Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Co. restages dance work premiered 34 years ago in Pittsburgh

Malpaso Dance Co. — one of Cuba’s most sought-after contemporary dance troupes — will perform at Byham Theater Feb. 22 as the next act on the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s 2019-20 season.

SARA BAUKNECHT – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — FEB 17, 2020

More than 1,200 miles separate Cuba-based Malpaso Dance Co. and Pittsburgh, but the two have more in common than meets the eye. 

Malpaso — hailed as Cuba’s first independent contemporary dance company — made its Pittsburgh debut in 2015 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It premiered in the U.S. two original works during that trip. 

Then, in 2018, Malpaso premiered in its home city of Havana a work that traces its roots back to Pittsburgh. 

The two will intersect once again next weekend when the Pittsburgh Dance Council presents Malpaso Dance Co. at Byham Theater, Downtown, as part of its 2019-20 season. The one-night engagement on Saturday will be its first time headlining a Dance Council program. 

Malpaso Dance Co.’s path from conception to international touring company has been a swift one. It was founded in 2012 by its executive director Fernando Sáez, artistic director/choreographer Osnel Delgado and associate artistic director/dancer Daileidys Carrazana. The company’s creation was their response to Cuba’s government-backed dance institutions. Their goal was to carve out a space for contemporary dance to allow for fresh choreographic voices and artistic endeavors to thrive.Malpaso Dance Co.When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22Where: Byham Theater, DowntownTickets: Start at $10 at trustarts.org or 412-456-6666Informationmalpasodance.com

Its name Malpaso is Spanish for “misstep” — would breaking out on their own be one? 

“It was a big challenge in the very beginning,” Mr. Sáez says. “How to finance the company? How to recruit the dancers? How to make the work more visible?” 

Those challenges still exist, particularly in a country where about a quarter of its population is living in poverty. Plus, Cuba doesn’t have its own equivalent to nonprofit organizations in the U.S., which are exempt from federal taxes and allow for financial contributions to be tax deductible for donors. 

“If you don’t have that legal framework to incentivize philanthropy, it’s not going to help,” he adds. 

Nevertheless, Malpaso has found its footing at home and abroad. In 2014, it performed for the first time outside of Cuba at the famed Joyce Theater in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. It’s been one of The Joyce’s associated companies ever since, a partnership that helps connect Malpaso with prominent choreographers and touring opportunities, including its upcoming visit to Pittsburgh.

It was at The Joyce where Randal Miller, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s director of dance programming and special projects, saw Malpaso Dance Co. and learned about one of its Pittsburgh connections. On the program that day was “Tabula Rasa,” a work by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin in his Gaga movement style. (Gaga technique encourages dancers to tap into the natural rhythms of their bodies for the joy of it; twisting, bending and undulating are common expressions of it.)

In the program notes, Mr. Miller saw that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre commissioned and premiered “Tabula Rasa” in 1986. “Looking at the piece through that lens was mind blowing to me,” he says. “It’s so different from anything that I’ve ever seen PBT do.”

The backstory: Former PBT artistic director Patricia Wilde saw Mr. Naharin in 1984 on a Pittsburgh Dance Council program. He was a rising choreographer at the time, and she was impressed enough to commission a ballet from him for PBT. “Tabula Rasa” is still considered one of his most important works and has been performed worldwide by the likes of Nederlands Dans Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Singapore Dance Theatre. PBT last staged it in 1997.

Malpaso Dance Co. will present “Tabula Rasa” on its mixed repertory program in Pittsburgh.

“In addition to being the Dance Council’s 50th anniversary, it’s PBT’s 50th anniversary. Tying those anniversaries together is a really special angle when I was curating the season,” Mr. Miller says. 

The lineup on Saturday also will include “Face the Torrent,” a 2017 work by New York City-based choreographer Sonya Tayeh, and “Ocaso,” something from Malpaso’s resident choreographer Mr. Osnel.

“We try to find choreographers we like and respect,” Mr. Sáez says. “At the same time, they have to be challenging enough.”  

Malpaso seeks out or choreographs its own works that highlight the diversity of its 11 dancers, who Mr. Sáez describes as “a kaleidoscope of Cuban culture.” Most have some modern or ballet training, as well as experiences in styles from across Cuba. 

Mr. Sáez hopes audiences come to a Malpaso Dance Co. show without assumptions about what a dance company from Cuba could or should look like.

“This could be a journey of discovering another fragment of Cuba,” he says. 

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.