Cuban Malpaso Dance Company returned to Miami Friday to an enthusiastic welcome at the Adrienne Arsht Center, of the kind rarely given to modern dance companies. The group has enjoyed a rare degree of international attention in nearly three years of touring in the United States and working with U.S. choreographers, becoming the locus of hope for a creative, uniquely Cuban contemporary dance scene.
What that could mean shows in the vital, refreshingly individual way these dancers move, and in the pieces by artistic director and co-founder Osnel Delgado, who supplies the repertory not created by North American artists. On Friday a crowd of almost 900 (impressive for modern dance) greeted Delgado's "24 Hours and a Dog," a rambling portrayal of a day-in-city-life. It's set to a rich, percolating original score by Afro-Cuban jazz composer and bandleader Arturo O'Farrill, in the first of several collaborations with Malpaso, played here by an accomplished ensemble of New York based musicians.
Though Delgado has said "24 Hours" could be anyone, anywhere, it seems clear that it's a day for these Cuban dancers, and the lean, charismatic choreographer in particular. He enters alone, stretching his back, looking at the band as if to say "y que? you gonna play?" then leads the four men and four women in a warm-up class, now crossing his arms to watch, now popping into the air like a startled bird. His own dancing combines a snaking fluidity with sharp, sudden speed; his choreography sets the dancers, who are beautifully attuned to each other, sliding around each other's shoulders and waists, or in punchily muscular, rhythmic steps. There's a sequence where Delgado dances with each of the four women, in playful, challenging partnerships, and another where the men lunge and circle watchfully, as if in a threatening place. A duet for Delgado and the mesmerizing Dunia Acosta had a wonderfully idiosyncratic intimacy and sensuality.
The literal quality of "24 Hours" can hold the piece back; the class sequences with their squared off patterns and compostion, or the questions provoked by certain gestures, like when everyone shakes their hands. The Knight Concert Hall stage, which is not made for dance, didn't help - the energy and atmosphere (and lighting) were dissipated into the huge open space above the stage, weakening the impact.
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American choreographer Trey McIntyre's "Bad Winter" was an individually intriguing but unrelated solo and duet. The marvelous Acosta, in white tail coat and leotard, moved with slithery, commanding urgency to an old-fashioned recording of "Pennies From Heaven." Daile Carrazana (Malpaso's other co-founder) and Manuel Duran were gripping in an emotionally charged duet to a Cinematic Orchestra ballad - its pop melodrama leavened by a strange sensuality and the dancers' powerful connection. When she slid her hand down his bare chest, you held your breath.
The dancers' urgent physicality illuminated and drove Ronald K. Brown's "Why You Follow," set to Afro-pop and dance music and with Brown's familiar themes of dance as a medium for spirituality and an exuberant journey inspired by tradition. The dancers dug into Brown's African and Afro-Cuban vocabulary, the sudden lunges, twisting hips, arms stabbing into space; vibrant, handsome, bearded Abel Rojo, in particular, had the audience cheering. "Follow," more than the rest of the program, suffered from the diffuse concert hall space. Still, as the dancers thundered triumphantly in a final, loping circle, the audience whooping along, their journey seemed both joyful and assured.
Malpaso performs a U.S. premiere by American choreographer Aszure Barton Feb. 3 and 4 at the Duncan Theatre in West Palm Beach; info at palmbeachstate.edu/duncan-theatre