What Comes Next for Cuban Modern Dance?

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An article by Brian Seibert for The New York Times.

Idania Wambrug teaches dance in a capacious, brick-vaulted studio with so much light streaming down from high windows that it almost feels like an outdoor pavilion. It’s the same studio where she was a student in the 1960s, and over the years, all that natural light has been helpful when the electricity has gone out.

The studio is in the National School of Dance here in Havana, part of the National Arts Schools, an avant-garde architectural project conceived not long after the 1959 Cuban Revolution but never completed. What Ms. Wambrug teaches comes from that time as well. With a mandate from the revolutionary government, the Cuban choreographer Ramiro Guerra created “técnica cubana,” a hybrid of American modern dance — the language of Martha Graham, José Limón and others, which Mr. Guerra had studied in the United States — with ballet and Cuban tradition, both Spanish and African.

For a dance-cognizant visitor from the United States, watching a class in técnica cubana is heady: very familiar and then suddenly not, as torsos contracting in Graham style turn ultra-sinuous, ultra-African, or a standard ballet exercise swerves into the gestures of an Afro-Cuban god. Yet the alloy is coherent and potent. It’s a great, under-recognized invention that develops dancers of extraordinary strength with the agility to manage all of its wild twists.

Still, técnica cubana can seem rather like the 1950s Chevys famously still cruising Cuba’s streets: gorgeous, miraculously maintained, way behind the times. (Cuban ballet, better known and also better funded by the state, is even more trapped in amber.) Information about dance, in the form of videos or visiting choreographers, is easier than automobiles to get through a blockade, but traces of developments in American modern dance from the last 40 or 50 years, though present, are scarce here.

Like everything else in Cuban-American relations, that may now be changing. And the dance-maker taking the most advantage of the changes is Osnel Delgado, Ms. Wambrug’s son.

Mr. Delgado studied tuition-free at the National School of Dance, as did both his parents and as do most professional modern dancers in Cuba, unless they train at one of the island’s excellent ballet schools. After he graduated, he joined Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, the country’s foremost modern dance troupe, founded by Mr. Guerra in 1959. In 2011, the company made its first United States tour. Mr. Delgado’s performance at the Joyce Theater in New York was a moment of triumph, but at 25 he had already decided to break off on his own as a choreographer. Everyone told him he was making the wrong move.

On Tuesday, he returns to the Joyce — for the third time in three consecutive years — with his own company. It’s called Malpaso, which in Spanish means “misstep.” His wrong move came at the right time.

“What Obama and our president just did, Malpaso has been doing for a while,” Mr. Delgado said after a recent rehearsal in Havana, just a month after President Obama’s visit. He and Malpaso were back home after a busy spring touring the United States. Soon they head north again for more tour dates, a schedule no other Cuban troupe can match.

When Mr. Delgado first formed Malpaso with Fernando Saez, a friend and a savvy administrator with the Ludwig Foundation, they applied for government funding. When they were told it was unavailable, they went ahead anyway, becoming one of very few Cuban troupes not reliant on government money.

When the Joyce sent the renowned American choreographer Ronald K. Brown to Havana in 2013 to create a work for a Cuban troupe of his choosing, Mr. Brown picked Malpaso. The piece he made shared a program with one by Mr. Delgado at the fledgling company’s United States debut, at the Joyce the following year.

The year after that, Malpaso returned to the Joyce with a new dance by another prominent American choreographer, Trey McIntyre. Now it’s bringing “Bad Winter,” an older work that the smitten Mr. McIntyre has presented to Malpaso as a gift.

Partly a fluke of timing, this engagement with the United States has become central to Malpaso’s mission, setting it apart from other Cuban troupes, of which there are a surprising number. It offers American presenters something Cuban along with something more familiar, as Mr. Delgado and his dancers absorb American influences.

For decades, the main outside influence on Cuban dance has come from Europe. That can be seen in DanzAbierta, a troupe that will make its New York debut on May 14, following Malpaso in the Joyce’s 12-day festival of Cuban dance. Marianela Boan, who founded DanzAbierta in 1988 and who has since moved to the Dominican Republic, believed in what she called “contaminated dance” and drew heavily on European dance-theater, like that of Pina Bausch.

Her aesthetic has been furthered by Susana Pous, a Spanish choreographer who has directed DanzAbierta since 2008. Her works, collaborations with Cuban visual artists and musicians, are, she said, about “the problems of Cuban life, more than just pretty dance.” Many of Ms. Pous’s pieces — like “Showroom,” which DanzAbierta is bringing to the Joyce — address and resist exotic stereotypes of Cuban dancers still promulgated by tacky tourist cabarets.

An ambivalence about Cuba’s dance heritage is expressed more intensely in the choreography of George Céspedes, one of Danza Contemporánea’s most prolific homegrown talents. His recent pieces seem to tamp down on the dancers’ virtuosity and sensual pleasure, to be about a Cuban body struggling within a dour, oppressive conceptualism.

In person, he’s refreshingly frank. While many Cubans respond to questions about how Cuba is changing by rolling their eyes, Mr. Céspedes says that maybe his grandchildren will see change. Having started an independent company three years ago, he’s trying to get back into the government-funded system. It’s too hard, he says, to survive outside.

Mr. Delgado, whose company is surviving and who may find a different path forward through American models, is somewhat concerned about Cuban dance losing its identity — buffeted by European influences and now by the coming flood of tourist money and what kind of dance that might encourage. He can sound a lot like a modern-dance choreographer in New York (who would envy his free dance education and health care): pining for a bigger audience, longer runs and a permanent space to work. He wishes he had a place to host a choreographic lab, “which we really need in Cuba,” he said.

The most recent policy changes announced by the Obama administration mean that presenters in the United States, previously restricted to providing only travel expenses and per diems, will soon be allowed to pay Cuban companies like Malpaso to perform. But this improvement has already generated controversy about how the Cuban government may tax that income — one of many examples of the bewildering legal and economic limbo in which a group like Malpaso has to operate.

Meanwhile, Mr. Delgado is doing what modern choreographers do, trying to develop his own way of saying what he has to say. A ballet class is part of Malpaso’s everyday training, but not any classes in técnica cubana. “That technique is our base, my blood” he said, “but we don’t dance like that.”

Recently, many of the Malpaso dancers gathered in a restaurant that one of them had opened, a source of income that would have been unlikely before restrictions loosened in 2010. With them was Isidro Rolando, a man with five decades of experience as a dancer, teacher and choreographer for Danza Contemporánea. He taught Mr. Delgado’s parents. He recalled the importance of the company in establishing the legitimacy of Afro-Cuban culture. “We created things of value,” he said ruefully, “but they will probably disappear.”

Mr. Delgado rose from his chair and physically quoted a bit of Mr. Rolando’s choreography. His attitude was respectful and affectionate, but it didn’t contradict what Mr. Rolando had said.

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