Watching Malpaso Dance Company of Cuba perform Saturday afternoon was an arresting experience, from the moment the lights flicked on and off twice on a line of eights dancers bathed in ominous shadow in Sonya Tayeh's "Face the Torrent."
The bold and rigorous modern dance company performed the dark, dangerous piece on the Allen Theatre stage in two performances at Playhouse Square. They were being presented by DanceCleveland for the third time, and those lucky enough to catch the troupe were treated to a highly dramatic program.
"Face the Torrent" has a Cleveland connection: Tayeh created part of it during a 2017 creative residency in Cleveland provided by DanceCleveland, the same year it premiered. Tayeh, whose work many may have seen on "So You Think You Can Dance," is of Lebanese and Palestinian descent.
After the program, Malpaso Artistic Director Osnel Delgado talked about the company's commitment to bringing talented choreographers from other countries in to work with them in Cuba. He also talked about the duty of contemporary artists to redefine who and what they are on a daily basis.
"Darkness, uncertainly, frustration are very much a part of who we are,'' he said.
In "Face the Torrent,'' eight fierce-looking dancers started out in a line upstage facing the audience, with lighting illuminating mostly their beige shirts as they walked toward the audience and back in unison. A single dancer, Abel Rojo, broke from formation and started doing a dance on his own, in the line, that spoke of terrible struggle.
His grasping, face-covering moves showed he needed help. But in this dance it was clear that everyone was fending for him or herself, and none of the others looked at him until Dailedidys Carrazana came to Rojo's aid, even holding him up and walking him along as his legs collapsed repeatedly. In other moments, female dancers entered the stage in grotesque, hunched fashion with their fingers stiffly spread, creating a sort of animal visual.
After this dark, threatening dance came the lyrically beautiful trio "Being (Ser)," created by company member Beatriz Garcia last year. Finally, Malpaso performed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's 1986 "Tabula Rasa,'' or blank slate.
In part of the dance, the full company of 10 moved slowly on stage, one by one, through swaying and one small step at a time, with all finally appearing as a line upstage. With the line's perfect spacing and conformity, it was surprising to see one male dancer stop being a cog in the wheel, causing a female dancer in the line to "bump" into and interact with him.
Earlier in the week, Malpaso appeared at a members' event at the Akron Art Museum as part of "Merce Cunningham: A Choreographed Celebration." Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, interviewed former Merce Cunningham dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, who were working in Akron with six soloists who performed Cunningham solos across the world for what would have been the late modern dance choreographer's 100th birthday April 16.
In Akron, they were working as part of a "Dancing Lab: Immersive Media through Cunningham," hosted by the National Choreography Center at the University of Akron and Choreographic Research Consulting. As part of Tuesday's program at the art museum, the short film "The Dance Maker" was shown. The film explored Cunningham's legacy as a risk taker, innovator, choreographer, collaborator, film producer and teacher.
Ken Tabachnick, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Trust who was also present, said the trust's mission was to have Cunningham's work performed and seen by as many people as possible.
Riener talked about "the tremendous weight of history" carrying Cunningham's legacy as well as his unconventional way of rehearsing.
"It's actually one of the shocking things about performing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. When you perform the work you rehearse in silence" and don't hear the music until the dancers step onstage for the dress rehearsal, he said.
Mitchell talked about how dancers were pushed to their physical limits through the choreographer's technique: "I think that discomfort is one of the tones in the work. It's meant to be visible."
Before guests entered a gallery to watch Malpaso dance Cunningham's "Fielding Sixes" and then entered others to watch soloists dance in silence, Riener encouraged them to "let go of preconceived notions of what should happen in dance" and to walk around and watch the soloists from different angles.
The gallery experience was so up close and personal, viewers could see the Malpaso dancers sweating through their leotards in the fast-paced, athletic "Fielding Sixes." Finally, they watched Katherine Helen Fisher, Eleanor Hullihan, Cori Kresge, Jessica Liu, Daniel McCusker and Joshua Tuason perform solos extracted from Cunningham's works in and around the gallery artwork in several rooms.
Poll festival ends
Neos Dance Theatre ended the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival with a reprise of Bobby Wesner's "Homage" in honor of the late Ohio Ballet founder and Akron's rich dance history. The program at Firestone Park last weekend also featured the world premiere of Wesner's "JAZZ in Ten and Three (& other things)," an easygoing romp set to jazz tunes including "How High the Moon,'' "My Funny Valentine,'' "Let's Fall in Love," and much more.
The company is low on male dancers this summer. It has just Wesner and John Frazer to partner with the company's six active female dancers. Neos created "JAZZ" with students at the Dance Institute's summer intensive, choosing 10 girls to premiere the dance alongside its professional dancers.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj