The cultural exchange between Miami and Cuba has been mostly musical, followed by theater and visual art. But a visit last week by a riveting new Cuban dance company, presented by a new Miami group devoted to artistic interaction with the island, marked a different stage in that dialogue.
Last Thursday night, as nine dancers from Cuban troupe MalPaso thundered around the dark stage of the Miami Light Project’s Wynwood theater in Why You Follow, a new dance by famed American choreographer Ronald K. Brown, the audience clapped, shouted and cheered along as the dance came to an exuberant finish.
MalPaso made a high profile international debut in a sold-out, weeklong run at New York’s Joyce Theater at the end of May, where they premiered Why You Follow and a dance by artistic director Osnel Delgado to a rave review in the New York Times. It was a dream-come-true introduction for an upstart independent troupe launched just a year and a half ago. Their Miami visit was different — a series of free workshops and performances for friends and family, people from the dance and arts worlds and community groups publicized mostly by word of mouth.
They were sponsored here by the Copperbridge Foundation, a new cultural group launched two years ago by Geo Darder, a Miami-raised Cuban-American who aims to create a slate of new artistic programs in Miami and Havana. Darder has produced a show of street fashion in Havana, brought a Chicago jazz orchestra together with Cuban musicians and co-produced a documentary film on Cuban artists. Last summer he staged an introductory party for Copperbridge in Wynwood with another Cuban dance troupe, Danzabierta, and musician Descemer Bueno. In early September Copperbridge will stage its biggest and first public event in Miami, a weeklong Cultural Evolution series of Cuban music, dance, art and film — featuring the Afro-Cuban fusion group Sintesis and the return of Danzabierta.
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Both MalPaso and Copperbridge owe their existence to a changing cultural landscape on the island. “I see so many artistic changes in Cuba,” says Darder, who first traveled to the island 20 years ago. In the late ’90s he began organizing cultural trips to Cuba for U.S. groups, initially focusing on Art Deco architecture. Now Darder says loosened visa and travel rules and expanding private enterprise in Cuba have created new possibilities for artists — from projects like musician X Alfonso’s Fabrika Arte Cubana, a showcase for Cuban visual, film and performing artists, to a growing number of financially independent visual artists with international careers.
“For me it’s a counterpart of Wynwood,” Darder says. “I decided we can’t just go to Cuba and not give them something in return. We have to invite them to our country to see what we’re doing here.”
Copperbridge is still very much an individual labor of love for Darder. As people began to arrive at Miami Light last Thursday, he pulled up in his small car, piled high with bottles of soda for a reception, and lugged them inside himself. The MalPaso troupe stayed at his home in the Design District. Shortly after their arrival last Tuesday, the dancers were scattered on furniture and the floor among piles of luggage and bags of groceries, staring intently at various devices and luxuriating in Wifi (still an expensive rarity in Cuba).
MalPaso’s three founders left secure positions to launch the company. The executive director, Fernando Saez, was working with the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, an independent and prominent cultural foundation there. Choreographer and artistic director Osnel Delgado and co-founder Daileidys Carrazana Gonzalez were members of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, the island’s oldest modern troupe. Their name — “misstep” in Spanish — is a self-deprecating joke as well as a jab at those who told Delgado that leaving Danza Contemporanea was a mistake.
“I wanted to develop my own career as an artist,” Delgado said, sitting in Darder’s backyard. He and Saez want to give chances to other Cuban choreographers and seem to see MalPaso as a group enterprise. “We want to create our own style and choreographic voice,” Saez says. “We really have to work as a team,” Delgado told the audience at the Lightbox. “When each dancer can express themselves, that’s when you have respect for each other.”
They are eager to connect with American dance artists. While Cuba is known for ballet and Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, its modern dance, a mix of classic American modern and Afro-Cuban styles, has been less well regarded, with outside critics tending to praise the quality of the dancers but not the choreography. “The genesis of Cuban ballet and modern dance traditions are very connected to the American dance tradition,” Saez says. “To develop this dialogue is extremely enriching for Cuban dance, and we believe we have something to offer as well.”
A year ago the Joyce Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Ludwig Foundation collaborated to send Ronald K. Brown, known for his vibrant, original blend of contemporary, African and Afro-Cuban movement and spiritual themes, to Cuba, where he chose MalPaso from 11 companies.
“It was a really lovely experience,” Delgado says of working with Brown in Havana last winter. “It helped us connect with our sources.”
Although the Cuban dancers’ training includes the emphatic, grounded, poly-rhythmic movements of Afro-Cuban ritual dances, Brown’s version was a challenge — looser, more colloquial, lower to the ground, with different rhythms. In contrast, 24 Hours and a Dog, the piece Delgado (in collaboration with MalPaso’s dancers) made for this trip, had a much more stretched-out, balletic vocabulary. Set to a bright, driving Afro-Cuban jazz score by New York’s Arturo O’Farrill (son of Chico O’Farrill, an arranger and composer who was an architect of pre-Revolutionary big band Cuban jazz), 24 Hours is meant to evoke a day in the lives of these Havana dancers, or any young city-dwellers.
Thursday night, the dancers, led by Delgado, raced through a series of encounters, acrobatic duets, what seemed like a dance class, other sequences that could be dark and aggressive, or celebratory and exuberant. The piece vibrated with a precarious, urgent energy.
Because of visa restrictions, MalPaso’s Miami events — a free master class for Miami dancers on Wednesday, the Thursday showcase and discussion, and a Friday fundraising performance for Copperbridge — were private. All were held at Miami Light, which has a long history of presenting Cuban artists.
About half the 200 people attending Thursday were friends and relatives of MalPaso’s nine dancers, with others from community and arts centers in Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti. Overtown Youth Center dance instructor Latasha Strawder brought about 10 of her students. “I’m all about diversity and showing them different styles,” said Strawder. “Many doors can open up when you’re acquainted with everyone.”
Juan María Seller, a dancer and choreographer who recently moved to Miami from Spain, came because he had been impressed by the Cuban dance scene he had encountered in visits to the island. “I liked how valiant the dancers are in tackling experimental work, given how little economic possibility there is,” Seller said. “Since there’s not much contemporary dance [in Miami] it’d be good to exchange that with Cuba.”
For the Cubans, Thursday night’s event was an emotional experience. Silvia Torres came with husband Juan Manuel Perez, who had danced with Delgado’s parents in Danza Contemporanea. “He was created in dance, and now he’s brought his magic, his freshness, his creation here,” Torres said. “I’m proud, proud, proud to see him doing this.”