Malpaso Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 8, 2022
Lullaby for Insomnia, woman with water, Elemental, Stillness in Bloom
Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company returned to the Joyce Theater last week, its third visit in the past three performance seasons, and their first since the pandemic. My opinion of the company’s programs has varied from program to program: I was not overly impressed on my first exposure to them, but found their second program highly impressive. The roller-coaster continues.
Chalk it up maybe to pandemic consequences, but the program I saw Saturday night was generally disappointing, especially in comparison to their previous Joyce program. Of the four pieces presented, I found only one to be impressive; the others, though adequately displaying the quality of the company’s current group of dancers, were forgettable. Gone too was the promise of choreography by the company’s own dancers, which was apparent and abundant previously. Instead, for this program, Malpaso relied primarily on outside guest choreographers, with only one of the four pieces choreographed in house.
The program’s second piece, woman with water, is a winner. Originally created for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2020 by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek to music by Fleshquartet, a Swedish band, the dance premiered with Malpaso the following year.
woman with water is an appropriately deceptive title for a deceptive little dance that begins as a solo for a female dancer and eventually expands to include a male dancer, each of whom is not given a character name, so I’ll call them “The Woman” and “The Man.” But it’s not your typical “relationship” dance, though it describes a relationship of sorts. In fact, it can be extrapolated to describe several types of relationships, but visually focuses on one. The Woman (danced by Dunia Acosta) is the victim; the man (performed by company Co-Founder and Artistic Director Osnel Delgado) is her predator, and the relationship described is addictive, though not – strictly based on Ek’s visual presentation – to each other.
When the curtain rises, Acosta is seen standing mid-stage right opposite a bluish-green colored table (in the photos attached it looks green) positioned on the other side of the stage. She’s costumed in a full-length orange dress that flows gently outward from the top, allowing plenty of maneuvering room (Ek designed both the costumes and set). As the music begins Acosta starts to move in generally broad strokes, with arms outstretched or squatting in second position, and in between contorting in a variety of ways. The appearance is non-directed, at most describing restlessness within, though Acosta makes it look physically challenging. Then she spies the table – and for her its downhill from there.
Acosta’s character examines the table curiously and carefully, without committing herself to any further interaction with it. Suddenly from the stage-left wings, near the table, out pops Delgado, dressed in a greyish / brownish suit and looking like a cross between Groucho Marx and Howard Hill (from Broadway’s The Music Man).
The subsequent interaction between them appears both funny and sinister. With a humorous demeanor coupled with the sincerity and persistence of a snake oil salesman, The Man crouches around the table while getting closer and closer to her, entices her, and eventually sets before her a pitcher (apparently of water) and, shortly thereafter, a glass. While The Woman stands at the narrow side of the table trying to keep her distance from what she senses might be a fatal attraction, he lifts the table sufficiently for the glass to slide off it and into the woman’s outstretched hands. After initial hesitation, she drinks it. The Man refills the glass and convinces her to drink again. The more she drinks, the more she wants / needs / has to drink more.
One thing leads to another, The Woman tries to escape from her predicament while concurrently succumbing to it, at one point stuffing her body under the table. But the man entices her out from under, convinces her to drink more, and then, with the action moved mid-stage right, gives her another drink, and she falls flat onto the stage floor, motionless. The episode still looks funny, and some in the audience could be heard stifling laughs – until The Woman, dead (or at least appearing so), is swept off the stage by The Man, now wielding a large broom, like an accumulation of unwanted trash.
Does woman with water describe succumbing to a dangerously addictive substance, be it alcohol or drugs or something similar, or does it describe a woman being seduced by an attractive serpentine man into a toxic relationship? It’s not clear, but it doesn’t need to be – either way, she winds up dead. Is the dance a morality tale of sorts? Maybe, but it’s not played that way. Rather, it’s “just” a visualization of a set of facts, perhaps metaphors, that a viewer can interpret as meaningful or not. But as choreographed by Ek and as performed by Acosta and Delgado, woman with water is shocking. The impact is similar to, though less physically and emotionally revolting than, the Royal Danish Ballet’s production of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson, which I last saw led by a then unknown company apprentice named Ida Praetorius.
