Nine passionate dancers make up the budding Cuban contemporary troupe Malpaso Dance Company, showcased at the Joyce Theater Wednesday night. Yet to these dancers, the setting was more than just another venue. Starting in 2001, the Joyce used the “people-to-people” license, which mandates that American travelers to Cuba must engage in scheduled educational or cultural activities while visiting; to date, the endeavor has sent a total of 273 dance lovers on seventeen separate trips to the island nation. The exchange between Cuban artists and American supporters proved mutually beneficial, prompting the Joyce to find more ways to encourage international collaboration. Since 2013, the Joyce has commissioned Ronald K. Brown, Trey McIntyre, and Aszure Barton, three U.S.-based choreographers, to work in Cuba with Malpaso and present the results in the beloved Chelsea theater. The New York premiere of Barton’s Indomitable Waltz, which we see first on this current program (running through Sunday), marks the most recent product of this relationship.
A cast of four women and three men are illuminated by spotlights and four hanging lightbulbs in an all-black setting for Indomitable Waltz. Fernando Benet begins the piece with a phrase of joint isolations: a shoulder pulled out to the side, followed by his torso taking a winding trip to reach its new destination. His thoughtful facial expressions shine like one of the starlike bulbs from above, bringing vulnerability to his solid frame. He and his castmates wear black and gray practice clothes to reveal muscular bodies. At moments, long limbs undulate, only to punctuate a step with an awkward jerk or a hunched back. As Barton explains in the interview supplementing the Joyce’s program notes, “The process, and ultimately the dance, manifested in an intimate exploration of the soul.” Flashes of beauty and ease jut up against uncomfortable contortions; Barton seems to be experimenting with the messy imperfections of human existence. While a waltz-step was nowhere to be found, the score included one. The Balanescu Quartet and Nils Frahm made up the wafting string sounds and occasional plucks of joy that accompanied the dancers’ physicalized anguish. Yet for Barton, as the piece’s title indicates, the soul’s dance on earth seems to be unbeatable.
Resident choreographer and artistic director Osnel Delgado is one of the company’s three founders; during several performances in this run, he performs his 2013 duet Ocaso with Daileidys Carrazana. Featuring the music of Autechre, the Kronos Quartet, and Max Richter, Ocaso finds the couple frequently embracing tightly throughout, as though each had a magnet affixed to their chest. Taking a fourth artistic role, Delgado is also costume designer for the duet. Red flare pants complement a floral yellow-and-beige top on his lean frame, while Carrazana wears a simple black dress with lace details on the bodice. If Barton explores an inward gaze at the soul, Delgado’s choreography speaks to the way we connect outwardly in relationships. Weight-bearing partnering is peppered with breezier gestures of everyday intimacy, like Delgado’s tendency to pull his lover’s head onto his chest.
The evening closes with Face the Torrent, by the Emmy Award–nominated Sonya Tayeh, who was commissioned by the Music Center in L.A. to create the piece last year. Cello sounds are paired with distorted and echoed spoken word by Colette Alexander and the Bengsons. At the onset, the cast of eight dancers walk in a horizontal straight line downstage and back upstage in slow motion, while one possessed man, Abel Rojo, suffers as he moves with the stoic group in formation. A woman reaches out and stops his quivers and his head-clutching, seemingly rescuing him from the brink of insanity. The piece appears to explore the relation between inner suffering and a surrounding community: Dunia Acosta, for example, pulses outreached hands in front of her, stuck on a loop of repeating movements, until a team of four men intervene to stop her desperate pattern. The piece is thought-provoking, but pales somewhat in comparison to Barton’s use of emotional subtlety throughout Indomitable Waltz — a work whose sense of strength and perseverance could describe Malpaso Dance Company as a whole.