Malpaso Dance Company Ignites the Stage

By Stephen Hunt - Arts Commons Blog
5 min read | February 15, 2024

The performing arts mean different things to different cultures.

In Eastern Europe for decades, theatre was a medium that was feared by those in power, because of its ability to use metaphor to send a political message. For Cuban Fernando Sáez, one of the co-founders of Malpaso Dance Company, dance and live music mean a little more there than they do here.

They’re tools of change.

“We are an island, but from a cultural perspective, we are a harbour,” Sáez says, in a YouTube video on the internationally-acclaimed dance company’s website. “We came here from Africa, from the Middle East, the Arab world, from Spain, from the Caribbean, from the U.S., from Europe – music and dance became tools.

“Music and dance are connected,” he adds, “ very much in Cuba to what we would consider ‘cultural resistance’.”

Calgary audiences will have a chance to experience Malpaso Dance Company’s unique brand of cultural resistance in the Jack Singer Hall at Arts Commons on March 7 when they perform a trio of pieces accompanied by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.

They’ll be performing a blend of Cuban choreographers and “Stillness in Bloom,” a piece by one of their favourite international choreographers, Azsure Barton – who’s originally from Edmonton.

The company will also perform “Lullaby for Insomnia” by Malpaso co-founder Daileidys Carrazana, and company member Osnel Delgado’s 24 Hours and a Dog.

Malpaso was formed in 2012, after the Cuban government initiated economic reforms in 2011 that allowed for more private businesses to be created. This allowed dancers and choreographers Delgado and Carranza to join forces with Suarez, who was then the director of performing arts programs at the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, according to an article in Americas Quarterly by Michael Voss.

The goal of it all was to grow homegrown choreographers at the same time the company increased its international footprint and connected the Cuban contemporary dance scene to the international dance community.

That piece premiered in 2013 at the Joyce Theatre in New York, which is kind of the epicenter of American contemporary dance, on a bill that included new pieces by choreographer Ron K Brown and others.

Considering Malpaso only formed in 2012, it didn’t long for the company to find a home away from home in the heartland of contemporary dance in North America, where it’s an associate company at the Joyce.

Much like Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Malpaso is dedicated to both nurturing homegrown choreography by company dancers (DJD just did it with Olio), and performing as much as it can with live music.

“Sometimes it is an impossibility but we always try,” Sáez said. “It gives life, it gives energy, it gives drama that we experience through the event.

“It is not just the music,” he adds. “It’s a conversation.”

And although the company remains very much dedicated to the local, Sáez is just as quick to point out that sometimes, he feels more connected to the choreography of Barton, who grew up on the Canadian prairies, than to something created by his Cuban choreographers.

Then he tells the story of how “Stillness in Bloom” came into creation in the summer of 2021, when the world was still in the throes of a global pandemic.

“It started with Azsure confined to a hotel room, working through drawings and film,” he says, “although after a week she was able to join rehearsals.”

The piece, he said, reflects the emotions that so many people experienced during the pandemic, when isolation became the norm and mental health frayed for many.

“It’s a deep reflection,” Sáez says, “on the fragility of people and of our art. (I think of it as) both a joyful and sad piece that talks about contradictory feelings.”

“We love this very much.”

“I sometimes feel I have more in common with Azsure Barton,” he adds, “in terms of sensibilities, ambition and hope (than with other choreographers).”

“Stillness in Bloom” was part of the lineup when Malpaso performed for the first time at the Joyce following the relaxing of pandemic restrictions in the autumn of 2022 – but getting there was an odyssey that started early in 2022, when the troupe was forced to fly from Cuba to Serbia to gain entry to New York, only to have it all scrapped when Omicron broke out.

Nine months later, with a variety of restrictions still in place, the company tried again. This time, according to a 2022 New York Times story by Brian Seibert, the journey started in the Dominican Republic, where they received visas (the American embassy in Havana closed in 207), at which point they were good to go – until Hurricane Ian blew in and blew up their travel schedule yet again.

Eventually, they made it back to New York, and back to the Joyce, their American dance home base.

It says something that a story about an international dance company is more about the obstacles they overcame to travel internationally than about the creative work itself! But for a large chunk of the last few years – an eternity in the lives of dancers, whose careers are all on the clock – performance was almost too much to ask for.

Sáez says the pandemic didn’t necessarily reveal a new emotional landscape for himself, but it did make him feel that a lot of the world woke up when the planet took a time out to discover how humanity can sometimes misplace its priorities. (to put it mildly!)

“(The pandemic) reinforced my conviction and thinking,” he said. “I have always felt about the fragility of people and this work. “Dance and theatre are ephemeral works,” he adds.

What did the pandemic teach us?

“How the outbreak developed,” he says. “How we abuse nature.”

“What we are learning is that we live in a world out of balance,” he adds. “This is nothing new.”

That leads us down a path that takes us to the depressing reality of the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, where the world truly is out of balance – but isn’t a very good place to end a conversation about a dance company.

“That’s a bit of a dark place to end our conversation,” I say into the What’s App app on my phone.

“I will give you a lighter place to finish,” Sáez says. “‘24 Hours and a Dog’.”

“(It’s) an abstract, joyful piece of a day in the life of Havana,” he says, “starting with walking the dog.”

And oh by the way: how’s the weather in Havana on a Wednesday afternoon in late January?

“Hot, and sunny,” Sáez says. “Just like a summer day.”

Join Arts Commons Presents on March 7, 2024 in the Jack Singer Concert Hall at Arts Commons for Malpaso Dance Company with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Click here to learn more and get your tickets today!