The Cuba-based Malpaso Dance Company’s Los Angeles debut Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was a pinch-me moment, one of those times when you catch an artistic dawning.
Malpaso’s dancers were exceptional. This five-year-old contemporary troupe was added to the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series thanks to money from Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. That Getty-funded festival exploring the links between Los Angeles and Latin America focuses mostly on visual arts, but it does have a performance component. The Music Center received funding not only to bring in Malpaso for two shows but also to commission a new dance, Sonya Tayeh’s “Face the Torrent,” with an original score by Colette Alexander. More on that in a moment.
Each of Malpaso’s nine dancers is a soloist-principal in his or her own right, yet they all have committed to the superior power of the ensemble. Ballet, modern, jazz and urban movement infuse the group’s style, reminiscent of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Rambert in London.
With hearts earnestly beating on their sleeves, these performers share a sizable portion of themselves. That warmth and personality combine well with dances highlighting their strengths. Even when the repertory comes up short, these women and men deliver at the highest level.
The night opened with Malpaso dancer and artistic director Osnel Delgado’s “24 Hours and a Dog” (2013), giving us a look at how the company sees itself. Delgado’s every move was like a clarion call, making him a standout, even among these colleagues.
As the pink glow of daybreak illuminated the stage (lighting design by Al Crawford), Delgado awakened and stretched, rubbing his face in a canine way. It was the first of many doggy allusions, from yoga’s downward dog to the dancers repeatedly lifting a leg and circling. But “24 Hours” wasn’t so much attributing human characteristics to dogs as it was whimsically and gently reminding us of our pack mentality, and just how much we share with our animal best friends.
Delgado worked in a breezy, street-dance style, with a kick leading naturally into a roll, followed by a jump and so on. Steps fell naturally like dominoes. Delgado and Dunia Acosta’s duet was so charming that it made you want to fall in love again.
Tucked in a corner of the orchestra pit, Arturo O’Farrill’s eight-person Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble rocked the house with a score that included his own works plus pieces by Abelardo Valdés and Astor Piazzolla.
Tayeh’s premiere took Malpaso to a much darker place, an unspecified inky, secret world of tension, whispers, quivering, fear and lineups. Karen Young’s beige and black costumes and designer Nicole Pearce’s dim lighting pierced by spots suggested dystopia. Ultimately, individuals endured, but oppression never went away.
Tayeh favors expressionist flamboyance, and the dancers demonstrated exemplary acting chops. Abel Rojo kicked off the piece with a breakdown, his whole body quaking, limb by limb, while Daileidys Carrazana tried to comfort him. “Face the Torrent” didn’t evolve much, but it had genuine raw emotion.
The final work, choreographer Aszure Barton’s “Indomitable Waltz,” from 2016, was the gem of the night, a piece of gorgeous scene-setting from the very first moment, when the dancers magically appeared from the black backdrop. Barton pulled bravura from each dancer without drawing attention to herself or her cleverness.
Using recorded music from composer Alexander Balanescu and others, she constructed complex vignettes that perhaps have meaning — but it was more fun just to revel in the luxurious waltzes and majestically diverse ways she moved the eight dancers about the stage.
You’d think that Barton was building to a boffo climax with a rousing number that picked up steam to the boiling point, but no. She left Acosta onstage for a brief solo, masterful for its stillness. And then she was done.