Malpaso Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 10, 2023
Floor…y ando, La Ultima Cancion, A Dancing Island
Malpaso Dance Company returned to the Joyce Theater last week, bringing with it three New York premieres: one choreographed by Artistic Director and Co-Founder Osnel Delgado, one by Associate Artistic Director Daile (short for Daileidys) Carrazana, and a commissioned piece created by Ephrat Asherie. The result is a mixed bag of generally upbeat dances that were performed very well by the company’s eclectic array of dancers, but lacking the substance needed to take any of the pieces beyond that. Nevertheless, all the dances were enjoyable to watch.
I’ve seen Malpaso’s four immediately prior Joyce appearances since 2018 (interrupted for two years by the pandemic). I was underwhelmed by my initial exposure, ecstatic about the second program (in 2019), and disappointed by the third last year. This year’s program is somewhere in the middle.
The evening opened with Floor…y ando, Asherie’s tribute to the late Gus Solomons, Jr. Solomons was an American dancer, choreographer, dance critic, and actor, and a leading figure in postmodern and experimental works, and during the course of his career, he danced with Martha Graham, Donald McKayle, and Merce Cunningham among others, founded his own company, co-founded another, wrote dance criticism, and taught at a variety of institutions, including at the Alvin Ailey School and NYU Tisch. He studied architecture at MIT, and one of his most quoted statements of those I’ve seen in a variety of sources is: “Architecture and dancing are exactly the same. You design using all the same elements — time, space and structure — except that in dance, time is not fixed.”
I’m not sure what the dance’s title – Floor…y ando – means. I’ve found nothing to indicate any reference to it. Translated, “ando” means “walk,” so perhaps it’s some characteristic phrase that Solomons used when he taught: hit the floor then get up and walk – or something like that.
Be that as it may, Asherie, who, according to her program bio worked and collaborated with Solomons (among many others), put this piece together very quickly: Solomons died less than two months before this performance, and less than one month before the piece’s premiere in Havana. That’s not a criticism. On the contrary, what Asherie has accomplished with this brief piece is, for a tribute, unusually but appropriately upbeat – celebrating Solomons more than mourning his passing.
The piece is comprised of three dancers: Esteban Aguilar, Esven Gonzalez, and Delgado. As it begins, the audience sees the men standing with two of them upstage audience-left, and one, somewhat downstage and audience-right. As the piano music begins (“The Homeless Wanderer” by Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru, and played live at this performance by Ben Rosenblum), the man standing alone begins to move, and the other two promptly followed his lead. What came to mind was a teacher/ students situation, with the first person being a Solomons surrogate.
What follows is largely consistent with that, either with one dancer “manipulating” (correcting the position of) another; sets of movement made sequentially in tandem or as mirror images, all in short, sudden-looking movements – including floor work that seems to be not so much an end in itself as a component of a broader exercise. But the sense isn’t at all academic; it’s joyous, especially when all three dance together with the academic barriers between them (to the extent there were any) no longer relevant.
And then, almost as quickly as it began, the dance ends. On a high. Floor…y ando isn’t an homage; it’s a celebration.
The next dance on the program is in the same mold, and with a lot more dance, but wasn’t quite at the level of the program’s other dances.
La Última Canción (“The Last Song”) is described in the program as part of a series in tribute to iconic Cuban singer Bola de Nieve. As its choreographer, Carrazana, elaborates: “It is an inquiry into the feeling of loss, an exploration of the uncertainty of existence.” I don’t doubt that this was Carrazana’s intent, and it’s sufficiently evident in the choreography. But as carefully choreographed as it obviously is, its reliance on “feelings” to anchor the dance manifests as an accumulation of visualized feelings that, despite many moments of significant choreographic interest, make La Última Canción more of an introspective study than a fully-focused dance.
Bola de Nieve was a Cuban singer-pianist and songwriter who died in 1971 at 60 years of age. His real name was Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández (his stage name, which translates as “Snowball,” purportedly relates to his round face). He’s described in Wikipedia as one of the most influential figures of Afro-Cuban jazz, albeit one more of an elite than popular figure, whose sophisticated cabaret performances often synthesized elements of European and North American musical traditions with Latin elements, which gave his music a sound distinct from his contemporaries.
“La Última Canción” is the title of several different songs composed by several different artists, but it doesn’t appear to be the title of anything that Bola de Nieve wrote. And the score here is attributed to unidentified music by Maria Teresa Vera, and Lorenzo Hierrezuelo and Jordi Sabates, not the dance’s subject. So this piece apparently is a response to the ambiance of Bola de Nieve’s songs, which have been described as deeply emotional, rather than the words of any one of the songs he wrote or performed. There’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes that process is less artificial-looking than dance that’s tailored to the words of a particular song.
