Malpaso Dance Company
Indomitable Waltz, Ocaso, 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite)

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Eisenhower Theater
Washington, DC

May 11, 2018

Carmel Morgan

I was eager to see what contemporary Cuban dance looks like, and the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba festival gave me that opportunity via Malpaso Dance Company. It turns out that Cuban contemporary dance looks a lot like contemporary dance from anywhere else in the world, with perhaps one exception. I thought the Malpaso Dance Company’s members were gorgeous, strong dancers, but the three particular works they performed didn’t seem to give them a chance to develop any emotional resonance. Ultimately, I couldn’t decide whether it was the choreography or the dancers that lacked the important ineffable quality that allows an audience to experience an impassioned punch. Three works in one evening is too small a sample size for me to give any firm diagnosis.  

It may sound negative, but I’m really talking about a subtle difference that elevates good dancing to great dancing. Malpaso Dance Company’s performance was absolutely good, and it received a standing ovation. For me, however, it was a notch or two below great, for reasons that are hard to articulate, except to explain that it was somehow missing the little extra stuff that makes a dance critic say, “Wow.” This should deter nobody from seeing the company, which is young, having been established just six short years ago in 2012. The company’s dancing is vibrant and enjoyable, and I suspect with time its dancers and its repertoire may yet make me exclaim, “Wow.”

Malpaso Dance Company in 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite), photo by Judy Ondrey

Malpaso Dance Company in 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite), photo by Judy Ondrey

I found Azure Barton’s Indomitable Walz, from 2016, to be the most intriguing work on the program. Barton’s choreography quickly established its own unique, highly stylized language. A male dancer, wearing all black, ran forward from the heavy black curtains at the back of the stage, shooting forth like an intense memory. A trio of women, also clad in black, soon joined him. Their bodies hunched, their shoulders rolled, their rear ends shook. Next, a pair of men facing each other in wide second position rocked back and forth on their feet, like wrestlers getting ready to tackle each other. The music, pieces from the Balanescu Quartet, Michael Nyman, and Nils Frahm, was sometimes achingly pretty.   

The number of dancers on the stage constantly changed, from eight total to piercing solos. There were a lot of acrobatic moves, especially by the men. And there were plenty of moves that highlighted flexibility — knees folding in forcing dancers to lower to the ground like a collapsed box. Also, and above all, there was an abundance of curiously wriggling shoulders and hips. While the overall mood seemed cold and dark, I’m not sure that was the intent. Moments when the mood lightens existed. In a quiet section, couples tenderly placed hands on cheeks and shoulders. I was genuinely intrigued by the choreography, but I felt some of the transitions between sections were abrupt, and Indomitable Walz went on too long. Snippets, however, were utterly riveting, in particular the final solo by Dunia Acosta.         

Ocaso, a 2013 duet by Malpaso Dance Company’s Artistic Director and Co-Founder Osnel Delgado, had its shining moments, too, but it also shared some of the same flaws as Indomitable Waltz. I felt the piece was overly long and didn’t convey a clear emotional message. Delgado himself danced, along with Beatriz Garcia, a striking redhead. Delgado’s costume design was confusing, at least for me. He wore red pants and a gold-printed dress shirt, while Garcia was shoeless, in a simple slip-like black dress. He acted as a pole around which she circulated. They came back again and again to the same pose — their backs to the audience, her arm around his waist, and his around her shoulder. Garcia repeatedly ducked under his arm and twisted out of the embrace, only to lock in place again after a series of tucks and unfoldings, together and apart, unspooling and rewinding. At Ocaso’s climax, in silence Garcia, whose arms wrapped snugly around Delgado, melted to the floor. Yet she inexplicably soon rose again, leaping like a ballerina.

Malpaso Dance Company in 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite), photo by Bill Hebert

Malpaso Dance Company in 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite), photo by Bill Hebert

24 Hours and a Dog (Suite), also a 2013 piece choreographed by Delgado, in collaboration with the dancers, with a jazzy score by Arturo O’Farrill, was uplifting. But it, too, was too long for my taste, and I missed any sense of narrative. Delgado seemed to be reminiscing or dreaming of the future or both. He joined the other eight dancers, and also spent time alone on stage. I thought of him like a band master, conducting the notes of the dancers. Eric Grass’s colorful costumes and Al Crawford’s equally colorful lighting design added gloss to the spirited dancing.       

I thought I could see in a male quartet dancers rolling imaginary dice. There were somersaults here and there. 24 Hours and a Dog (Suite) was at its peppy best and found its groove toward the end when the group gathered in a line jumping up like jumping beans. This unison section was full of contagious energy, but the volume of the music increased to the point of being almost blaringly painful.   

According to the program, Malpaso Dance Company is an “associate company of Joyce Theater Productions.”  That means that New York City dance fans can catch future performance at the Joyce, rather than needing to venture to Cuba to see this handsome emerging company.