blitz: Miami City Ballet.
Mae G. Banner
THEATRE, APRIL 17
Ballroom dancing of the splashiest, most stylish kind invaded
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
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
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
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.