My research indicates that woman with water is dedicated to Marie-Louise Ekman. I’ve found no direct familial relationship between the two, but Ekman is Ek’s frequent collaborator, at least with respect to costumes. Independently, she’s also a painter, actor, and writer, and is quite famous in Sweden for her celebrated or vilified artistic and/or personal points of view with respect to female identity and male / female relationships. Getting into this in detail is a slippery slope that I have neither the time nor inclination to go into here, but the connection, vis a vis woman with water, is at least thought-provoking and potentially illuminating. And although I tend to react negatively to dances with titles in initial caps or all lowercase letters because they appear designed more to draw attention to themselves than is appropriate, here the lower case is appropriate: one can almost see the letters hiding under that table.
The evening opened with Lullaby for Insomnia, created in 2020 by the company’s Co-Founder and Associate Artistic Director Daileidys Carrazana. To musical accompaniment played live at the performance I attended by Gabriel Chakarji, the piece, a solo performed here by Heriberto Meneses, is in no way a lullaby. Meneses twists and turns and executes the largely angular and physically punctuated choreography well, but the choreography, and consequently the piece, is forgettable. Even as sarcasm, since it quite obviously is not a lullaby, perhaps the intention here was to produce something that would just keep the viewer happy while awake but Lullaby for Insomnia doesn’t work that way either.
Following woman with water came Elemental, a 2019 dance created by celebrated contemporary choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams to music by a variety of artists.
The dance is a collection of images – perhaps reflecting moments in a dancer’s life, or the choreographer’s, or that of anyone who lives in a society. Some of these images visualize wondrously moving moments of individual connection with another, but most – like the personal lives of persons crossing paths with each other in a big city – are disconnected from any common significance beyond the fact that the same type of thing (isolated pleasing images in unconnected fleeting situations) can be found in the lives of most anyone. And that’s all that Elemental appears to be: elements of life strung together in a not particularly meaningful way beyond being a collection of isolated moments in time, with nothing I could see to tie it all together beyond a meaningless generality.
Elemental is a pleasant enough dance – indeed, its intentions are obviously positive and benign – and it was well-executed by the company (on which it was created), but that’s not sufficient.
Even more surprisingly unappealing was Aszure Barton’s Stillness in Bloom. Choreographed to unidentified music by avant-garde jazz composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the piece is a stunning collection of images of dancers moving backward (bent knees, slightly hunched, feet moving at a rapid pace) in undulating lines until each visually connects with another dancer, and then the undulating lines continue shuffling backward but in a slightly reorganized way until the next momentary connection. [Think Balanchine or Justin Peck’s magically materializing corps choreography, where corps dancers somehow morph from what appears to be a jumble of bodies into recognizable geometric patterns, except in reverse.] There’s a little more to it than that, but just a little, and this backward movement is the glue, such as it is, that holds the piece together choreographically. There’s no there there, aside from the dancers’ skillful execution of what must have been difficult sequences to remember. Perhaps the dance’s title reflects those moments of still, momentary connection, but, if so, nothing about it blooms.
And the score not only doesn’t help, but it makes the dance even less comprehensible than it would have been based on the choreography alone. Much of it appears compatible with Barton’s choreography – at least it doesn’t interfere with it. But too much of it also is a collection of arbitrary squeaks and brassy squeals that aren’t connected to anything visual. It also includes verbalization, presumably by Akinmusire (his introduction of other members of the band to what was presumably a live audience), which also has no apparent relationship to Barton’s choreography. On the contrary, this, the brass belches, and other avant-garde idiosyncrasies, because they’re too loud to ignore, confuse the visualization more than it already is.
Then again, I feel constrained to acknowledge that maybe this is just me. Whether de rigueur or real, and whether related to this piece or the evening as a whole (since there was little opportunity for audience applause following any of the prior pieces), at the conclusion of Stillness in Bloom the audience rose en masse to give the dancers a standing ovation. I just sat there scratching my head.
Malpaso Dance Company has proved to be a fine company in the past. I trust that this performance represents only an atypical programming blip. Since Malpaso is an associate company of Joyce Theater Productions, I anticipate that they’ll be back next year, hopefully bringing with them a superior program.