Malpaso Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

January 17, 2018
Indomitable Waltz, Ocaso, Face the Torrent

— by Jerry Hochman

Malpaso is a curious name for a dance company.

The program notes are silent as to the genesis of the name Malpaso Dance Company, the Cuban contemporary dance company that opened its five day engagement at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday, but it bears no connection to the names of any of its founders, nor does it appear to be a particular location in Cuba. In Spanish, Malpaso means “misstep” or “bad step,” or in some situations “bad road” but these translations don’t apply to the company’s Joyce program, which included the New York premieres of Aszure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz, Artistic Director and Co-Founder Osnel Delgado’s Ocaso, and Face The Torrent, choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. There wasn’t a bad step or misstep that I could discern, and although the company apparently has had some touring difficulties arising from immigration issues, this has nothing to do with its name.
Nevertheless, and as good as the choreography and the dancers’ execution was, the program as a whole left me longing for something positive; something to make me want to see this group again. Instead, with one exception, and notwithstanding the sense of humanity and the human spirit that seemed to be the central concern of all three dances, the program left me cold and uncaring, with an occasional smile but little emotional connection with what was happening on stage.
The exception was the middle piece on the program, a pas de deux that Delgado danced with Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder Daileidys Carrazana. Created in 2015, Ocaso, which, translated, means “sunset” or “decline” [I appreciate the opportunity to expand my high school knowledge of Spanish], tells of an evolving relationship. That’s nothing new, but here it takes place in the context of what appears to be a world in decline, or worse, following some sort of catastrophe. Coupled with Delgado’s curiously interesting choreography and the equally curious lighting design by Matt Miller, this is a pas de deux that eventually overcomes its overbaked beginning and, maybe for that reason, exceeds expectations.
At its outset the dancers are downstage center with their backs to the audience, leaning toward each other as they face what appears to be a darkening, multicolored sky. But this isn’t just a sunset; it seems more a representation of a cataclysm of biblical, or at least cinematic, proportions. The sound (the initial music is Autechre’s Parallel Suns, from its 2008 album “Quaristice”) is loud, piercing, spacey, portentous, and “doomsday percussive,” giving the dance an atmosphere that is considerably more negative than, say, the sun sinking on at the end of a beautiful day. As the dance unfolded and the dancers moved upstage, I felt that they may have been the last couple on earth, left stranded on a beach as if they were survivors of a nuclear war. [Yes, the allusion to the 1959 film On The Beach is intentional.] The sense is augmented by Delgado’s initial choreography, which appears staccato, angular, and mechanical – as if the dancers (he in particular) had emerged from a cocoon or awakened from a dark dream.
It’s an unfortunate way to have begun the piece (or, in hindsight, maybe the beginning made the rest of the dance look better), because after that initial darkness and despair, this pair survives and their relationship grows, perhaps as a sort of Adam and Eve, perhaps not, but it doesn’t matter. What follows (to an excerpt from Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and Max Richter’s Sunlight), is tentative and touching and…somewhat primitive. They cope, and gradually they’re no longer victims, but survivors, relishing their developing relationship. The doom becomes playful, romantic (but there’s little in the way of sensuality), and hopeful. And Delgado’s choreography evolves during the dance also. There’s still contemporary angularity, but there’s also lyricism, and the stylistic interplay is fun to watch.
The dancers are fun to watch as well. Carrazana and Delgado play off each other well in a muted, low-key sort of way – consistent with the staging, never straying too emotionally (as well as physically) far from each other, or getting too close to each other. And the two are equals – neither is a dominant presence, making their growth truly mutual.
Indomitable Waltz isn’t your standard operating waltz, but it is your standard operating visualization of the “indomitable human spirit.” The problem, despite interesting choreography and energetic execution, is that it’s understated, and its message is almost lost in the overall style. The dance can be appreciated for the movement quality itself – always interesting, and very competently danced – but the piece as a whole just is.
The dance starts out well enough. To the haunting, beautiful, and quirky Waltz by Alexander Balanescu, played by the Balanescu Quartet, from the album “Angels and Insects” (and, to my recollection, part of the score for the celebrated 1995 film of the same name), one man emerges from upstage center, followed by two women in similar but not quite identical black outfits, followed by another, then another, all against what appears to be a starry sky. Fine. Representative human emerge from the celestial womb. But all they do is move from one sequence to another like human slinkys coated in molasses, and then, except for an occasional brief “connection,” move on.
Until the final few minutes of the piece (the balance of the musical mélange includes more pieces by Balanescu, one by Michael Nyman, and two by Nils Frohm), all I saw was movement nearly completely in sync with the music, dancers moving in and out of groups for no apparent reason, solos becoming duos and more, then other solos – perhaps all evidence of individuals moving in and out of relationships and moving on as if nothing had happened, which becomes crystalized toward the end with a somewhat romantic duet, after which the male of the pair leaves, and the woman moves downstage center, seems to shrug her body, and retreats – or advances – upstage (reversing the opening image). Water off a duck’s, or dancer’s, back. The indomitable human spirit – moving on in the face of…nothing particularly signficant. The dance isn’t bad at all, and Barton’s movement quality evolves out of the slinky soon after the first segment of the dance ends, but Indomitable Waltz is easily forgettable.
Less easily forgettable is the program’s final piece. Face the Torrent is maddening. It’s very well crafted and superbly executed by the eight company dancers (almost scarily in group sync regardless of the choreographic complexity), but it’s both too obvious in its intended message, and too opaque in its impetus. This is an angry dance – but exactly what it’s angry about (death, oppression, inexplicable tragedy, racism, exploitation, anti-immigration politics, capitalism, communism, socialism, totalitarianism, the alt-right, migraine headaches, all the above, none of the above) is so non-specific that it’s just a moving picture of a suffering, then a threatening, rant.
At times, particularly at the beginning, I thought I saw a little of Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies: the piece begins with the dancers aligned horizontally upstage, from which the man in the center of the line – coincidentally or not the tallest dancer – separates out and holds his head in anguish and pain, and is soon comforted by the woman next to him as the other dancers appear to be sympathetic. But later the impetus, whatever it is, seems darker and more pervasive: the central dancers seem doomed at every turn, and all the dancers seem to fear being watched, bringing to mind the first two pieces in Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy (Symphony #9 and Chamber Symphony).
But Face the Torrent is nowhere near as focused as any of these pieces, or as entertaining as Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing, which I described as an anthem for a new generation. It’s just brutal, fearsome anger about ‘something’, and in the end, it demands that the viewer “face the torrent” of the oppressed (for whatever reason) coming to get their oppressors (or just as vividly, to get them). In that sense its message is clearly delivered – but in the absence of particularity, it’s just a visualization of generalized fear, anger, and protest. This might be sufficient for some; it wasn’t for me. But since the dance is crafted so well, I’ll grant that perhaps I missed some clue – so I may reconsider my opinion on a second view.
Not needing any reconsideration is the talent of the dancers: Dunia Acosta, Esteban Aguilar, Maria Karla Araujo, Fernando Benet, Beatriz Garcia (frighteningly “wild” as the “chosen one”), Abel Rojo, and Carrazana and Delgado. But these dancers (including Lisbeth Saad, who danced in the first piece) are capable of much more than remarkably precise execution evidencing mushy indomitability or hard-edged fury – Ocaso, and moments in the other two pieces, evidence that. I look forward to Malpaso’s return – even with an occasional bad step – with a more eclectic program that allows them to show the human side of humanity.