Malpaso Review: From Cuba, a Repertory Group in Search of Itself

For most of its existence, Malpaso Dance Company, founded in Cuba 10 years ago, has had a secure home away from home at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, where it last performed in 2019. But returning to the Joyce for its season this week was a struggle.

Traveling here from Cuba became more difficult in 2017, when the United States closed its embassy in Havana. Malpaso dancers seeking visas have had to travel to embassies in other countries — Mexico, Canada, Dominican Republic — and wait there for approval.

And that was before the pandemic. Malpaso was scheduled to return to New York in January 2022. But the United States would not admit the troupe — the Cuban vaccines the company had received weren’t on the approved list. So the Joyce sent the dancers to the only country that would admit them — Serbia, where they rehearsed, performed and were jabbed with Pfizer vaccines. (Malpaso is an associate company of Joyce Theater Productions, receiving fiscal and administrative support.)

But then Omicron arrived and the January shows were postponed to October. In September, waiting for visas in Dominican Republic, 11 Malpaso members got stuck in the bureaucratic limbo called “administrative processing.” When the visas were finally approved, their flight to Miami was canceled because of Hurricane Ian. Newly purchased direct flights finally brought them to New York.

I heard about all this before the show on Tuesday from the Joyce’s executive director, Linda Shelton. I relate it because it was going through my mind as I watched the performance, hoping the program would live up to the back story. It did, but slowly.

The best part of the opening piece — “Lullaby for Insomnia,” by Daileidys Carrazana, the company’s associate artistic director — is the music: piano compositions by Jordi Sabates in the style of the great Cuban pianist Bola de Nieve, played live on Tuesday by the great Arturo O’Farrill. The dance is what the title suggests: the twistings and turnings of an insomniac, incarnated by the flexible Heriberto Meneses. A sleepy start.

I would guess that Malpaso considers it a coup to have acquired “Woman With Water,” a 2021 duet by the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek. I’m not a fan. There’s a woman, a man, a green table. The woman, earthy in deep squats, obsesses over the furniture. The man pours her a glass of water — here the music, by Fleshquartet, gets ominous — and the water eventually seems to kill her. He pushes her offstage with a broom.

Whatever meaning (or humor?) there is in this scene is cloaked and smothered by the tired Expressionist means. Dunia Acosta and Osnel Delgado, Malpaso’s artistic director, give full-bodied performances that don’t quite persuade us that they know what it’s all about.

“Elemental,” made for Malpaso in 2019 by Robyn Mineko Williams, is also cryptic but much livelier. It deploys the full company in a series of dramatic encounters (whispers, embraces) that intrigue without ever coming into focus. But at least it gets these supplely skilled dancers moving, with an odd but often persuasive musicality: slinking, measuring space, poking at one another to a mixtape score that shuffles Ernesto Lecuona, Panda Bear and Arvo Pärt.

“Stillness in Bloom,” which Aszure Barton created for the company in 2021, is by far the most choreographically coherent work. It builds from a single cell of motion: a doubling over that pulls the dancer backward alternating with a straightening that brings the dancer to a stop. For much of the 30-minute dance, Barton elegantly uses little more than this breath-like pattern, adding and subtracting dancers, deploying them in different formations. Delicately, she captures the lyrical sensitivity of the music: tracks by the jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

The piece reminded me of some of Barton’s promising early work for Ballets Jazz Montréal. It brings out a blooming beauty in the Malpaso dancers — especially Meneses, who finishes it with a gorgeously spun out solo, a satisfyingly quiet close to a program that begins with him in a similar but more aimless mode.

But like all the works on this program — like all the works I’ve seen Malpaso perform — Barton’s left me wondering who Malpaso really is, as I would have a person. What, stylistically, makes the company unique? In parts of “Elemental,” the dancers look like they’re auditioning for Williams’s former company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, an American repertory company that might be a model but shouldn’t be duplicated.

Lack of identity is a danger all repertory troupes face as they move from choreographer to choreographer, but this one still seems to be searching, gamely trying on different styles. As I was pondering this, a lyric from “Elemental” jumped out: “You can’t get back/You won’t come back.” Because that’s the opposite of what we know about Malpaso, reaffirmed by this beleaguered visit: They will be back.

Malpaso Dance Company

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;