[pending receipt of performance photographs of Carrying Floor and Being (Ser)]
Malpaso Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
January 9, 2019
Fielding Sixes (Event Arrangement), Carrying Floor, Being (Ser), Tabula Rasa
The best contemporary dance program to be performed in New York in 2019 may have just happened.
Malpaso Dance Company (“MDC”) returned to the Joyce Theater on Wednesday for a limited run of seven performances of a repertory program consisting of four pieces: one by Merce Cunningham (in honor of the centennial of his birth); one by Ohad Nararin; and two by MDC dancers who have not previously choreographed. As it turns out, the weakest piece on the program was the Cunningham – not because of any performance deficiency by the dancers, who executed superbly, but because of the limited breadth of the choreography (although Fielding Sixes – the “Event Arrangement” – is one of the better Cunningham pieces that I’ve seen). Of the two new pieces, Abel Rojo’s Carrying Floor is one of the most original, imaginative, and gripping solos I can remember. If / when I compile a list of 2019’s best, Carrying Floor will be on it. Beatriz Garcia’s Being (Ser) is a very fine piece of work for a choreographer of any level of experience, but for a first effort it is particularly exceptional. And Tabula Rasa, a piece that Naharin originally choreographed in 1986, is one of the finest of the admittedly few pieces of his that I’ve seen, and the MDC dancers’ execution appeared both moving and flawless.
I find it difficult to believe that Carrying Floor is Abel Rojo’s first choreographic effort. He joined MDC in 2016, after dancing with other contemporary Cuban companies following his graduation from the National School of Modern Dance in 2010. He’s a solidly built lumberjack-sized man who towers over the other company dancers, and his thick dark hair and beard make him appear somewhat like a bear (a brown bear; not a teddy bear). In Carrying Floor, Rojo’s size amplifies what he’s doing on stage to the point where, even though it’s a solo, it’s a solo of epic proportions.
Describing Carrying Floor in general terms is relatively easy. The characters are Rojo and four pieces of a “floor” – roughly 3 x 3 foot squares that look like industrial pallets crossed with microphoned flooring often used to amplify the sound of tap dancing. These blocks represent the stage floor upon which Rojo, and all dancers, perform – and in Carrying Floor Rojo moves exclusively on these four squares.
As the dance begins, Rojo is standing on one of the squares, staring at the floor of squares beneath him. One at a time (usually), to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, Rojo slowly pick up a block and moves it adjacent to another, and then continues with another square, and then another. The pattern isn’t solid: there may at one point be a large rectangular block consisting of all the squares, or 3 x 1 design, or an uneven 2 x 2, or with one square separated from the others until Rojo straddles the space and lifts and carries that piece of floor adjacent to the others. Then the progress, now downstage right, moves slightly upstage, then back across to mid stage center. During all this, Rojo is engaged in multiple permutations of standing, bending, twisting, or kneeling.
But this description says nothing. Most of the dance’s movement is some form of contemplation, which prompts the movement in order to achieve some anticipated result, which is always unfulfilled. What Carrying Floor is really about is much more difficult to describe. It’s the relationship between a dancer and the floor that the dancer works on to be sure, as the program note indicates, but it’s far more than that. It deals with creation and limitation and the interrelationship of both, the power of obsession and the obsessiveness of power – or the lack of it, and the gradual recognition that what you think you control may really be controlling you.
All this is conveyed through Rojo’s increasingly frantic, though excruciatingly measured and inner-directed, movement, as this big man can’t seem to figure out what the floor is compelling him to do, or how to make it do what he wants it to do when he figures out what that is. The stage floor is his Sisyphus, and we see Rojo appear to gradually lose his strength and his will before our eyes. For a piece that’s deliberately paced and relatively slow moving, it is relentlessly intense. At any moment I expected Rojo to toss one of the squares against a wall, or to lose his sanity and cut himself off from the unyielding floor upon which he moves; the burden that carries him, and that he carries. What an exceptional, unforgettable piece of work Carrying Floor is!
Being (Ser) [“ser” is the Spanish verb “to be”] is not in the same intensity league, but it’s another beautifully crafted dance. I’m not sure what point Garcia is attempting to make here, if any, but the point is far less significant than the movement.
The subject of Being (Ser), to the extent there is one, is of broad emotional forces – building blocks of “being.” To three pieces of music by Ezio Bosso, a young, highly regarded Italian composer whose work I had not previously heard, Garcia has crafted three visually and choreographically distinct but interconnected movements descriptive of broad emotional forces – independence, conflict, and resolution – that are reflected in the interactions among the three dancers. They may also be seen as components of growth or fear to be overcome (the first two of the three songs that Garcia uses are to dances in Bosso’s score for the film Io non ho paura, which means “I am not afraid”).
The first movement, I initially feared, was too much influenced by the company’s exposure to Cunningham. The three dancers move across the stage very much in tandem but also very independent of each other. Eventually, the three (Dunia Acosta, Fernando Benet, and Garcia) break free of their invisible tethers. There’s no hint of any emotional force here beyond satisfied exhilaration and perhaps self-discovery.
Danza 4 from the film’s score is titled “Della paura” (“of fear”) – and the second movement of the dance, which follows a brief blackout pause, is exactly that. Suddenly, on the verge of possibly succumbing to a relationship (which makes a lot more sense than simply visualizing conflict for the sake of conflict), the three dancers grapple with each other’s bodies, and effectively play with each other’s heads. It isn’t a three-person scrum with the dancers crawling all over each other, but it’s visually brutal as the three seem to fight each other and their instincts concurrently.
