With a raw intensity, the 12 male dancers of Malevo strutted their stuff in tight black pants looking exceptionally virile and virtuosic. To say that the Argentinian dance troupe Malevo was entertaining would be vastly understated. Propelled onto the world stages after their sensational appearance in the semi-finals of the hit TV show America’s Got Talent, Malevo has all the right ingredients to be outrageously popular.
After all, sexy sells. But here is the catch — the type of dance that the company performs is folkloric dance, which one doesn’t really think of as sexy. The show’s choreography is based on the traditional dance of the Argentinian cowboys (the gauchos) — the malambo, but Malevo’s version of the malambo is a sizzlingly modern and transgressive. It pushes the boundaries of tradition. It’s bad-ass (which is exactly the slang translation of Malevo).
The full-length show, which was created by director, choreographer, and dancer Matías Jaime, was presented March 17-18 at the Duncan Theatre as part of the Modern Dance Series and is Malevo’s very first touring show. Made especially for the proscenium stages of performing arts centers and festivals, the show has been traveling across the U.S. for two months.
The first number up started with a bang — literally. With chests bared, the men entered the red-tinged, smoke-filled stage with a serious, almost somber, presence, each holding two sticks in their hands that they used to bang the beat on large drums called bombos legüeros which were hung low across their bodies. Originally used as a form of communication by the West African slaves who had been brought to Argentina, these drums were later incorporated into the malambo celebrations.
While changing linear formations for visual impact, the dancers built a throbbing rhythm as their glistening arms blurred with the speed of the drum sticks robustly beating both the drum head (made from animal hide) and the sides of the drums (made from hollowed-out tree trunks).
Then, on a silent and dark stage, Mauro Dellac (who is the current malambo world champion) challenged us with his deep confronting stare in his ready pose of lifted chest and legs wide apart. Slowly he introduced his steps one at a time. He looked like a restless stallion corralled in a stall. Starting with tentative cepillados (brushing/scrubbing footwork) and moving into fierce zapateados (stomping footwork) inspired by the rhythm of the hooves of the gauchos’ galloping horses, Dellac sculpted a vibrant and image-layered solo with his sensitive interpretation of the malambo’s traditional steps.
After a long day on horseback tending the cattle, the gauchos would return to the campsite and in the evening rival each other with their prowess in executing the malambo. One would dance as another crouched and watched. Then he would spring up and dance, trying to out-dance the other. The malambo derived some of its steps such as the high kicks from Irish dancing. There were sheep herders living and working on the pampas alongside the gauchos who had emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1800s to escape the Irish potato famine.
Daniel Medina, wearing a bright red scarf around his neck, introduced the use of the boleadoras (a leather and stone hunting tool used by gauchos), which he used to strike the ground at various speeds to counterpoint the quick rhythms that the snapping heels of his boots made on the floor. With one boleadora in each hand, the tall and handsome Medina casually manipulated them around his body at different angles making gossamer circles as the stage lighting caught the rope. He finished his solo by letting the ropes neatly wind around his hand until the stone at the end gently landed in the palm of his hand.
The malambo was not originally danced in boots. This was an influence attributed to the Spanish conquistadores and the flamenco. In a quieter section which was performed to live violin and guitar, the men wore tightly laced bolero jackets and loose white fringed pants with leather sombreros hanging down their backs as they danced barefoot, making a gentle earthier sound as their feet hit the ground.
During the entire show, from a raised platform across the back of the stage, four amazing musicians played live adding even more vitality to the show. Besides the violinist (Gustavo Ybarbas) and guitarist and conga player (Martin Morales), the production featured a drummer (Lucar Coria) and Juan Carlos Acosta, who played the marvelous Argentine instrument known as the bandoneon. This concertina (or button accordion) is the soul of tango music and its sound can range from a heavenly church organ to a screeching siren. Acosta had a marvelous solo that revealed the secrets of this instrument, which at times looked like a large red caterpillar.
The men, with an air of more camaraderie than challenge, returned — first just four, then all 12. They were dressed in black leather motorcycle jackets and carrying chairs.With simple variations in opposition or cannons, they pounded out rhythms on their bombos legüeros while seated in rows, sometimes hitting the drum of the person on either side of them.
Another welcome moment of focus on individual dancers came again with Miguel Flores who struck a wide lunge as he played his bombo with great finesse while never altering his pose. He was joined by Nahir de la Rosa who slowly and elegantly danced in a downward spotlight. Later they were joined by Medina, who once again manipulated his boleodoras and treated us to his mastery interspersed with whiffs of danger as the ropes passed so perilously close to his head that his hair wafted into the air.
The trio transitioned as more dancers were added until the stage was filled with drummers moving in-between a plethora of quickly spinning boleodoras on the move. At one point, without a glance, two men impressively backed up against each other while continuing their rapid boleodora revolutions. The last boleodora feat was four men on their knees with their boleodoras now in their mouths creating identical circular patterns without a beat skipped.
Even though the steps the dancers used did not have a lot of variety and were nearly always performed in unison, they still managed to have enormous appeal. Added to this was the competitive dueling edge of those virile and virtuosic men in those tight black pants with their endless energy, incredible speed and intricate rhythms. The whole experience became addictive. By the end, when the dancers had turned their air of challenge towards their responsive audience, the interaction provoked a last escalation in their macho showmanship causing the intensity to build until it was absolutely electric.
Malevo was a wild blast of sheer bravado and for the Duncan Theatre, it was a “shouting from the rooftops” kind of ending for their 2023 season.
As usual, before the last show of the season begins, Mark Alexander, the executive director of Palm Beach State College theaters, warmly welcomed us as we eagerly waited for him to reveal his carefully curated selection of dance companies for next season. He told us that the 2024 series was only partially booked but that we could look forward to seeing Brazil’s most popular contemporary dance ensemble, Grupo Corpo, on February 23 and 24 and the Paul Taylor Dance Company on March 15 and 16.
He also announced some news that none of his loyal audience wanted to hear: He is retiring. After 21 years of presenting excellent dance and music events at the Duncan Theatre, he is stepping down. Although he alluded to the idea that in the future we may see him as a fellow audience member, it is impossible to imagine coming into the lobby after all these years and not see him standing there welcoming his audience to the Duncan. Thank you for all those fabulous evenings of dance, Mark Alexander. We will miss you!