Cuban Dance Marks the White Bird Season Finale with Cultural Integration

Malpaso Dance Company offers the dove to Portland.

Cuba, for me, has always been a far away neighbor, some mysterious paradise, and a land of armed revolutionaries. Americans are pretty much informed of Cuban identity from Fidel Castro and Ricky Ricardo: Both are outdated. These notions will evolve into a more honest portrayal of Cuban culture as diplomatic breakthroughs announced by President Obama should allow for greater cultural exchange. But for now, it is still an important treat when we have the chance to see one of Cuba’s finest dance exports.

Malpaso Dance Company performed three unique works for a long season finale program presented by White Bird, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday. In the third and final epic of the night, The Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble shook things up from the orchestra pit. Although it would have been a pleasure to watch the live musical act on-stage, they would have stolen thunder from the Malpaso dancers — if that is possible.

They are a powerful troupe, and numerous, so it would be very difficult. But I couldn’t help comparing them to our very own local dance export, Northwest Dance Project. This could get dicey, especially as I decide who is better, so I’ll proceed with caution.

Both of them concentrate their choreographic prowess on the expression of human relationship, and the craft of movement as storytelling, while neither of them lean to the avant-garde methods of performance art. Both of them offer entertainment value in line with the Broadway musical. Don’t get me wrong, we are talking about two world-class contemporary dance ensembles, because they both keep the work in the area of fine arts, complete with abstract expression.


Malpaso is full of complex choreography in which the dancers interweave like some ancient tapestry. It is something to watch. You’ll miss most of it, unless you pay very close attention, not distracted by the chatter of your mind. It can be hard to focus on for extended lengths, but easy to fall into hypnosis, or at least set off with your wandering mind. But if you can follow every movement directly, for even one minute, Malpaso will mesmerize.

How does anyone rehearse that, and yet, how could that be done without full-time rehearsal? I ask myself. These questions were the same in my brain while watching NWPD on numerous occasions. But I have to admit, Malpaso takes it to the next step. Their bodies are symmetry in chaos conformed back into symmetry. It is visually confusing, in a good way.

Their bodies are symmetry in chaos conformed back into symmetry.

Opening the show was a duet featuring the group’s founder and primary choreographer, Osnel Delgado, with Beatriz Garcia, the only two that would appear in all three works. That is like an athlete playing through a full game, without bench rest, while reciting poetry at the same time. I’m impressed. The work was set to a moody soundtrack with electronic duo, Autechre, postmodern composer Max Richter, and avant-garde ensemble Kronos Quartet.

The expressions were so many familiar movements of relationship that it could have been the story of a marriage. Those moments when you’re fighting, when you’re ignoring each other in the same way at the same time, cooperating on your conflict, sandwiched between great tenderness and deliberate connection, harmony, evolving that relationship into a history. How do I describe the choreography to portray it? “She rushed forward and spun into his arms. He embraced her and then swept her aside, turning his back.” No, it’s not a sports game, I can’t call it like that. I wouldn’t announce it on AM radio.

Under Fire, by guest choreographer Trey McIntyre, brought out eight of the nine total dancers that night. The work was set to mirror the lyrical music of Grandma Kelsey, a Boise-based songwriter. I’m struggling with the ubiquity of her vocal styling, so I sat pondering this phenomenon a while (how artists imitate and so on). I really enjoyed her version of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, at least, because it brought the heart wrenching nature of that song into play.

The pieces were short and sweet, although the songs are a bit more drawn out as they linger in their moods. But rather than a collection of individual pieces, each dance seemed to connect, expressing a narrative, offering subtext to Kelsey’s words. Despite a background of lower energy songs, the dancers continued to heat up expectations with their interweaving acrobatics, turning up the enthusiasm for what was to come.

In many circumstances, perhaps in the middle of the season at a smaller venue, an audience would have been pleased if the show ended there. Following intermission, a second full-length show brought the complete capacity of Malpaso to an eager audience.

24 Hours and a Dog was the name of the final collaborative work with The Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, who played four different tunes. Plus, the ninth dancer to arrive was Claudia Molinet, a new addition to the company at large. My attention was enlivened by her. A certain spark came over the whole show, with her and the music combined. Most of the music was more mood than beat, up to this point, and the driving nature of jazz with its Afro-Latin leaning rhythm brought something different out of the dance. I’m not sure what, but, you know… energy.

This is also where lighting design by Erick Grass, in its starkness, actually stood out. It was a lot of solid color against the massive stage-occupying projection screen. Like modern art, he offered solid color for every new song, and then some, plus he color coordinated the costumes to boot. The music supported every mood change (or was it the other way around?) but, as is the nature of jazz, the soloist runs the emotional scope allowable within a given arrangement. I don’t think the dancers had any freedom in that regard. It looked very precisely choreographed — the whole show.

Malpaso Dance Company. Photo by Tsushima.

I think what I really like the most from my Malpaso experience was the wide range of cultural integration. The music spanned continents and genre and the choreography matched it effortlessly. Even the afro-jazz band played a tune called “Tabla Rosa,” based on Indian classical tradition. It started like a basic tabla beat structure, that structure became the head arrangement for the jazz piece. I loved it. Dancers worked tightly within that framework as well, making for an exciting build up.

I could use a lot of words describing and crediting everything and everyone. It is a show that has come to pass though, so you won’t have a chance to see it, unless you’re free to travel anywhere at any time. But now that Cuba isn’t guarded by political gatekeepers like it once was, perhaps your opportunity will come sooner than expected.

White Bird will return with for its 19th season this coming fall.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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