Malpaso and the Black Hole

We went to see Malpaso Dance Company at the Allen Theatre on Saturday afternoon, part of this year’s American Dance Festival in Cleveland.

Malpaso began in 2012 when dancer / choreographer Osnel Delgado and dancer Daileidys Carrazana left the security of state-supported Danza Contemporanea de Cuba to team up with Fernando Sáez and embark on what many probably warned them would be a colossal misstep. It was risky but, as Sáez put it during the post-performance Q&A, “The blackest hole is the gulf between the proficiency of the dancers and the deficiencies of most of the Cuban choreographers.”

So, how deep is that black hole and who is filling it in with what? From what we’ve seen, sometimes U.S. choreographers seem to make a positive contribution and sometimes Malpaso’s own Cuban choreographers do just fine by their company.

The first dance in Saturday’s program, Face the Torrent (2017), was choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, a New York-based choreographer who has been much in the news. Just this month, she’s on the cover of Dance Magazine. Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which she choreographed, opened on Broadway. And next month she will be choreographing a world premiere for Fall for Dance at New York’s City Center. But she’s probably best known for her work as a choreographer for the television show, So You Think You Can Dance.

Face the Torrent begins with a foghorn-like blast from the rock and roll cellos of Seed/Stem/Calyx, a piece commissioned by Malpaso, written and recorded by Colette Alexander with The Bergsons, and remixed for Tayeh. It provides driving energy with a classical edge.

Stark lighting by Nicole Pearce reveals 8 dancers in a line upstage. They sloowly walk downstage. As they turn to walk back upstage they look back over their shoulders at us. As the line walks upstage and back down, one of the men breaks into serpentine movement, trembles, falls to the floor, is helped up by one of the women, and then variously lifts and supports her. Meanwhile the ensemble continues up and down stage until the end of this section when the man falls again and the ensemble backs away from him, leaving the stage.

It’s a dark and dramatic world we’ve stumbled into, one ruled by fear and paranoia.

Various trios, duets, and quartets follow, all partaking of the dark mood set at the beginning of the dance. The Malpaso dancers execute flawlessly. Eventually the ensemble forms the line again but this time all the dancers are twitching and looking up as if they’re dodging incoming. Shadows are cast. The line turns upstage but they look back at us. In the nanosecond before the stage goes black, we stand accused. Has Tayeh’s choreography earned this ending?

We confess to a certain skepticism about Tayeh’s work, but we wouldn’t go as far as Gia Kourlas did in     (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/arts/dance/pose-fx-dancing.html?searchResultPosition=2) a recent New York Times article when she complained about: “the nebulous contemporary or lyrical dance styles found on shows like SYTYCD.” And whatever reservations we have about Face the Torrent, it would be nice if Malpaso could attract even a small portion of the SYTYCD audience.

Face the Torrent was variously commissioned and sponsored by a long list of benefactors but thanks to DanceCleveland and Cleveland State University it was created in part during Malpaso’s 2017 residence here.

In Being (Ser) the three dancers – Dunia Acosta, Beatriz Garcia, and Armando Gomez – are dressed in white and variously embrace and support each other. These are superb dancers executing subtle, original movements and we happily watched them in what we saw as a technical exploration.

Did the choreographer — Malpaso company member Beatriz Garcia in her first choreographic project — use up-to-the-minute contemporary dance movements? Not always. Among other movement vocabulary in Being (Ser), the dancers performed spinal successions with their feet in parallel fourth position – “dolphin rolls” as they were known in the last century – and it didn’t bother us a bit.

The final piece on the program – and our favorite — was Tabula Rasa, a dance choreographed by Ohad Naharin in 1986. Tabula Rasa does not lend itself to specific interpretations, but it’s an emotionally rich dance packed with unconventional, technically challenging movements. There’s a lot of leaning, falling, and catching. Lines of dancers progress slowly in Tabula Rasa in much the same way as in Face the Torrent, so we wonder if both dances belong on the same program.

Naharin himself traveled to Havana to restage Tabula Rasa on the Malpaso dancers and they seemed so comfortable in the movement that we could easily have believed that we were watching Naharin’s own Batsheva Dance Company.

Malpaso Dance Company performed at the Allen Theatre on Saturday 8/10/2019, presented by DanceCleveland in collaboration with American Dance Festival in Cleveland.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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