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Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer  |  March 01, 2016

Malpaso: A Cuban Dance Project leaves DanceCleveland patrons wanting more (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio If dance should be dazzling and entertaining, then the performance last weekend by Malpaso: A Cuban Dance Project was a home run, another success on the 60th anniversary season of DanceCleveland.

If, however, dance should also nourish or impart some meaning, then the evening, the first Cuban act in DanceCleveland history and the launch of a US tour, came up a bit short.

This was the fundamental tension Saturday night in the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square: relishing Malpaso's physicality and dynamic energy while also feeling strangely unsatisfied, yearning for greater substance.

"Ocaso," the opening work, came closest to covering all bases. Emotionally touching, visually captivating, and intriguing choreographically, the duet by artistic director Osnel Delgado Wambrug was the lone complete package.

Circular patterns predominated. In addition to a broad cycle of unison and solo movements, breaking apart only to end up embracing or back arm-in-arm, Wambrug and dancer Beatriz Garcia Diaz also traced smaller circles in the form of lyrical, looping motions and fluid, interlocking arms, all the while modeling intensity and elegance.

Rarely has a dance couple behaved so realistically. Performing to minimalist string music on a bare stage, the pair embodied the intimate give-and-take that is the essence of every relationship.

Such conclusions are harder to draw from "Por Que Sigues" ("Why You Follow") and "24 Hours and a Dog," the other two pieces on the program. Though much longer, and inviting in their ways, they amounted primarily to dances for the sake of dancing.

That's not such a bad thing, of course. "Why You Follow," a four-scene work by Ronald K. Brown, of Evidence fame, was plenty engaging, if a bit homogeneous, set to rhythmic dance-club music and stocked with wave upon wave of movement recalling African tribal dances. If the title of the work were a question, the answer by Malpaso Saturday would have been simple: because it's fun, and who they are.

"24 Hours and a Dog," a collaborative creation, had the added benefits of live music and a storyline. Thus, even when the work overstayed its welcome, one had the basic gist of a day in the life of a Cuban dancer and the vibrant, brassy wailing of Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble to fall back on.

The structure may have been hard to follow, but the spectacle was a delight. Through an enormous variety of movement alternately literal and abstract, somber and playful, rigid and fluid, the picture emerged of a profession defined by extremes.

In "24 Hours," the limitations of life in Cuba and the tedium of exercise and rehearsal contrasted sharply with the highs of performance and the perks of dance company membership. Often, the dancers seemed mostly to be reveling in their own highly-developed physical abilities and celebrating Malpaso's expanding freedoms as a troupe. As a work of art, "24 Hours" wasn't deep, but as a dance, it was a joy.

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