Fernando Sáez grew up in Cuba under the embargo with the United States, and he didn't visit America until well into his 30s.
Still, Sáez honed his English as a boy by listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. He managed about a dozen trips to the U.S. as an adult, including the 2014 New York debut of Malpaso Dance Company, the Havana-based troupe that he co-founded.
So when news broke of the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, it struck Sáez as surprising and, in a way, mundane.
"It is very hard to think in today's world, even when I was a boy or a teenager, in total isolation," said Sáez, the executive director of Malpaso. "So communication happens. Information comes and goes. I think we have been in contact for many years in spite of the embargo and the isolation."
Despite Sáez's long-standing connections to the U.S., his troupe has one breakthrough here this month: Malpaso, which formed in 2012, will make its first visit to Southern California as one of the two headliners at the Laguna Dance Festival in Laguna Beach.
At the 11th annual festival, Malpaso will share the bill with the San Francisco-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet. Each troupe will perform twice on the Laguna Playhouse stage. Jodie Gates, the festival's founder and artistic director, said the pairing of the groups wasn't necessarily intended as a cultural exchange, but when the opportunity arose to showcase acts from reconciling countries, she gladly took it.
"That certainly was of great interest to me because it's timely," Gates said.
At Laguna, Malpaso plans to perform one work, "Despedida/Farewell," by co-founder Osnel Delgado, plus two works by American choreographers: Trey McIntyre's "Under Fire" and Ronald K. Brown's "Why You Follow." The troupe performed all three at New York's Joyce Theater, where Gates has choreographed pieces in the past.
The festival founder has yet to see Malpaso live; she's made do with videos so far. But she has a personal history with King: As a member of the Joffrey Ballet, she danced his piece "Lila" in New York in 1991.
The Lines program at the festival consists of three pieces choreographed by King with different musical collaborators. "Concerto for Two Violins" is set to Bach's Concerto in D Minor, while "Men's Quintet" features Edgar Meyer's Violin Concerto, Movement II. The third piece, "Biophony," combines nature recordings by soundscape artist Bernie Krause and music by composer Richard Blackford.
Lines and Malpaso also will give pre-performance talks and lead classes. Audience members can mingle with both troupes at an evening reception Sept. 12.
Laguna Dance Festival
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; and Laguna Beach High School Dance Studio, 625 Park Ave., Laguna Beach
When: The festival opens Thursday. Malpaso Dance Company performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 and 11; Alonzo King Lines Ballet performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12 and 2 p.m. Sept. 13