Cuba has been a hotbed for dance for decades, notably in classical ballet, most of it for export. Alicia Alonso, Carlos Acosta, Xiomara Reyes, Lourdes Lopez and José Manuel Carreno are just some of the great Cuban dancers who left their mark on big European and American ballet companies (Alonso returned to her homeland post-revolution to found the Cuban National Ballet and School).
Contemporary dance, especially of the non state-run variety, has taken longer to flourish. Cuba did not have an independent contemporary dance company until 2012, when Osnel Delgado, Daileidys Carrazana and Fernando Saez founded Malpaso Dance Company. Fuelled by fierce homegrown talent, passionate about new dance by Cuban and non-Cuban choreographers, Malpaso — the name means “misstep” — has enjoyed a rocket-powered international rise (a sympathetic partnership with New York’s Joyce Theatre hasn’t hurt).
Malpaso made its Ottawa debut Friday night with a two-hour mixed bill at the NAC, opening with Canadian Aszure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz. Barton drew her inspiration from Havana itself, with its crumbling colonial buildings and resilient citizens. The vocabulary denotes a kind of fractured classicism: spines curved inwards, elbows sticking out like wings, hips skewed out of alignment. There are nods at rueda and other forms of Cuban street dancing, but very little of the popular version’s spontaneous joy. The structure seems haphazard, with messy, limp transitions between scenes. Even the explosive, vibrant energy of the dancers — all wonderful to watch — wasn’t enough to take the chill off this opaque, wintry piece, a mood compounded by bleak, subdued string quartet music by Balanescu and Michael Nyman.
After the Barton, some warmth was desperately needed. It came in the form of Artistic Director Osnel Delgado’s tender, transparent, unabashedly romantic duet Ocaso (Sunset), which he performed with the magnetic Beatriz Garcia.
Brooklyn-based Sonya Tayeh’s aggressive, athletic, slightly commercial style suits the tough physicality of Malpaso’s dancers. Tayeh’s 2017 work Face the Torrent begins with a line of dancers strutting in slow motion from the back of the stage to the front, again and again, giving the audience a defiant over-the-shoulder glare before turning — an extreme version of a runway model trick. One dancer begins to break down under the weight of this hard-boiled charade. He falters and stumbles, hands raised to protect his face from unseen blows, until another dancers stops her march to help him. In another scene, a female dancer appears to struggle mightily to push something away; later she is blanket-tossed into the air.
The soundtrack features cellist Colette Alexander with the Bengsons. The music alternates with distorted, whispered poetry where only the occasional rhyme or phrase is clear: under/thunder, “my lead feet.” Despite one or two meandering, disorganized sections that interfere with the piece’s high-octane drive, Face the Torrent is nervy, physically daring and an audience pleaser.
The evening ended with Tabula Rasa, Ohad Naharin’s 1986 meditation on loss, set to Arvo Pärt’s contemplative masterpiece of the same name. The company delivered virtuosity and stamina in the first section and control in the second. But in the end, the performance felt focused more on technical bravura than on Naharin’s complex, shimmering undercurrent of emotion.
The unexpected star of the evening was a small bat, which made its first cameo in the Barton piece by swooping exuberantly between the stage lights, and appeared punctually throughout Malpaso’s performance. The wee creature was almost certainly looking to escape the winter chill and has found a cozy home for itself in the NAC rafters. Let’s hope house management doesn’t evict it too harshly for sneaking in without a ticket.
Performance repeats Saturday.