Laguna Dance Festival Contrasts Two Contemporary Companies – Part I

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Malpaso Dance Company in 'Despedida.' Photo by Andrea Mohin for the New York Times.

Malpaso Dance Company in ‘Despedida.’ Photo by Andrea Mohin for the New York Times.

The two companies presented in this year’s Laguna Dance Festival were Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. The former company was appearing on the American West Coast for the first time ever since its establishment in 2012; the latter is a California stronghold for contemporary ballet, who last appeared at the Festival when I’d  just arrived in this state, also in 2012.

Malpaso’s relative youth as a company was perceptible in the first work they presented, Trey McIntyre’s “Under Fire,” featuring 5 women and 3 men. The stylized choreography contained several pleasing and playful moments, though after a few sections it boiled down to a rather straightforward piece, set to a suite of songs by sultry-sounding (and sometimes crass) Grandma Kelsey. At one point, the women in the piece walked across the stage pedestrian-style while the men log-rolled away from them, maintaining their distance–to the smoothly-sung lyrics “if you’re horny, let’s do it,”. Timed with intermittent pauses, this made for a cheeky display. But overall, some of the dancers appeared just to be fitting their bodies into the steps, and not exactly transcending them. I was, however, impressed by the men in the piece, possibly because they seemed more mature and sure of their dancing and moved cohesively as a unit, whereas the women were notably distinct from each other. And performatively, they remained on different pages, a few utilizing facial expressions and a few not.

It was in their second piece, choreographed by Artistic Director Osnel Delgado Wambrug in collaboration with the dancers, that my heart began to open for Malpaso. The music, by Mexican artists Arturo O’Farill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, was infused with a richness of Latino culture one doesn’t normally see set to contemporary dance that deepened throughout like wine left to breathe, and any unsurety betrayed by the dancers in “Fire” was nowhere to be noticed here–surely because the dancers were involved with creating the work, and they probably dance Wambrug’s style more than any other. Inebriated by the (recorded) heavy jazz and the continuously-unfolding movement, my thoughts drifted to dark, musty clubs where I’d listened to loudly improvised sets before, certainly half a bottle of red in. If the music was distracting from the dance, or overwhelmed it, I didn’t notice.

The movement was release-like, curvaceous, and long on floorwork. What I found myself enjoying about it, after awhile, was the fact that I couldn’t identify stylistic sources of inspiration; the choreographer’s lineage was not apparent to me. I wondered: is this original? Or am I unaware of this particular trajectory in dance? Either I enjoyed not being able to read between the lines of the choreography and chalked my ignorance of it up to its potentially Cuban origins, or this really was Cuban culture, and I was experiencing it in contemporary-dance form for the first time. Hm. The piece seemed, somehow, a departure from the “sanitization”–a term I’m stealing from my editor at Orange Coast Magazine, Laura Bleiberg–of contemporary dance, whereby every company arguably starts to look the same. On this concept, I’d be interested to hear from readers in the comments. 

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Ruby Washington for the New York Times.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Ruby Washington for the New York Times.

Last, the newcomer company performed the Ronald K. Brown’s por que sigues, but again, I felt a not-all-on-the-same-page vibe from the dancers. Some embodied his signature blend of African movements and contemporary styles with, well, grace (Ailey fans will forgive me); others emitted a lower level of comfort. Despite the notion of “sanitization” I tossed out above, I do believe repertory companies are one of the most sustainable models, business-wise, for new companies. I applaud Malpaso for engaging top international choreographers in their short lifespan, and I would love to see them dance other Cuban choreographers’ works in the future, too. Either way, I look forward to seeing them again.


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