Cuban Dance Company Debuts in NY May 27

MalPaso Dance Company members performing in "24 hours and a Dog," choreographed by Ronald Brown with music by Arturo O'Farrill (Photo by Roberto Leon)

MalPaso Dance Company members performing in “24 hours and a Dog,” choreographed by Ronald K. Brown with music by Arturo O’Farrill (Photo by Roberto Leon)

The U.S. debut May 27 of MalPaso Dance Company at the Joyce Theater might be seen as an anomaly in the perpetually-strained U.S.-Cuba relationship. It is a genuine collaboration between the Cuban dance group and two American artists: choreographer Ronald K. Brown and musician Arturo O’Farrill.

But, as MalPaso co-founder and executive director Fernando Sáez sees it, this is only a continuation of a longstanding tradition between both countries.

“Since its very beginning, the relationship with North American culture has been fundamental in shaping contemporary dance and ballet in Cuba. I think that being able to facilitate a bridge to somehow restore this dialogue, even modestly, can help us return to our roots, which can be very healthy for Cuban dance,” said Sáez.

“There’s no worse enemy for Cuban culture – probably for any culture – than isolation,” added Sáez, who in a recent essay on the history of Cuban dance, points out that Ramiro Guerra, who established Danza Contemporánea de Cuba in 1959, trained with Martha Graham.

Founded in late 2012, MalPaso Dance Company might be a newcomer to both Cuban and U.S. audiences. Its members, however, are not exactly beginners. Co-founders artistic director Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana actually performed at the Joyce in Danza Contemporánea de Cuba’s historic U.S. debut in 2011.

Until June 1, MalPaso will present the new contemporary dance piece “24 Hours and a Dog,” set to music by O’Farrill. The Grammy-winning pianist and composer of Cuban descent will also perform live with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at most performances.

“24 Hours and a Dog” is an “abstract re-creation” of a day in the life of the dancers, who become characters in their own city of Havana. Sáez cites “walking the dog,” “working at the study,” “lunch break” and “daydreaming” as some of the scenes in the piece.

“Arturo’s music – and this is something I enjoy a lot as a theater person – is very theatrical, and it took us back directly to the urban atmosphere of our city,” said Sáez. The company started working with O’Farrill’s music last year, after Sáez brought some of his records to Cuba. Later on, the musician composed an original overture for the piece. Although “24 Hours and a Dog” was presented in Havana earlier this year, tonight will be the first time the company will dance it live with O’Farrill’s band.

“24 Hours…” was choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, who will also premiere with MalPaso his piece “Why You Follow.” The acclaimed dancer and choreographer was sent to Cuba last year representing the Joyce with the mission of finding a dance company to present in New York. After auditioning some 10 companies, he chose MalPaso.

“He told us that we were the only ones to make him stand up and dance,” said Sáez, who described the three-week working partnership as very intense and rewarding. “The dancers really gave themselves over. There are many connections between Ron’s work and our dancers’ culture. He informs his work with African roots a lot, which is obviously an essential element of Cuban culture.”

Another perhaps surprising fact about MalPaso is that it is one of the few cultural institutions on the island not supported by the state. “The company is financed through fundraising, basically from Cuban philanthropists who make contributions,” said Sáez, who is a member of the Ludwig Foundation, a Havana-based nonprofit that promotes contemporary Cuban artists.

“If you look back at Cuban history, we have a solid tradition of philanthropy, which is very rooted in the 19th century’s civil society,” said Sáez. “Right now there is no legal framework, so donors can’t get a tax deduction, but philanthropy in its purest form does exist. Maybe in the not-so-distant future we will have a legal framework that allows it to expand.”

As for the future of cultural exchanges such as this one, he said it’s difficult to make a prediction. “We depend too much on circumstances, including political relationships. It’s obvious that the U.S.-Cuban relationship is not normal,” said Sáez.

“I hope that, as things return to normal, this dialogue becomes more intense and organic. I think we deserve to mutually enjoy each other much more profoundly, because these two cultures are inextricably linked.”

For tickets and information, visit the Joyce Theater website.

A video of MalPaso performing another work can be viewed below:

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