The members of Havana's Malpaso Dance Company were still decades from being born when, 54 years ago, the U.S. enacted a trade embargo with Cuba. But the effects of that embargo have overshadowed their lives and the lives of other Cuban artists ever since. But while the two nations, separated by 90 miles of water, have been politically at odds for more than half a century, their arts communities have been more tolerant. Even before the recent news that the Obama administration was in talks with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, artists from both countries — including Malpaso just last year — had managed to overcome bureaucratic barriers to create cultural exchanges.
Malpaso's performances this weekend, for the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater's World Stage Series, are part of those efforts.
The non-state-sponsored Malpaso was founded in 2012 by Fernando Sáez Carvajal, Dailedys Carrazana and former Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancer Osnel Delgado. The 10-member contemporary-dance troupe's name means "misstep" in English. The ironic name was inspired by naysayers who told Delgado it was a mistake to leave his popular former company to start his own. On the contrary, Malpaso shortly burst onto the world stage and attracted the attention of such international choreographers as Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre.
Kelly-Strayhorn executive director Janera Solomon says that the company's Pittsburgh debut arose from a casual conversation she had last summer at an event in Chicago with Martin Wechsler, director of programming at New York's Joyce Theater. "The idea of bringing a contemporary-dance company from Cuba to Pittsburgh just seemed like an immediate yes," says Solomon.
The challenge, she says, was financial. "We are not the Joyce," says Solomon. But even for the Joyce Theater, finding partners to help defray the cost of bringing in international artists is critical. Embargo laws have kept Cuban artists from touring here by prohibiting American presenters from paying fees to them, instead allowing them to pay only a small per diem and travel expenses. Ironically, those same laws helped the Kelly-Strayhorn afford to bring in Malpaso. The theater still needed additional help, however, from area donors and from the Joyce, which handled much of the logistical legwork.
Malpaso has been well received so far in the U.S. Reviewing the troupe's May 2014 show at the Joyce, for instance, New York Times critic Siobahn Burke wrote: "They have the pristine technique but none of the rigidity that comes with [ballet] training. ... They're both humble and sparklingly present."
Pittsburgh will host the U.S. premieres of the two works Malpaso will later perform in Washington, D.C., the Joyce and the Jacob's Pillow Festival. The first work on the program will be the latest by Malpaso artistic director Delgado, entitled "Despedida" ("Farewell"). The 28-minute piece, says Malpaso executive director Carvajal via email, was inspired by the short poem of the same name by Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. Malpaso's dancers will perform a mix of contemporary ballet, modern dance and capoeira movement styles. Set to an original score by Grammy-winning Cuban-American musician Arturo O'Farrill, the poem speaks of intense longing, and having to say goodbye to a loved one. Carvajal writes the "personal circumstances of the choreographer and other members of the company" played into its creation.
The other premiere on the program is choreographer/filmmaker McIntyre's 21-minute "Under Fire," set to five songs by Boise, Idaho-based singer/songwriter Kelsey Swope, a.k.a. Grandma Kelsey.
The work, says McIntyre by phone from Durham, N.C., was inspired by the recent demise of his Boise-based Trey McIntyre Project. McIntyre burned stacks of old papers from the company in a bonfire in his backyard. He found that when he stirred the fire, it had burned only the outer edges of the papers and compacted them, "making them more perfect as a source of fuel," says McIntyre.
"I thought it was a really interesting metaphor for human life," say McIntyre. "That in the process of trying to change our exteriors in some ways, it makes us more of who we are essentially in the ways that we are formed."
For Malpaso and the Kelly-Strayhorn, the timing of this tour couldn't have been better, with the recent and well-publicized thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
"The opportunity of revisiting one of the main sources of the Cuban modern-dance and ballet tradition, and continuing a conversation that was interrupted between cultures that are deeply interconnected, is important," writes Carvajal.
Forming artistic relationships and reaching out to new audiences is something artists and presenters from both countries hope will be a lot easier in the years to come.