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With great risk comes great reward, and the American Dance Festival crowd at Duke's Page Auditorium was the blessed beneficiary of the "malpaso" (Spanish for "misstep") that the Cuban Malpaso Dance Company took to get to this point. A comparatively young company, Malpaso took root in 2011 when Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana stepped away from the state-sanctioned Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in 2011. With the loss of government funding, and warnings from friends that it was a misstep, they took a giant stride right into the world of raising their own funds and nursing a new company into existence.
Malpaso joins the ADF like the new, exciting friend who jumps into your established social circle except in this case, trusted by the entire group from the very start. Page auditorium felt warm and cooperative with an unusual difference from other dance performances I've seen. The dancers did not hold congruent, stoic expressions like you'd expect in a formal stage production. I caught glimpses of individual smiles and playful expressions from Maria Karla Arajuo and Lisbeth Saad. Dunia Acosta gave us chills right before the end of her solo as she turned back around to us with a gradually increasing smirk as if winking under the glow of one single light bulb. Chills and amusement rose before the silence broke with applause.
The faint outlines of figures can barely be seen at the start of Aszure Barton's "Indomitable Waltz." Slowly and dramatically, each dancer is exposed by the piercing beam of Nicole Pearce's lighting design as dancers confront the cavernous range of the inescapable connections of humans in relationships. A line of four individual light bulbs hangs down the middle of the stage, all lit at the same time for the beginning of the piece, individually interacting with synced movements to eventually close with one final bulb illuminated. Simple and gorgeous piano-key chimes conduct timed staccato and fitful animal-like outburst movements. I caught glimpses of the Orishas (deities of the African Yoruba religion) that are often called out in salsa music that has a stronger Cuban influence.
The calculated musical selections of the entire evening really stood out, highlighting Malpaso's unique international collaborations and solidifying their own individual voice as a company.
The second work, "Ocaso" (Sunset), begins with ominous sounds of a thunderstorm, or maybe even space explosions with the musical selection "Parallel Suns" by Autechre, followed by a stressful and frantic selection by the Kronos Quartet that illustrates the relational conflict. "Max Richter's "Sunlight," highlights a tender violin piece that pulls the relationship to a close. Due to a last minute change, this performance was danced by Beatriz Garcia and Armando Gomez. Ocaso takes an intimate peek into an individual couple's relationship with emotionally-laden themes of a relationship evolution. It culminates with Garcia and Gomez seemingly swallowed by the darkness of Matt Miller's precise and powerful lighting as the entwined lovers leap horizontally in the air with barely enough time to witness the dancers' hands come together to close in a tight grasp before they fall to the darkness below.
After an intermission, the crowd eagerly awaited the rarely performed final piece, "Tabula Rasa," set to Arvo Pärt' song of the same name. Choreographed in 1986, it is Ohad Naharin's complicated yet simple emotional force narrating both the conflict and the empathy that stirs in societal relationships. Standout moments were many. First, Dunia Acosta as she runs to and from each dancer, constantly interrupted by another who swoops in to embrace the dancer she's running to. She's left alone, a witness to the coupling and confronted with her aloneness. This was the climax of the piece for me as I could hear empathetic moans from individuals in the crowd around me. This emotionally raw moment personified the feeling we all can relate in some way or another, whether at sunset of a relationship, being left for another, or just winding up as the last kid picked for the team. The most visually stunning moment occurs as the 11 dancers methodically emerge one by one from the side of the stage, swaying in unison as if the ticking of a clock or the marking of time by a metronome. The line eventually makes it the length of the stage until one dancer in the middle stops his sway, running into the dancer to his left. While the rest continue down the line to the right and off the stage, three dancers are "awakened" back into relationship with each other.
It's not often I see a performance that makes me feel like I'm watching something new, but I finally had that pleasure while watching Malpaso. Their works are very obviously grounded to the floor like Martha Graham, but simultaneously built on the backbone of ballet. Malpaso is able to nod to the classics while seamlessly incorporating Afro-Cuban social dance moves with a crispness that awakens the mind and soul, stirring new ideas about movement, dance, and the intermingling of social and individual relationships. Much like Pilobolus, Malpaso could execute any series of movements at the drop of the hat (and make it look easy), but I would never ask them to. I love the space between the notes as well: the glances, the longing expressed in drawn out movements, and the turmoil shown in the simple flick of a wrist, or the physical inhale and exhale of an emotion. Malpaso gives you time to contemplate what the themes expressed mean in your own life. Even when you don't know exactly what is happening, the clarity of the feelings starts to settle in, making each of these three pieces relatable in the most intimate and stirring of ways.
The collaborative effort that Malpaso adopted from day one is a perfect match for the ADF's collaborative spirit and the inclusion of festival programs like ADF Go, International Yoga Day, hOt sUmMeR pOp uPs!, post-performance discussion sessions, and the like. Malpaso fits right in. The company strives to incorporate a diverse collection of established and world-renowned choreographers and stage professionals while empowering emerging Cuban choreographers like Malpaso dancer Abel Rojo, who joined Malpaso in July 2016 and has since presented his first choreographic work "Carrying Floor" in Havana, Budapest, and The Joyce Theatre, which partners with Malpaso to bring Cuban culture to the United States. The Joyce covers the costs of commissioning new work from renowned choreographers and pays for costumes and lighting design. Since Malpaso relies on its own fundraising, grants from other U.S. nonprofits assist with cultural exchange initiatives as well. Since it is illegal for Cuban citizens to receive a fee or salary for their performances here, the grants help to at least provide a small per diem.
This program will be reeeated in the same venue on July 13. For details, see the sidebar.