The usual thrill of seeing Cuban companies is getting a straight shot of the cultural baggage that comes with them. But Cuba’s newest contemporary dance ensemble, Malpaso Dance Company performing on the Music Center series down town, left most of the cubanismo behind in their Saturday evening repertory program. The three works on the program, one by company dancer and choreographer Osnel Delgado, and two others by popular dancemakers Sonya Teyeh and Azure Barton, charted an evening that made the Cuban company look remarkably like any other small European or American ensemble building a reputation through familiar guest choreographers. Sticking with bare stages, dark atmospheric lighting, and collaged music, the result produced more sameness than difference.

Delgado’s work 24 Hours and a Dog was set to a mannered collection seven Afro Cuban pieces played live by an eight instrument ensemble. The band was led by pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill.  The work was a breezy flow of solos combined with small and large ensembles. Looking like an American jazz dance suite, there was no easy narrative connecting the title and the dancing itself. It concluded with a gritty version of one of Astor Piazzolla’s fancifully renamed tangos. Exceptional performances by Mr. Delgado and Dunia Acosta anchored much of the dancing.

group of dancers in black jumping, with one arm up
Sonya Tayeh's "Face the Torrent" − Photo: Judy Ondrey

Tayeh’s work, Face the Torrent limned a bleak world of personal psychology, tribal connections, and displaced populations. The piece’s hazed set and Middle Eastern inflected music led us nowhere in particular, finishing and beginning with the ensemble glaring out at the audience.  Karen Young’s imaginative costumes gave Face the Torrent a tattered, urban appeal. Embedded in the movement were a few fine moments. One had the men working in unison on the floor while the women sliced through them in a menacing crouching position, and in another, an ensemble with four men partnered a single woman through complex intertwining formations. But much of the dancing devolved to spot lighted movement and implied close ups identifiable with her work for television. It was theatrically viable fare supported more by style than content.

3 couples of dancers in the same lean back pose
Azure Barton's "Indomitable Waltz" − Photo: Judy Ondrey

The concluding work, Azure Barton’s Indomitable Waltz was structured around several movements for string quartet by Alexander Balanescu and Michael Nyman. The music makes glancing connections with classical and film music suffused with a yearning romantic appeal.  Indomitable Waltz is filled with non-stop dancing and the work’s intense partnering regularly crosses gender boundaries. Barton returns repeatedly to poses and angular positions that run like leitmotifs through the piece. Elegant lyrical moments give way to one dimensional crouches were the dancers seem briefly frozen into position. But much of Indomitable Waltz’s tender and soulful appeal was unfortunately compromised by blistering volumes from the recorded score. It was the only misstep in a work that will likely go on to be a signature piece of choreography for a Cuban company and for Cuban dance shaking off a long history of confining models of how we are supposed to see them.

(The reviewed performance took place in Los Angeles on December 2, 2017. “Face the Torrent” was a world premiere commissioned by the Music Center and the Getty for Pacific Standard Time LA/LA.)

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