And deeply emotional is an appropriate description for Carrazano’s dance, which includes seven dancers, four women and three men (in program-listing order, they’re Dunia Acosta, Aguilar, Osvaldo Cardero, Gonzalez, Daniela Miralles, Greta Yero Ortiz, and Danny Rodriguez). Though much of it is undeniably interesting, an expansive dance that’s deeply emotional tends to either overdo the melancholy or make it less interesting to watch, or both. La Última Canción minimizes these tendencies, but can’t avoid them completely – and wouldn’t have been able to communicate its stated intent if it did. But as a consequence that stated intent is blurred.
The dance opens in silence. One woman, outfitted in a reddish-orange dress (Acosta), moves, slowly, to her own beat, as if unwinding or testing the movement quality. Once the music begins, she’s replaced by a woman in yellow, who is subsequently joined by others. But Acosta’s character doesn’t just disappear; she returns to join the others. While it’s not fixed in my mind, to me Acosta is the dance’s focal point, either a Bola de Nieve or Carrazana figure or simply one who “feels the music” more deeply than others.
Following the opening exposition the music changes quality and tempo, and the dance shifts to a more sensual display of slinky movement, including shoulders swaying back and forth seductively. And the piece thereafter swings back and forth between tempi and mood changes, without, to my eye, establishing any common denominator.
In the penultimate segment, Acosta’s character points, seemingly at random, to a man seated on the aisle on the right side of the house – bringing to mind other such gimmicks in other dances that, if nothing else, awaken and/ or motivate an audience. But this man was a plant. After arriving on stage, he joins Acosta in a duet that’s at first elementary, but which evolves into much more than a randomly selected audience-member would have been able to handle. But although it’s fun to watch and does make what follows more entertaining than it might otherwise have been, it’s a dose of artificiality that the piece didn’t need.
As this scene progresses, this pair is joined by others, and the dance eventually ends in a frenzy of mass movement – hardly an indication of any “last song.”
While it’s not an uninteresting dance to watch (indeed, it’s peppered with joyous moments sandwiched within the introspection), La Última Canción misses the mark. And I suspect La Última Canción isn’t the last song, or last dance, to be created in tribute to Bola de Nieve.
A different matter entirely is the program’s final piece, A Dancing Island. Choreographed by Delgado to an assortment of music created by Alejandro Falcon, Ted Nash, and the Cubadentro Trio, and played live by Falcon (piano), Nash (saxophone), Arnulfo Guerra (electric bass guitar), Ruy Lopez-Nussa (drums), Carlitos Patron (percussion), and Chris Rogers (trumpet), the piece is a cornucopia of non-stop effervescence danced by the full company. It’s nothing more than that, despite what appear to be efforts to take it beyond what it is.
According to comments by the company’s Executive Director (and Co-Founder) Fernando Saez, A Dancing Island ”is a celebration of the dense social dances and musical tradition of Cuba, a journey from rumba to son.” [In this context, son, translated, means “sound.”] That’s fine, but the dance begins with prerecorded sounds of intense wind blowing over something. Not a gentle breeze; more like gale force. Then the dance begins. After it ends, the wind returns.
While it doesn’t interfere with the dance, it’s just silly. It makes it appear that in between hurricanes the island dances. [Some might contend that what I heard as “wind” was the sound of waves. Maybe. But if that’s so, the crashing waves were exacerbated by hurricane-like storms – these were not gentle waves or gentle breezes. One way or the other, it was unnecessary.]
Beyond that, the dances themselves, accompanied by the deliciously vibrant music, are well-choreographed and executed, though without specific highlights that I can reference because it all moves too quickly. And that’s not a bad thing. All said and done, I prefer a similar piece, Club Havana, choreographed by Pedro Ruiz in 2000 and frequently presented by Ballet Hispanico. That piece is more focused. But I recognize that A Dancing Island is casting a wider, more populous net, and that’s fine. There’s nothing more than that here, but there’s a place for simple exuberance and pure entertainment that exists to communicate that exuberance alone and be entertaining in the process, and A Dancing Island succeeds well in that effort.
With respect to the overall program, however, I miss the originality provided by then members of the company who were allowed to present their dances in Malpaso’s 2019 season. Though those particular dancers are no longer with the company, that kind of invention is what’s missing from this program. I hope I have the opportunity to see more of that when Malpaso returns. Since Malpaso is an Associate Company of Joyce Theater Productions, I anticipate that that return will be next year.