The final segment is the best. If nothing else (and there’s a lot else), I am indebted to Garcia for introducing me to Bosso’s instrumental song, ”Smiles for Y…” (not from the film) which is elegantly simple, lilting, understatedly joyful and hopeful and wistful all at the same time: a secular hymn to that which makes us really human. [Off the top of my head, the closest I can get to something that generates a similar emotional response might be Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” but “Smiles for Y…” is even gentler than those.]
After another brief blackout, the three dancers return having overcome their fear and accepted their need for companionship and/or relationship. While using the same parameters as she did with the previous movement (the dancers grouped together, never seeming to lose touch with one another) Garcia has crafted movement to match the music: perceptive; mutually dependent; agonizingly imperative – in other words, as simple and as intricate as relationships, demonstrating what “being” is, might, or should be.
I would like to describe the movement quality of Being (Ser) with greater specificity and detail, but I was paying too close attention to dissect it, and doing so wouldn’t be constructive anyway. The dance’s success is how all of the movement fits together. My only quibble with it is with Garcia’s choice of three dancers rather than two or four. Using three raises issues that I didn’t really see in the piece (a manage a trois, or two women competing for one man, or one man who can’t make a choice), and that didn’t add anything – although visually the use of three dancers works very well. Perhaps there’s a simple explanation that escapes me. Regardless, Being (Ser) is a simple, powerful statement.
Tabula Rasa is much more complicated, but in the end is another simple, powerful statement. Created for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and choreographed to Arvo Part’s eponymous composition, the piece arguably visualizes individualized human conflict in the form of multiple pairings of the ten dancer cast. The genesis of the conflict is uncertain, and the violence inherent in the movement is intense. But the violent action is not excessive, as singles and pairs separate from the overall group, and then fail to communicate. The conflict does not appear to be “about” anything specific – just an inability to interact and/or to sustain a relationship, which is a community-wide problem.
Suddenly, the tempo of the music changes to something far more repetitive and rhythmically metronomic. Rojo, who had exited stage right as the first movement ended, emerges from the upstage left wings, facing forward and legs spread maybe two feet apart, swaying his body robotically from left to right and back again, while gradually inching his way almost imperceptivity across toward stage right. After traveling about six feet, another dancer emerges from the upstage left wings, moving as Rojo did and following his path. She’s followed by another, and then another, and then another, until all ten eventually appear. This assemblage is in no way related to the angled arabesque processional in Act II of La Bayadere – the dancers here move as if they’d been wiped clean of the “history” of the first movement, and are now emotionless blank slates. But toward the end of the procession, the third or fourth dancer from the end moves laterally about ten feet, then stops, angled mid phrase, while the others keep moving. Eventually the next zombie in line hits the woman who had stopped, and is himself stopped. Eventually, and quite robotically (although it’s not so much “robotically” as having been cleansed of the memory of how to interact), the two begin to dance together as the one next in line joins. This pas de trois of sorts continues, with the odd man out eventually, and unhappily, separating himself from the other two. At this point one of the woman from the group of others who had moved on (and who are still moving like collective robots mid-stage right) separates from that group and begins to dance with him. And so, inevitably, after societal relationships fall apart, human relationships begin to be rebuilt. It may take awhile to appreciate, but Tabula Rasa, although it sees emotional forces from a distance, is a masterful work.
Naharin’s use of movement here is as dramatic as it is, and as mesmerizing as it is, not because it’s repetitious, but because its repetition is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Tabula Rasa premiered with MDC last May in Havana, and the dancers have made it their own. As with everything else on this program, their execution was flawless. In addition to Rojo, Acosta, Garcia, and Benet, they included Maria Karla Araujo, Lisbeth Saad, Esteban Aguilar, Armando Gomez, and company co-founders Daileidys Carrazana and Osnel Delgado.
For those who may think that Cunningham’s dances display nothing more than tandem and emotionless movement for movement’s sake, the program’s opening piece, Fielding Sixes, is unlikely to change that. [As the program note explains, the piece premiered in 1980, and at that time consisted of thirteen dancers and lasted 28 minutes. But as performed at the Merce Cunningham Dance Center, sections of the piece, which differed from performance to performance, were cut. In the late 1990s, these edited programs were solidified into a single, eleven minute “Event” version, which is what MDC presented.]
But this version does not appear as rigid and orthodox to me as other Cunningham dances – the movement is almost entirely in tandem with arms rigidly arched downward, but within that framework there’s a wide variety of steps, and although there’s still no emotional component, the dancers are smiling, there’s an occasional moment of levity, and there’s a measure of contact among the dancers, including partnering (albeit minimal). And John Cage’s score, though repetitious, is surprisingly (to me) fluid and audience-friendly. So although the dance is what some might consider “pure movement,” it’s not uninteresting.
And in this program, aside from celebrating Cunningham’s centennial, Fielding Sixes serves a dual purpose: It shows, again, how remarkably accomplished these MDC dancers are, and to some extent is a point of departure for the other three program pieces, each of which might be seen to show some Cunningham influence. However, I must also note that of all the dances on this program, Fielding Sixes was the most tepidly received by the opening night audience.
To this point, I’ve avoided mentioning that Malpaso Dance Company is Cuban, and I’ve done so for a reason: I didn’t want the fact that company is based in Havana to factor into an evaluation of the company. The program is a superb reflection on the six-year old company because it’s a superb program superbly executed, not because the company is Cuban. It’s also an outstanding introduction to the Joyce’s Cuban Festival (the other two companies, appearing consecutively next week, are Los Hijos del Director and Compañía Irene Rodríguez), and it’s a highlight of this or any other dance year. Without hesitation, it’s a program worth going out of one’s way to see.