Two Ways of Looking at Cuba’s Modern Dance Problem | Modern Society of USA

Two Ways of Looking at Cuba’s Modern Dance Problem

Two Ways of Looking at Cuba’s Modern Dance Problem

At the end of George Céspedes’s “El Último Recurso,” dancers stand and stare at the audience for the full duration of a song. That extended staring in stillness, with baleful or at least somber faces, is something they’ve done many times before in this 80-minute work, usually in silence. The song is “Feeling Good.” These dancers, clearly, aren’t.

They are members of Los Hijos del Director, a Cuban company that made its United States debut at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday as part of the two-week Cuba Festival. The aggressive-depressive quality of their performance is one clear contrast with Malpaso Dance Company, an unfailingly open and generous crew that had the first week of the festival to itself. (Los Hijos shares its week with the flamenco group Compañía Irene Rodríguez.)

But the aim expressed in the program for Los Hijos — “to develop a new dancing style created in Cuba and danced by Cubans” — is one that Malpaso shares. Both companies were founded recently, six or seven years ago, by renegades from the national modern dance troupe, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba (founded in 1959). Both face what could be called the central problem of Cuban modern dance: that the country consistently produces wonderful dancers but, as of yet, no great choreographers.

Malpaso’s response is two-pronged. Company members create their own dances, but the troupe also performs pieces by outside choreographers. It’s a kind of apprenticeship repertory. The work of established artists serves as scaffolding, something solid for the dancers and their audiences, while the local talent develops.

As Malpaso is a Joyce favorite, New York audiences have seen the results of this strategy many times now. This year, the company stretched in new directions. Dancing an excerpt from Merce Cunningham’s “Fielding Sixes” (1980), they didn’t have the clean coordinations and cool affect of Cunningham dancers — a peril of attempting a difficult and well-known style. Instead, pouncing on the rambunctious Irish fiddle music in John Cage’s score, they looked conscientious and proud, happy to be sharing their competence in a foreign tongue.

The situation was similar in the extremely different style of Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa.” The Malpaso dancers committed to the swirling drama, but you wouldn’t take them for native speakers. This endearing awkwardness has been present in all the international repertory the company has brought to the Joyce.

Where the dancers did look entirely comfortable was in their own choreography. The company members Abel Rojo and Beatriz García each presented a work that was impressive as a first effort — Mr. Rojo running out of changes on his single-idea concept, Ms. García’s pretty undulance getting tangled in melodrama. Rather than a style, Malpaso has a spirit. Unguardedly showing the gap between what they are and what they would like to be, they earn fans. It’s a team to root for.

The attitude of “El Último Recurso,” with all its staring, is nearly the opposite. “Edgy and confrontational” is how the Los Hijos describes itself in the program, and that’s how the company wants to be seen.

This is a single-choreographer troupe, expressing the worldview of its artistic director, Mr. Céspedes. And he does have a style, as well as skill, though the virtues of his choreography are masked by the put-on attitude and deadened by his dogged sense of structure.

Forget Cuban sensuality: The vocabulary is machine-like, with a touch of heavy metal, martial arts and even a little hip-hop. That’s interesting, but Mr. Céspedes organizes it too mechanically. He presents a solo, then another and the two together, showing how ingeniously they interlock. But he repeats the exercise so many times that the energy of the idea is crushed.

This predictability becomes relentless in the endless-seeming middle of the piece. One after another, a dancer takes center stage for a solo, then stares down the audience in silence. The steps for each solo are different, as is the music — a track by Marilyn Manson or Muse, but only one Cuban artist, Polito Ibáñez. Yet, in effect, they are all the same solo: a bad poem of adolescent angst, overwrought with shaking and limbs with a will of their own, unintentionally comic and ultimately tedious.

This sameness though is proof of a style, though it’s also a reminder that having style isn’t everything.

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