Photo via New York Times by Roberto Leon

Home to habanera, son, mambo, and cha-cha, Cuba is “a dancing island.” Cuba’s influence in dance is powerful —  especially in such a Latin city like New York where salsa originated in part thanks to the island’s movements and beats. With an immense dance tradition, Cuba’s movement happens not just in the streets but on the concert stage, with the world-renowned Ballet Nacional de Cuba touring the United States for the first time about a decade ago. Pushing forth Cuba’s affinity for dance, last night MalPaso, a contemporary dance company formed only 1 year and a few months ago, made its international debut at the Joyce Theater. MalPaso is unique among contemporary dance companies in Cuba in that it’s not state-funded, giving it a DIY approach that provides more creative control over choreography and artistic direction.

We spoke to Co-Founder of MalPaso, Fernando Saez, who is also Director of the Performing Arts Program of Fundación Ludwig de Cuba. He gave us the run down on how the company was formed, his relationship with Artistic Director and resident choreographer Osnel Delgado, and the company’s goals as it develops and grows.

Let’s start off with an overview of your background and your involvement and role with the company.

My professional background is in theater and I joined the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba in 1998. I have worked extensively in a number of ways promoting Cuban performing arts and specifically Cuban dance. Cuba is no doubt a dancing island and it is one of the most eloquent ways we can express ourselves in cultural terms. One of my strongest connections in the past with the Ludwig Foundation was with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba which, was founded in 1959 and was the first modern dance company under a different name at the time to be founded on the island [Cuba]. It was founded by Ramiro Guerra who is considered to be the grandfather of dance in Cuba.

How was the company founded?

Several years ago I met Osnel Delgado, who graduated from the National Modern Dance School. Osnel then went on to dance for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba for 8 years. He’s a great dancer and he wanted to find his own artistic voice as a choreographer. He did have a chance to choreograph a bit with the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, but left because he felt he could not move forward with his mission there. His last performance with Danza Contemporánea de Cuba was Casi Casa by the great Swedish choreographer Mats Ek. He then spent 2 years working as a freelance choreographer and that’s when we began to develop our relationship and became good friends. Then the time came for him to have a stable group of dancers to work with. He said it was the only chance he had to completely develop his own voice as a choreographer. And because of that he and I together with Daile Carrazana [a fellow company dancer] decided to create our own company, which only began with 2 dancers and myself. With very hard work, the company has only existed for 1 year and 5 months, they began to perform in different cities around Cuba and different stages in Havana. Dancers from different companies started to approach the company. And actually Osnel knew all of them from before, he was the teacher of some of them at the National School of Dance in Havana, he met some of them at different interesting festivals around the island, and worked with some of them. So they started to show up and then we started to hire them. At the moment we have 9 dancers, soon to be 10. Currently [there are] five men and four women.

What’s the company’s mission?

Part of the mission of the company is to create a permanent space and permanent workshops to foster the development of emerging Cuban choreographers. We also want to develop as much as possible the dialogues and relationship with the American modern dance community. The genesis of Cuban modern dance and ballet lies in a very profound relationship with American dance. Cuban ballet and modern dance would not be what it is today, it would be something very different without this. At a very modest scale we can be ambassadors for our culture. The worst possible enemy of Cuban culture, in fact of any culture is isolation and hopefully in a very modest way we can open dialogue between the American and Cuban cultures. We want to encourage American and Cuban choreographers to work with one another and facilitate those relationships.

How did MalPaso get its name? It’s a bit ironic no?

Of course it means the opposite of what dance is supposed to be or what it is expected to be. It is related to Osnel’s background when he decided at the peak of his dance career to leave Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. Many people advised him not to. And at the same time mistakes are related to experience. Experiments and artistic commitment are always subject to mistakes. Our artistic experiences are shaped by the mistakes we make somehow.

Are you a dancer?

(Laughs) I have never been a professional dancer and will never be. Although, I come from a family of theater and so you can say I was born into that world. So my engagement in theater extended beyond my conscious disposition. My professional approach to acting for many years was very physical which ties into my interest in dance.

What type of content inspired the performance piece, “24 Horas Y Un Perro”? Is there anything the audience should be tuned into?

I’d like to put it this way: it is an abstract recreation of the life of the dancers in Havana city. So a typical day in the life. The internal structure of the piece is so that audience members can relate to the piece. The different movements of the piece reflect different actions. The first is walking the dog, the second is at work in the studio, the third is lunchtime, then it’s being chased by a dog, and the finale is a walk on G Avenue which is the main road in Havana. This is the internal structure which isn’t necessarily visible to the audience in an obvious way,

There are so many high-achieving dance companies coming out of Cuba how does MalPaso distinguish itself?

I would be pretentious to consider that we’ve reached our own voice. The crystallization of our voice will take a little bit of time. Nevertheless, I think there is total commitment to serious artistic dance not compromised at all by commercial intention. Holding high artistic standards and technical standards.

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In last night’s opening performance artistic director, Osnel Delgado led his troupe with a playful and humorous yet honest physical display, navigating the romance and turmoil of life in Havana for their first piece, “24 Horas Y Un Perro.” Live music by Arturo O’Farrill and members of the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble accompanied the dancers, immersing the audience in the city’s heartbeat and in moments of disarray. The second piece, the upbeat “Porque Sigues,” was choreographed by Bed-Stuy’s own Ronald Brown and highlighted gorgeous Afro-Carribean movements throughout.

Check out the Malpaso Dance Company at the Joyce Theater through June 1st. Tickets start at $10.