Entertainment & Arts

Review: Malpaso Dance achieves liftoff at the Wallis. It just takes a while

BEVERLY HILLS, CA. Mar. 28, 2019. Malpaso Dance, Cuba’s hottest contemporary dance company in a pr
Malpaso Dance of Cuba performs choreographer Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
(Lawrence K. Ho)

Malpaso Dance Company made such a lustrous L.A. debut 16 months ago at the Music Center that anticipation was high for the group’s return this week.

Opening a three-night run Thursday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, the Cuban dancers again warmed the auditorium with their infectious likability and intensity. The 11 men and women, led by dancer-artistic director Osnel Delgado, this time dived headlong into new stylistic avenues.

But brio can’t compensate for every shortcoming. Several dances on this program proved a step too far (pun intended), particularly the opening number, a 10-minute excerpt from Merce Cunningham’s “Fielding Sixes” (1980).

I don’t recall ever seeing a company show so baldly — and unintentionally — just how difficult Cunningham’s twisty and austere shapes and steps can be to execute correctly. I could hear the heavy breathing and see the struggle to maintain form and tempo as dancers bent forward and tilted sideways, heaved themselves skyward and then jigged in place to John Cage’s recorded score of Irish-inflected melodies.

One of Cunningham’s foundational beliefs is that movement and music share the same space and time but are independent, individually worthy art forms. Malpaso’s stylistic essence is the reverse — movement linked to and impelled by the musical accompaniment. This reality made the Cunningham work a valiant try but a poor fit.

Company member Beatriz Garcia’s 2018 trio “Ser” (Being) is her first foray into choreography. For the first half, Dunia Acosta, Fernando Benet and Garcia folded and rippled their torsos, traveled the stage in horizontal planes and avoided touching. A stark shift in musical tone (all pieces by Ezio Bosso) signaled an about-face in the dancers’ magnetic poles, and they glommed together in evolving sculptural clumps. These were mildly inventive, and Garcia’s deeper intentions remained shrouded.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA. Mar. 28, 2019. Malpaso Dance, Cuba’s hottest contemporary dance company in a pr
Malpaso dancers, from left, Dunia Acosta, Beatriz Garcia and Fernando Benet perform "Ser" (Being), by Garcia.
(Lawrence K. Ho)

Delgado’s “Ocaso” returned the group to more fitting territory. The choreographer performed with the emotive Daile Carrazana (not Garcia, as the program noted). He crafted an intimate and poignant portrait of a duo in a twilight period of life. (“Ocaso” means sunset or decline.)

Keeping their arms around each other’s shoulders, Delgado and Carrazana walked upstage, their backs turned from us. Carrazana kept slipping from Delgado’s grasp, then returning, until she eventually collapsed. He outlined her prone form with his hands, as though he were committing her essence to memory. She arose, and they began a return journey, facing forward. When they were at the front of the stage, they jumped together and were swallowed by an inky blackness, courtesy of lighting designer Matt Miller. Musical selections from the group Autechre and Kevin Volans’ “White Man Sleeps” matched Delgado’s spirit, making this piece simple and compelling.

The final work was winningly and forcefully performed, Malpaso at full strength: “Tabula Rasa” by choreographer Ohad Naharin, set to composer Arvo Pärt’s searing piece of the same name. How fascinating to see this early piece (1986) by Naharin within weeks of a performance of Israeli choreographer’s latest dance, “Venezuela.” In “Tabula Rasa,” Naharin positions dancers with masterful precision and symmetry, creating urgent action that achieves liftoff from Pärt’s crescendos of layered sound and softness through minimalism. A truly winning addition to Malpaso’s growing repertory.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Malpaso Dance

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

Tickets: $65-$105

Info: (310) 746-4000 or thewallis.org

Support our coverage of local artists and the local arts scene by becoming a digital subscriber.

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.