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Ballroom blitz: Miami City Ballet.

Going to Town
By Mae G. Banner

Miami City Ballet
PROCTOR’S THEATRE, APRIL 17

Ballroom dancing of the splashiest, most stylish kind invaded the ballet stage when Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet danced a three-act bash April 17 at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady. Villella’s first full-length choreographic venture and still a work in progress, The Neighborhood Ballroom, was a dazzler.

As ballet, though, it was a stretch. Following on his troupe’s recent hit danced to Latin music and Benny Goodman swing that he set in a Las Vegas-looking nightclub, The Neighborhood Ballroom bathes the audience in vernacular dance from pre-World War I through the 1950s, when mambo ruled the pop imagination.

The show began with The Waltz: Our Lady of Oblivion, a murky, atmospheric dance with an air of debauchery. Then came an upbeat romp, The Quick-Step: Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!, set in a 1920s speakeasy. Finally, the stage exploded in Mambo No. 2 A.M., peppered with enough shoulder shaking and hip swiveling to banish all thoughts of ballet.

The set, an all-purpose ballroom with high, arched windows, cabaret tables and bar, was tailored to each dance era by changes in the poster above the bar: a Lautrec-style homage to mind-numbing absinthe, an ironic temperance poster, and a tropical-colored salute to rum and coke. The only scenic misstep was flooding the waltz scene with clouds of fog that hid the dancers’ feet and probably masked some cluttered choreography that hasn’t yet been defined by an editor’s hand.

Villella and his consultants (Frank Regan for the waltz and quick-step, celebrated mambo dancer Pedro “Cuban Pete” Aguilar) made their research pay off in well-chosen music and period-true costumes designed by Haydee Morales. The waltz section gained immeasurably from the dreamy piano playing of Francisco Rennó, who was hidden in the fog. His swirling art-nouveau tempos were as intoxicating as the absinthe that kept the dancers drooping at their tables between gliding, deep-dipping duets.

The taped quick-step music included a vivacious Charleston and a rousing Black Bottom to sassy “wah-wah” arrangements matched by a succession of witty, sometimes extreme moves. The ensemble strutted and showed off their bobbing chicken heads. A stylized Betty Boop type (Mary Carmen Catoya) seduced a bedeviled poet (Yann Trividic) by whipping his legs with her black satin cape. And a marvelously soigné pair of tall flappers (Marc Spielberger and Evan Unks in delicious drag) swished their pastel sequined cocktail dresses through the crowd with elegance to spare. Arnold Quintane, Michelle Merrell and Callie Manning danced an equally androgynous trio in tuxes.

Miami City Ballet’s leading couple, Iliana Lopez and Franklin Gamero, delivered fast turns that stopped on a dime to Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and astonishing lifts in Arabian Lover. The whole jazz affair sported fun music, clear stage design and a touch of transgression provided by the smooth cross-dressers.

Live music by Perez Prado on the timbales added spice to the already hot mambo section. Ballet’s lifted torsos floated above torridly swaying hips. Tours jetés mixed with circus splits. Costumes featured ruffled shirts, flying fringe, bare midriffs. Lopez, in a fancy straw hat and elbow-length gloves, danced staidly with four men, but when her hat came off, her demeanor erupted into rivers of molten lava. Not subtle, but lots of fun. In fact, the whole cast danced the mambo like carefree celebrants out on the town, eager and up for whatever might happen.

Villella introduced a dramatic through-line in which Trividic as the poet seeks his Muse, but is vamped by Merrell in the waltz section and then Catoya in the speakeasy. He’s planning a fox-trot section that will precede the mambo, but we don’t know whether it will include the poet. At any rate, the mambo stands alone, poet-free. Maybe the yet-to-be-choreographed prologue and epilogue will explain.

Even in its unfinished state, Neighborhood Ballroom was a great night at the theater. While the purist in me regrets to see Villella dumbing down the ballet in what seems to be a quest for a larger, younger audience, I applaud him for getting the historic research right, even to the program’s footnotes that remind us of the pecksniff’s concern about flaming youth and immoral dancing.

But please, Mr. Villella, keep your beautifully trained dancers practicing their barre work. Miami City Ballet, under your direction since 1985, has a stringent repertory of Balanchine dances. Don’t corrupt it by this foray into ballroom styles.


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