MalPaso Dance Company is a product of an evolving Cuba, finding its way, looking out at the world beyond the island. The ten-member ensemble was founded just a few years ago by two former members of a more established troupe, the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. Several of its dancers trained at the Escuela Nacional de Ballet, and this training shines through in their high extensions, pointed feet (when required) and pristine, powerful jumps. In short, it’s a strong group, full of potential; add to that the appealing diversity of body types and skin tone and the highly individualized quality of the dancers’ movement.
Last spring, the company prsented a new work commissioned from the New York choreographer, Ronald K. Brown, a superb craftsman with a knack for combining Caribbean, West African, and American club dance. The dance he created, “Why You Follow,” fit them like a glove. But repertory is tricky. The double-bill the company is currently performing at the Joyce, though appealing in parts, does not make a satisfying whole. The first piece (Under Fire), a new work by the Boise-based Trey McIntyre – who recently shut down his own ensemble – feels as if it might have been made for just about any company, including his own. The second (Despedida), by the company’s co-founder, Osnel Delgado, shows the company to better advantage and certainly makes better use of the music, a jazz suite by Arturo O’Farrill, played live by his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. But, despite the dancers’ lush movement style, Despedida is ultimately too conventional a work to really set the company apart. They deserve better.
Another problem is the overlap in subject matter, both pieces dwell upon the vicissitudes of individuals within a larger group: solitude, coupling, the urge to connect. Like so many of McIntyre’s dances, Under Fire evokes a kind of specifically American suburban adolescent anomie. The feeling is underscored by the indie-rock vocals of Boise-based singer-songwriter Grandma Kelsey: keening, folksy, hyper-sincere in a Fort-Green-coffee-shop kind of way. A program note explains that the flames of the title refer to a bonfire the choreographer built with all the old papers that had piled up over the course of his life. But what does this have to do with the Cuban dancers of MalPaso? The choreography falls squarely in McIntyre’s busy, momentum-driven, ricocheting style, with little, if any, acknowledgement of the specific training and qualities of the dancers before him. It’s a perfectly good – if, for my taste, over-busy – dance, but it feels like a lost opportunity.
Despedida takes its title from a short Borges poem about solitude and separation. The central character in the dance, Osnel Delgado (also its choreographer) is a lonely figure who crosses paths with a series of couples, each time attempting to work his way between the lovers and forge his own connection. One by one, they push him aside. “El mar será una magia entre nosotros,” reads one line, “the sea will be a magic force between us.” The dancers’ bodies, too, form a kind of current, rolling here and there across the stage, a nice image. The choreography melts, slides and spins; the dancers do lush backbends and capoeira-like dives to the ground. There is a fine solo for Dunia Acosta, a powerhouse dancer with a particular fierceness, and a slow, tensile pas de deux for Tahimy Miranda (striking with her shaved head) and Joan Rodríguez.
But in the end, neither the music nor the dance amount to much; there are no surprises, no structural or musical complexities to sink one’s teeth into. It’s bland. Let us hope that, with the new easing of tensions between Cuba and its northern neighbor, MalPaso will get what it needs: more exchange of ideas, more confidence, and an opportunity to try its hand at choreography with a bit more substance.