How a Cuba-based dance company brought its earthy athletic show to Dallas

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A report by Manuel Mendoza for the Dallas Morning News.

Dissatisfied with quality of the material they were performing, soloists Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana decided to leave Cuba’s leading modern dance troupe to develop their own choreographic voice. Friends told them it was a mal paso, Spanish for “misstep.”

Six years later, Malpaso Dance Company is in the midst of its latest U.S. tour, presenting work by Delgado and established North American choreographers Ronald K. Brown, Trey McIntyre and Aszure Barton. The group makes its Dallas debut Nov. 10-11 as part of the TITAS dance series.

Both accessible and sophisticated, Malpaso moves in a sensual, flowing style that emphasizes earthy athleticism. It will be recognizable to anyone familiar with American modern and contemporary genres that reference African and Afro-Caribbean dance traditions.

Key to the company’s success has been the resourcefulness of its third founder, actor Fernando Sáez, who moved into arts management in the 1990s. Sáez became steeped in cross-cultural collaborations with the United States when he joined the staff and board of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a private nonprofit promoting such exchanges.

“Any founding act in life has to do with responsibility and a deep sense of dissatisfaction,” he says in a phone interview from Minneapolis, where the company had performed the previous night. “We have the immense responsibility to not add garbage to this world. I wanted to have my own company to move us as far as possible into developing quality artistic work.”

Sáez was able to hook up Malpaso with the influential Joyce Theater, a prime New York venue for dance. It is now an associate company of Joyce Theater Productions, a collaboration between the Joyce Theater Foundation and Toronto-based Sunny Artist Management to present dance around the world.

So while Malpaso doesn’t have its own theater in Cuba and doesn’t perform in its home country as often as it would like, it has been trekking across the U.S. since 2015. Headquarters are at the Sephardic Hebrew Center in the Vedado section of Havana, where it has rehearsal space and puts on informal shows.

One of the first breakthroughs came in 2013 when the Joyce, the Ludwig Foundation and the Brooklyn Academy of Music supported a trip to Cuba by American black-dance pioneer Ronald K. Brown. Sáez says the Brooklyn-based choreographer auditioned 10 Cuban dance groups and chose Malpaso for the creation of Why You Follow, one of three pieces on the Dallas program.

“Ron Brown is the perfect match at first sight to work with a Cuban dance company because of his blend of American modern dance, African dance elements and Cuban dance components. Why You Follow is a celebration of life dealing with the the challenges that human beings are facing today. It’s a joyful and dramatic work that has been well-received by audiences in Cuba as well as the United States.”

The Dallas bill also includes Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz, another piece created for Malpaso, and Trey McIntyre’s Bad Winter.

Sáez says Waltz is a reflection of family difficulties that Barton was going through at the time she traveled to Cuba last year to work with the company. “I feel that the piece is an exploration of the human soul under extreme emotional circumstances. It’s a very refined and sophisticated work” developed through improvisation and collaboration with the Malpaso dancers.Malpaso in Aszure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz.

 

McIntyre donated Bad Winter, an existing work, to the company repertory after having earlier choreographed another piece, Under Fire, for the group. It turns out there’s a natural affinity between historical American dance and Afro-Cuban dance traditions.

McIntyre donated Bad Winter, an existing work, to the company repertory after having earlier choreographed another piece, Under Fire, for the group. It turns out there’s a natural affinity between historical American dance and Afro-Cuban dance traditions.

“It is so organic for Malpaso to take up the conversation with the American dance community because I wouldn’t be able to tell the story of Cuban ballet and Cuban modern and contemporary dance without dealing with a profound and old conversation with the American dance tradition,” Sáez says. “It is our responsibility as intellectual artists to be aware that we are defining on a daily basis what Cuban-ness is all about. It is a conversation between the legacy and contemporary life.”

He laments that relations between the countries’ governments may again be chilling. “It is absolutely a crime that we are hostage to political circumstances that are responding to cynical political ends,” Sáez says. “I wish this damage would only affect Malpaso and not Cuba as a whole.”

Plan your life

8 p.m. Nov. 10-11 at Moody Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St. $25-$75. 214-880-0202. attpac.orgtitas.org.

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