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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Moveable Hemingway

Photo: TM Rives
By Robert Jackson Wood

As inspiration for a dance work, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea might seem strange. For much of the book, a fisherman sits nearly motionless in his skiff, waiting—for a fish to bite, for a fish to tire, for a fish to surface, for sharks to eat the fish. There is occasional shifting, knot-tying, and harpooning, but it’s largely the fish that moves—an 18-foot marlin, hooked but tenacious, slowly pulling the boat out to sea.

The dance muse needn’t be bound to movement, though. For Havana-based Malpaso Dance Company—which based its forthcoming BAM commission, Dreaming of Lions, on the novel—there were the book’s cultural resonances to consider. Hemingway was American, for example, but wrote the book during an extended stay at Finca Vigia, his Cuban home. The story is itself something of a Cuban-American amalgam, mixing the experiences of a real-life Cuban fisherman with Hemingway’s own maritime exploits. Add in the book’s themes—perseverance, loneliness, destiny—and its attraction becomes clear.

In light of recent diplomatic developments, so does its relevance. Published in 1952—less than a decade before President John F. Kennedy enacted the embargo that would for decades enfeeble exchange between the countries—The Old Man and the Sea symbolizes both a more idyllic past and an aspirational future in terms of US-Cuba relations: good things came, and most likely will come, in the absence of stifling political boundaries. Hemingway’s fisherman landed his catch in shared waters, after all. 

In the meantime, Cuban dance has made its own compelling way. The country’s first professional modern dance troupe, Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, was founded in 1959, the same year that Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government to begin his long reign. It was an ironic coincidence in some ways, given that modern art and dictators have rarely been keen bedfellows. (Castro preferred ballet, and saved Alicia Alonso’s highly regarded Ballet Nacional de Cuba from insolvency that same year.) But Castro was an enthusiastic supporter of dance in general, and the state directly supported the company. That it tempered its Martha Graham-style modernism with less subversive balletic and folkloric idioms surely helped.

Photo: TM Rives

Years later, Malpaso would emerge from that cautiously vibrant milieu with hopes of transcending it. One of Danza Contemporánea’s earliest members was Malpaso Artistic Director Osnel Delgado’s father, who performed with the troupe for 15 years. Delgado himself took up the mantle in 2003, joining the company after graduating from Cuba’s famous National School of Dance. It wasn’t until 2011, at the peak of his fame as a dancer, that Osnel decided to leave the company in order to find his own voice as a choreographer. After a year of freelancing, he formed Malpaso.

It was a questionable move, as the company’s name implies. Malpaso translates as “missteps,” a winking nod to the naysayers who advised Delgado against leaving a secure gig for a not-so-secure one. They had plenty of reason to be fearful: Malpaso had applied for government funding but was rejected, meaning that its survival would be based entirely on private support—unprecedented for a Cuban company. Yet Delgado proved to be the prescient one; Malpaso has not only survived but thrived. Raoul Castro’s economic reforms have helped, making it easier for Cubans to start and run small businesses. With that assistance, the company has been able to both tour regularly and commission dances from choreographers like Ronald K. Brown and Trey McIntyre in addition to performing Delgado’s own fluid, jazz-inflected modern. Support at home has also never been greater.

In 2014, just two years after Malpaso was founded, it made its US debut, performing a pair of New York premieres at the Joyce Theater. One of the works was Delgado’s Despedida (Farewell), based on a poem by Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges and set to music by Mexican-born, New York-based musician Arturo O’Farrill. In the poem, the poet anticipates being separated from his lover, saying that “the sea will be a black art between us.”

Luckily, as a geopolitical prediction, the line was off-base. Dreaming of Lions, which takes its title from the last line of Hemingway’s book, points to a new era in which the sea is no longer a barrier but a source of bounty—of art as much as fish.

See Malpaso Dance Company’s
Dreaming of Lions, with Arturo O’Farrill and his Afro Latin
Jazz Ensemble, from Mar 1 to 5 at the BAM Harvey Theater.

Robert Jackson Wood is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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