The MalPaso Dance Company of Cuba, which will perform Mr. Brown’s “Why You Follow” and Osnel Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog.” Credit Roberto Leon
Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, the national modern dance company, first performed in the United States in 2011. The date is noteworthy, since the troupe was founded more than 50 years earlier, in the same year that Fidel Castro came to power.
The 2011 visit offered a look, long delayed by American policy toward Cuba, at the official version of modern dance in a dance-mad culture. New York critics praised the Cubans for their virtuosity, versatility and charm. Too bad, more than one wrote, that the choreography was not up to the same level. What better gift, then, for a New York theater to give to a fledging Cuban dance troupe than a commissioned work by a critically successful New York choreographer? This is what the Joyce Theater has bestowed upon MalPaso, a Cuban company less than two years old.
When the group makes its United States debut at the Joyce on Tuesday, it will dance a piece created for it by Ronald K. Brown. Mr. Brown’s company, Evidence, has a loyal following at the Joyce, where it will succeed MalPaso on June 3. But, according to the Joyce’s executive director, Linda Shelton, the Brooklyn-born Mr. Brown was chosen in particular for his signature melding of American modern dance with African dance — with dance that he learned in Africa but also with African dance he learned in Cuba.
He and MalPaso start with something in common.
Photo Ronald K. Brown Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
A melding of American modern dance with Afro-Cuban movement is at the heart of Cuba’s modern dance tradition. Ramiro Guerra, the founder of Danza Contemporánea, studied in New York with Martha Graham, José Limón and other pioneers, and he strove to combine what he had assimilated here with the dance of his own country, especially its African heritage. The technique and training he developed was designed to cross North American methods with movement and music drawn from Afro-Cuban ritual.
Mr. Guerra’s 1960 “Suite Yoruba,” in which dancers incarnate the Yoruban gods known as orishas, is a foundational work of Cuban modern dance. So is Eduardo Rivero’s 1971 “Súlkary,” a depiction of an Afro-Cuban fertility rite. “Súlkary” was one of the pieces that Danza Contemporánea presented at the Joyce in 2011. Considered a classic in Cuba, it struck critics here as outdated: “tamed exoticism,” “almost embarrassing in its primitivism.” Might those judgments have stemmed from unfamiliarity with the meanings of Afro-Cuban ceremony, knowledge that can be taken for granted in Cuban audiences?
Or were critics reacting to residue of Graham’s use of ritual, recognizing American traditions that have gone out of fashion? In any case, Mr. Brown has a track record of making African and Afro-Cuban material communicate to contemporary American audiences. Though his work isn’t narrative, he describes his pieces as telling stories, almost always of spiritual journeys, and one story he returns to again and again is the African diaspora. He often follows a section set to African music with one set to African-American music, or vice versa, so that anyone who has grown up on African-American music might sense the connections. The dancing — loose and rhythmically subtle — makes the lesson visceral. In light of this, it’s significant that Mr. Brown chose MalPaso himself, and, even more so, why he did. In Havana last May, he watched a dozen Cuban companies over the course of five or six days. MalPaso was the only one that inspired him to get up and dance.
Photo Ronald K. Brown in 2011. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
And MalPaso is unusual in another way: It is not financed by the state. Its founders, Osnel Delgado and Daileidys Carrazana Gonzalez, trained at the state-run National Dance School. They, along with most of their dancers, performed for years with Danza Contemporánea. (So did Mr. Delgado’s father, who, along with his mother, has taught at the National Dance School.) But Mr. Delgado wanted to develop as a choreographer and decided that he needed his own troupe. At the Joyce, MalPaso will dance Mr. Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog,” which portrays a day in the life of his dancers as they are dogged by an imaginary dog.
The music is by the Cuban-American composer Arturo O’Farrill, who will perform with his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Mr. Brown’s piece is titled “Why You Follow,” and in it the dancers follow Mr. Delgado. His role, Mr. Brown explained in an interview, is related to the Yoruban god Elegua, who opens paths. Mr. Brown started with the title and with the music, a suite of recordings including tracks by the Belgian-Congolese singer Zap Mama and a remix of the Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. The work grew out of discussions with the Cubans about how to use traditional dance to create new art. Mr. Brown said he was surprised at how disconnected Cuban “contemporary dance” seemed from “folkloric” dance, how Mr. Delgado and his dancers seemed to look away from their roots or undervalue them.
“I was trying to show them the connections we share,” he said, “and to introduce an idea of liberation.” He wanted to give them a way forward through looking back, as he had discovered in Africa and Cuba. “Why am I in love with Cuban folkloric dance?” he said. “Because without it, I’m brand new. And we know what happens to buildings that are brand new,” implying that they don’t last. Mr. Delgado, in an email, said he was impressed that “a person from abroad with a different cultural background was able to connect us with joy and efficiency to our own cultural sources.”
“Why You Follow” debuted in Havana in March. Mr. Brown said that he was pleased at how one of the MalPaso members, who had introduced herself to him as “a ballet dancer,” grew and changed so that if you watched her in “Why You Follow,” you would not think of her as a ballet dancer. “That’s what the guy from Brooklyn opened up,” he said.