A report by Helena Alonso Paisley for the Miami New Times.
Myth has it that a Cuban who doesn’t dance is a rare creature. You could live a lifetime without seeing one, like the endangered Florida panther.
“We come from a dancing island,” explains Fernando Sáez, founder and executive director of Cuban contemporary dance company Malpaso.
From Afro-Cuban ritual dances to classical ballet to cha-cha, the island’s dance tradition is among the richest cultural treasures to emerge from the Caribbean. With this Friday’s Arsht Center debut of Malpaso, Miami is about to be showered with some of those riches. Through sold-out runs at New York’s Joyce Theater and rave reviews for performances at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, this young company has already shown U.S. audiences that it is to ordinary movement what 18-karat gold is to dross.
Malpaso began as a leap of faith. Four years ago, dancers Osnel Delgado and Dailedys Carrazana quit soloist positions at the island’s oldest and most prominent modern dance company, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, to carve their own path. Their friends worried, warning them the move was a misstep, a malpaso, which could cost them valuable years of their budding careers. Delgado and Carrazana left anyway, eager to see their own artistic visions flourish in a way they could not in that hierarchical, state-sponsored bastion of their art form.
After two years of freelancing, the two joined forces with Sáez to create Malpaso, a new and inclusive voice in the dance world that unites choreographers, dancers, and creative ideas from around the world with their Cuban counterparts. Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce, which has been involved with Malpaso since its inception, noted that leaving the security of Danza Contemporánea took guts. “[Delgado and Carranza] were with a company that worked all the time, that was supported by the state, and they were giving all of that up to start their own, to show their own voice,” Shelton says.
They found a home base for rehearsals, classes, and community performances at the Jewish Sephardic Center in the Vedado neighborhood. The director offered them underused theater space at the center in exchange for creating opportunities for locals to become more involved in the arts through talk-backs and intimate performances there. This spirit of community involvement, Sáez says, is in keeping with the company’s core philosophy that all members should be equal participants in all aspects of the group’s operations, “from cleaning the floors when we arrive at the studios in the morning to fundraising and marketing.”
In addition to finding their own funding, Shelton notes that challenges for dancers in Cuba are different from the ones here. “I have brought down so many rolls of gaffer’s tape because they just don’t have that, to glue together the floor,” she says. “The material for costumes, their shoes… they don’t have any of that, so it has to be brought to them… But on the other hand, you know, you’re a dancer, that’s like being a doctor in Cuba, it’s so well respected. We just don’t have that.”
Malpaso’s growth has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2014, the group performed free for friends, family, and dance aficionados at Wynwood’s 200-seat Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. The leap to the 2,200-seat Knight Concert Hall is a ballsy move — modern dance is notoriously a hard sell in Miami. But just as a Cuban without cojones is nearly as rare as one with two left feet, no one should be too surprised at both the company’s and the Arsht Center’s bravura. Surely, Malpaso, with its fluid, sexy athleticism, can put the lie to the old saw that contemporary dance is too cerebral to be fun to watch.
These dancers’ gorgeous and glorious movement is all loose limbs and soaring extensions that sweep in high arcs over one another’s heads. The company’s ten members are mostly classically trained in Cuba’s premier national dance schools. Shelton says, “They do have this very basic ballet training, which to me means they can do anything. I would compare them to the level, in a way, of an Ailey dancer. They can do anything that’s put in front of them.” She notes that the two troupes share a common work ethic in addition to “really strong, strong training. They dance like they mean it.”
Sáez also notes that their foundation in classical ballet makes them “ready to change gears” to adapt to the styles of prominent choreographers from the United States who are itching to work with the dancers in the Havana. Those choreographers have already included Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre, both of whose work, in addition to Osnel Delgado’s, will be seen at the Arsht this Friday.
Shelton notes that the troupe’s reception in New York has been fabulous. “The word of mouth about how good the dancers are and the great show they put on, I think that gets out,” she says. Still, this is Miami, and the Arsht is a big hall. “It’s risky,” Shelton says.
But risk is in Malpaso’s DNA, and as Sáez points out, “Music and dance… are essential to the Cuban culture.” And that’s as true on one side of the Florida Straits as another.
8 p.m. Friday January 6, at the Knight Concert Hall inside the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $35 to $95. Free workshop at 7 p.m. in the Peacock Education Center at the Arsht.