NAC Dance: Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company aims to put best foot forward

Dancers from the Malpaso Dance Company perform a scene from the choreography Face The Torrent. Photo: David Altschul

Six years ago, three people got together to form Malpaso Cuba’s only independent contemporary dance company. The trio are are Daileidys Carrazana, the associate artistic director and a dancer in the ensemble, Osnel Delgado, who is the artistic director and choreographer and Executive Director Fernando Saez.

The company was, and remains, dedicated to developing Cuban dance. But it is not easy.

When this interview happened Saez and his colleagues were in Ottawa some two weeks before their performance at the National Arts Centre on Jan. 18 and 19. They weren’t here rehearsing or acclimatizing themselves to the Canadian winter.

They were obtaining a visa to enter the United States in February.

This has become a ritual for Malpaso. Ever since the U.S. closed its Havana outpost in 2017, Malpaso has had to go to a third country to apply for visas.

“We have done that in Mexico, Germany and now here in Canada. We try to strategize to diminish expenses by having interviews in countries in which we are performing,” Saez said. This is not cheap because the entire company has to be on hand.

“We are very persistent,” Saez said. They have to be.

The company was founded with the stated principle of improving the state of contemporary Cuban choreography, he said.

“My background is actually in theatre. I have never been a professional dancer but during my acting practice I did some stuff that connected me in a big way to dance. My approach to acting was always very physical.”

At one point, Saez stopped acting and started working for a major arts foundation in Cuba called the Ludwig Foundation. In that role, he headed a performing arts program that was often working with dance ensembles and that’s where he met Carranza and Degaldo.

“At the time I met them, they were very young dancers in the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. At some point, after nine years, both decided to leave the company at the peak of their careers.”

Out of their work together a friendship grew and eventually a frustration with the dance community in Cuba.

Basically, he said, Cuba has talented dancers and less talented choreographers. To narrow that gap, they formed Malpaso with the idea of bringing international choreographers to work with Cuban dancers.

“I think this was one of the big motivations for the three of us: how to make a dance company that could somehow, please our artistic ambitions and at the same time served the Cuban dance community.

“We want to be a lab, in a modest way. Somehow we have succeeded after six years. We didn’t want to become what we rejected. And we are rewarded at this moment. Two of our dancers are choreographing now.” They have joined Delgado.

“Our goal was to create a company that was able to develop an artistic work as good as we could do and also tour the work of the company.”

Cuban choreography has suffered because of the isolation the country has faced for many decades, Saez said. But there is also, he added, a certain amount of complacency.

“We are so gifted and our artistic legacy and tradition is so dense, we feel that showing off is enough. Narcissism and self indulgence are perhaps the worst diseases of contemporary Cuban artistic life.”

Speaking truth isn’t easy, however. “It’s hard to be a prophet in your own land,” Saez said.

“We decided to be independent, something that is pretty unique in the Cuban context.”

The company takes no government funding. So the only independent contemporary dance company in Cuba spends a lot of time fundraising.

“We can’t perform as much as we would love to in Cuba due to many reasons. We don’t have our own theatre. The theatres belong to the state.” But, he said, they do put on a season every year and want to start organizing more systematic domestic tours.

“It doesn’t bother me that much. Everything on earth has its moment. We have been coherent and committed to our vision and very serious about the work we have developed.”

To raise funds the company relies on a strong network of friends, mostly from abroad.

“In Cuba, we don’t have a culture of philanthropy. That’s pretty normal in a socialist centralized state.”

They do have relationships with outside organizations. Malpaso, for example, is an associate company with Joyce Theatre Productions in New York and with Sunny Artist Management in Toronto.

These days, Saez said, he believes “it is important to consolidate what we have. We have been trying to develop as much as we can a sense of belonging. We are 17 people at the moment, with 15 dancers, who have to deal with everything from cleaning the studio on a daily basis, to promoting and fundraising … everything.

“This does not guarantee quality but it does instill a sense of belonging that is reflected in the work that we do.”

The show at the NAC will be Malpaso’s first here.

The show features four pieces, that have been chosen by the NAC Dance department.

“We give presenters the freedom to select pieces out of our repertoire. The program here will be pretty intense.”

The show includes a work called Indomitable Waltz by the superstar Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. There is a piece by American Sonya Tayeh (Face the Torrent) and Tabula Rasa by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. Finally the company will dance the duet Ocaso by Osnal Delgado, the first new work the company did.

They did a lot of solos and duets six years ago because there were only three in the company and one did not dance.

“The beginning was about duets and solos. I was doing my best to support them.”

The fact that Malpaso can attract such big name choreographers to work with them says something about the company.

“No good choreographer is going to work with a dance company because we are nice guys. It is about having integrity, prestige and quality for them to feel comfortable and stimulated. It is something we should be a little bit proud of.”

This program seems to feature the fundamental principles of the company.

“We do believe and continue to believe that there is not better way of confronting our own cliches and assumptions than through collaborations.”

Malpaso Dance Company
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Jan. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.