The U.S.-Cuba relationship changed — and so did the lives of these dancers

Members of Cuban troupe Malpaso in co-founder Osnel Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog.” The company performs at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday.
Members of Cuban troupe Malpaso in co-founder Osnel Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog.” The company performs at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday. Photo by Roberto Leon

The Cuban modern dance troupe Malpaso has lived a kind of dizzying artistic fairy tale since relations between the United States and Cuba opened up two years ago. They’ve worked with top U.S. choreographers and performed at the most prestigious venues in this country, receiving mostly glowing reviews. They’re sponsored by renowned New York dance presenter Joyce Theater Foundation — an enviable position for any ensemble.

“It seems like everything happened yesterday and four centuries ago,” Fernando Saez, the company’s executive director, says from Havana. Two and a half years ago they made their Miami debut in a grassroots show presented by the Copperbridge Foundation at the Miami Light Project’s Wynwood space. This Friday they perform in the vast John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

“We are very proud to perform there and to come back to Miami,” Saez says, while also saluting Copperbridge founder Geo Darder’s “passion and commitment” in taking a chance on the troupe while it was still unknown. “The quality and versatility of the company and the professionalism of the dancers has increased very much. Facing American audiences with a tough dance vision allows the dancers to develop themselves in a profound way.”

In Miami, Malpaso will perform resident choreographer Osnel Delgado’s exuberant “24 Hours and a Dog,” as well as Ronald K. Brown’s urgent “Why You Follow,” their first collaboration with a U.S. choreographer; and Trey McIntyre’s “Bad Winter.”

Working with artists like Brown and McIntyre, both acclaimed independent choreographers who spent weeks in Cuba working with the troupe, has been one of the most exhilarating aspects of Malpaso’s expanding existence.

“It is a kind of love story to have these exchanges with American choreographers,” Delgado says. “The most important thing is to build a bridge to communicate. Trey was very inventive all the time, very involved in the process of working with the company, and we had a very special relationship that marks another level for the company.”

Brown, who choreographs regularly for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and incorporates traditional African and Afro-Cuban movement with a profound sense of spirituality, was the first American artist to work with Malpaso. “Bad Winter” is the second piece that McIntyre, a ballet choreographer who has worked with many top U.S. troupes as well as leading his own, has done for the Cuban company.

Malpaso’s newest work by a U.S. choreographer, Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz,” will have its U.S. debut on Feb. 3 and 4 at Palm Beach State College’s Duncan Theatre.

Like “24 Hours” and the Brown piece, “Lions” is set to an original score by Grammy winning Afro-Cuban jazz composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, a Cuban-American artist who has worked closely with Cuban musicians for years and has now forged a rich relationship with Malpaso. (Friday at the Arsht, a local jazz ensemble will play O’Farrill’s scores on stage.)

The company has come a long way since 2012, when Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana, then dancers with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, the island’s oldest modern troupe, and Saez, then with the Ludwig Foundation, a major cultural entity, quit those secure positions to launch Malpaso. The name, “mis-step” in Spanish, is an ironic comment on the risks they took.

Now the Joyce Foundation, partnering with a Canadian management company, secures funding, commissions and tours for the group. Malpaso has become a force in a rapidly expanding modern dance scene in Cuba. They recently performed at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, home to the National Ballet of Cuba, and hosted visits from the Martha Graham Dance Company and celebrity ballerina Misty Copeland. Delgado had been curating a bimonthly show of new Cuban choreographers at Malpaso’s studio.

“There’s a lot happening,” says Delgado. “It’s not competitive, but there’s an intensity that keeps motivating me.”

The last two years have seen the development of an increasingly vigorous dance scene in Cuba, including modern troupes like Danzabierta and a contemporary ballet troupe launched by international star Carlos Acosta.

“There is no question the dance panorama is expanding,” says Saez, who credits that growth in part to exchanges with the U.S. and an encouraging U.S. cultural policy. “It is impossible to tell the story of contemporary dance in Cuba without telling the story of the profound relationship with dance in the United States.”

He worries whether that relationship will continue under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened on Twitter to reverse Obama’s Cuba policy.

“I hope profoundly that the exchanges between our nations continue,” Saez says. “If the circumstances don’t change, it will be very enriching.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Osnel Delgado’s next dance, “Dreaming of Lions,” would have its U.S. premiere at the Duncan Theatre in West Palm Beach; that work will premiere later in 2017 at another U.S. location.

If You Go

What: Malpaso

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $35 to $95, arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722