Dance Company Opening Doors Between Ole Miss and Cuba

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A report from North Mississippi’s The Local Voice.

Everyone can dance, sort of. Most everyone can square dance, cupid shuffle, or waltz, but to convey emotion in a way a musician or painter does with their chosen art form is a real talent. Jennifer Mizenkobegan dancing as a young child and now works with dancers and actors at the University of Mississippi.

“I have three brothers,” said Mizenko. “So, while this isn’t a very PC statement today, my mother put me in dancing school because she didn’t want me to walk and talk like a boy. I took to it, but the irony was that it wasn’t the ballet I took to it was the jazz and the more athletic. I’ve always been an athlete. It appeals to that part of me but also there’s the aesthetic aspect that sports don’t have.”

As part of her continued efforts to educate about the world of dance, she has put together a three-part program that will bring the talented Malpaso dance company to Oxford, Mississippi all the way from its homeland of Cuba. First the dance company will arrive in Oxford to work with students, then as part of a study abroad program Ole Miss students will travel to Cuba, and finally Malpaso will return in January to perform with the students at the Ford Center.

“The structure of the whole thing, I was really approaching it as they come to Oxford and get to know us in our space. They see our life and culture, then we get to do the same,” said Mizenko. “It’s creating that friendship and dialogue. Then of course the pinnacle is performing January 27 at the Ford Center.”

The idea for this endeavor was sparked while Mizenko was catching up with an old friend.

“Last year around this time I just got an idea,” said Mizenko. “I had no company in mind, no plan. I have a friend who does a lot of work in Cuba, Milly West. She’s brought Cuban artists to Oxford before and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we brought a Cuban dance company to Oxford? Then I got to work to see how I could make this dream a reality.”

Mizenko began researching Cuban dance companies to find one she thought would be a good fit for her vision.

“I found Malpaso, discovered their choreographer Osnel [Delgado], watched them online and in that process discovered that they are a hot commodity,” said Mizenko. “They perform all over the country. When they return to us they’ll be flying in from Joyce Theatre which is the pinnacle place where dance companies perform.”

Malpaso will initially arrive in Oxford November 12 and work with the university through guest lectures and workshops with students. The dance company will stand in for classes ranging from theater arts to political science.

“Beside the public events on the poster, the company is going into political science classes, honor classes, and modern language classes,” said Mizenko. “So all those sponsors you see are from me just going around asking [departments] if they were interested, and people got on board one at a time.”

Once the sponsors were lined up, all that was left was a commitment from Malpaso who were not concerned at all about arriving in the South but about being educators.

“My request of doing a class with the company was a little unusual and that took a pause [because they] hadn’t done anything like this before,” said Mizenko. “The hesitation wasn’t about coming to Mississippi at all but about [teaching] the classes. Even if I were to contact an American dance company they’d scratch their head a bit.”

More than anything about this project, Mizenko is excited for the relationships that will be built around Malpaso’s residencies in Oxford and her students’ trip to Cuba.

“I’ve just always been a believer in understanding other people, their culture, and their way of life,” said Mizenko. “I thought it would be really cool to open these doors between Cuba and Ole miss and to start a new relationship.

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