delgado has distinguished characteristically Cuban movements such as fluid torso and limb undulation and sway—moves that conjures up palm trees, island breezes, and rolling waves.

Fusing distinct contemporary and folkloric movements, MalPaso has increased its ability to relate its Cuban dance to NYC audiences for deeper and wider appreciation.

The Joyce presented, streamed and archived a Dance Talk on MalPaso, May 19. See under Education/Adult.

A Cuba native, Helen Peterson, is a journalist, poet and professional Flamenco dancer whose origins date to the Imperio family of Spanish dancers.  Her writing—English and Spanish—has garnered awards from Geraldine Dodge Foundations, and has been featured in prestigious international journals such as Mobius and interstate newspapers.