Havana by Day: Malpaso Dance Company

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The key to fusing contemporary and Afro-Latin forms lies in the way musicians and dancers train to be at the top of their craft, according to Arturo O’Farrill, composer and leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, and Fernando Sáez Carvajal, executive director of Cuban-based Malpaso Dance Company. O’Farrill and Carvajal revealed  their motivations behind creating , 24 horas y un perro, a new work for Malpaso, in a talkback preceding the company’s performance at UW’s Meany Hall. They noted that their aesthetics encompass both “high and low art,” rather than making a distinction between classical and folk genres. 24 horas was the final piece on Malpaso Dance Company’s varied program presented as part of UW’s World Series March 3–5.

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Malpaso Dance Company
Photo by David Garten

Osnel Delgado Wambrug choreographed and performed the opening piece, Ocaso, a duet with Dailedys Carrazana Gonzalez. Wambrug and Gonzalez, along with Carvajal, founded Malpaso in 2012 in order to “bring Cuban contemporary dance into the 21st century.” Ocaso began with the couple embracing far upstage, facing away from the audience. Al Crawford’s striking lighting design illuminated the center stage corridor with dual spotlights, containing the intimate duet into a small section of the stage. As the work progressed, Gonzalez continually ducked out from under Wambrug’s arm as if she couldn’t fully commit to their relationship. The performers took turns completing sequences of movement increasingly farther away from each other but were always, inexorably, drawn back into the embrace, no matter how dysfunctionally the relationship progressed. Their movement vocabulary comprised not only partnered lifts, but also gestural manipulation of their own limbs and out-of-the blue classical ballet jumps. The work concluded dramatically when the couple simultaneously dropped to the floor, as if to communicate, “We’re in this together!” While this contemporary love duet looked like it would be at home on “So You Think You Can Dance,” during the second work of the evening, the aesthetic shifted completely.

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Malpaso Dance Company
Photo by David Garten

Ronald K. Brown’s por que sigues (why you follow) featured nine of Malpaso’s ten ensemble dancers. Skipping energetically from the wings in linear formation, the dancers executed rhythmic foot patterns in Afro-Latin style. To an upbeat and powerful score of singing and drumming, the smiling dancers used grounded lunges and box steps to advance from one side of the stage to the other, suggesting the passage of time and the constant motion of a rippling river. Brown also included a selection of his poetry in the program notes, evoking generational cycles as descendants followed their ancestors’ paths. The Afro-Latin influence in por que, with its structure of repetitive progressive patterns,  juxtaposed directly with the contemporary duet that opened the evening and made Brown’s work drag in parts; a certain lunge with pelvic thrust sequence continually reappeared for little reason. The processional movements required strikingly grounded, juicy pliés, showcasing the ensemble’s lower body strength.

24 horas y un perro (24 hours and a dog) emerged as the evening’s vibrant focal point. Choreographed by Wambrug in collaboration with the dancers using improvised scores, 24 horas depicts a day in the life of a dancer in Havana. From the overture to the seventh movement by the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, the performing musicians enlivened the theater with their full, warm sound. Last year, O’Farrill and the Ensemble released an album coinciding with political normalization between the U.S. and Cuba. According to the artists during the talkback, the twilight setting of the work’s opening and closing can be seen as a metaphor for transition, with both personal and national implications. The dancers’ interactions with the live musicians provided another layer of interest and performativity to the work.

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Arturo O’Farrill and Malpaso Dance Company
Photo by David Garten

The lengthy piece ranged from office scenes, to yoga classes, to a sensual duet as it explored the daily life of dancer/choreographer Wambrug. In certain sections the dancers were barefoot and in others they wore jazz shoes, but the movement vocabulary remained a consistent fusion of Afro-Latin and contemporary genres. The piece also highlighted the company’s versatility: the male dancers are flexible, able to extend their long legs high into the air and drop down fully into grand pliés and the women are strong enough to execute acrobatic floorwork. The choreography seamlessly incorporated exciting, gasp-worthy flips and tricks with the rest of the multifaceted movement vocabulary and showed the Seattle audience exactly what we had been missing during the long years of Cuba’s isolation. If this evening is any indication, Malpaso is a fledgling company to watch as it continues to take flight globally.

For more information on Malpaso Dance Company, see HERE.