"Square Dance," "Sonatine," "Tarantella," "Nightspot"
Miami City Ballet
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
West Palm Beach, Florida
April 4 & 5, 2008
by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2008 Susan Reiter
Eight years after Twyla Tharp last created a work for a ballet company, she has found her way back to that milieu with style and verve, if not the penetrating focus that one has come to expect of her. In 2000, she produced a most impressive one-two punch: "The Beethoven Seventh" for New York City Ballet, followed two months later by "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" for American Ballet Theatre. She next made a series of works for her reconstituted company before turning her attention to her two Broadway projects, the exceptional (and wildly popular) "Movin' Out" (2002) and the more phantasmagorical (and short-lived) "The Times They Are A-Changin" (2006). This year, she is choreographing for several major ballet troupes, starting with this splashy premiere for Miami City Ballet -- a heady, provocative collaboration with Elvis Costello, whose pungent score covers a lot of stylistic territory, and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi.
"Nightspot," which is the concluding work on MCB's final program of the season, introduces lots of vibrant, if at times stereotypical, characters, and on first viewing suggests that Tharp is again flirting with narrative in the sprawling manner that has sometimes been her tendency. Intense passion and volatile anger surface as individuals, and then couples, slink into some vibrant, volatile, hip gathering place where connections are made, attractions are explored, and cool sophisticates strut their considerable stuff. The colors are garish -- Mizrahi has concocted an eye-popping assortment of funky, layered outfits primarily in crimson, black and purple -- everything from filmy slit skirts to hooded sweatshirts to bustiers to tight sporty shorts.
The onstage nine-piece band hovers in near-darkness upstage. Primarily brass and percusiso, they provide the most dynamic, luscious portions of the score, which shifts gears often, but features many Latin-flavored motifs, along with bits of ragtime, reflective guitar solos, and even a moment that evokes "West Side Story." Costello, a Grammy-winning rock musician whose multi-faceted ventures have included collaborations with T Bone Burnett and New Orleans musicians Allen Toussaint as well as classical musicians, has clearly drawn on the flavor and culture of Miami, and the score, punctuated by exciting percussion, often pulsates with a Latin big-band sound. But it's not all funky energy; additonal layers and moods are provided by the 30-plus orchestral musicians in the pit.
The ballet's three leading ladies -- Callie Manning, Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Katia Carranza - are the first to appear, captured in John Hall's lighting so that each seems suspended in her own space, filled with anticipation and imagining what's in store for the evening. The stage soon fills with their male counterparts - Carlos Guerra, Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez and Jeremy Cox -- and six additional couples, and it seethes with energetic expectation. As more and more people are set in motion, Manning -- tall, aloof, emanating disapproving recrimination -- and Guerra remian apart, evidently linked ot each other yet at odds. Kronenberg and Rodriguez are riveting and seemingly fantastical creatures, their outfits and often eccentric and showbiz-flavored moves alluding, at various times, to burlesque and the circus.
Carranza -- a giddy waif in a purple romantic tutu skirt, and Cox -- an eager, ready-for-anything party boy in ared hooded sweathirt and tight trunks, come across as the most real and emotionally connected figures on the stage, the ones least burdened by behavior that can veer toward the clichéd. They both dance with invigorating spontaneity and joy; movment bubbles up from within them and pours out in swift, wonderfully loose yet precise bursts that are the most satisfyingly Tharpian aspects of "Nightspot." After the simmering, busy opening, the work first comes into focus when the two of them claim center stage, each moving with a blend of juicy abandon and deft precision within the music's indolent, ominously insistent rhythms. She is a delicate, radiantly pure classical dancer, phenomenally cenetred, but very adaptable to the looser, unpredictable moves Tharp has concocted. He is clearly a party guy but a more innocent, less devious figure than the other two men.
Relationsuiops are volatile and alliances are suspect as the dance progresses. Manning and Guerra portray what seems to be an uneasy couple -- perhaos a sophisticate tentatively slumming with a rowdy, out-for-a-good-time guy. Guerra wears a sporty, awkwardly fitting red get-up -- T-shirt and calf-length leggings - that suggests a baseball uniform. This pair veers into can't-stay-together, can't-bear-to-be-apart situations that feel overly familiar, and we never really get to know them well enough to see them as characters rather than types. It is clear that Guerra's alliance often shifts to Kronenberg, a luscious, if slightly ludicrous figure in a dark top, red fishnet tights and a cinched red belt. Her silhouette evokes the slinky forbidden women of the beatnik '50s.
Rodriguez, who's clearly at home in Tharp's loose, supple, multi-directional movement and well-suited to his role as a sensual, somewhat sleazy -- and perhaps dangerous -- master of ceremonies, initially sports a ringmaster's tailcoat and top hat. He and Kronenberg seem to embody the essence and mythology of showbiz, archetypes that inspire fantasies. The dreamlike sequence in which she is borne aloft by the men of the ensemble above a vast expanse of red fabric is striking but, even after two viewings, inscrutable. Garcia-Rodriguez serves here as her sly manipulator and a taunting figure to the yearning Guerra.
"Nightspot" is both juicily entertaining and caustically honest about the nastier games people play in the pursuit of love. It's an extravagantly overripe eyeful, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. The MCB dancers deliver vivid portrayals, plunging expansively into Tharp's demands. But what's missing is the sense of her taking classical dance into bold new territory, shaking it up and revealing it anew -- as she has done in her finest and most enduring works for ballet companies.
"Nightspot" followed three exemplary Balanchine ballets -- one each from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. From the moment the curtain rose on "Square Dance," with the opening taken at an unusually (and welcome) brisk tempo, the six couples of the ensemble were out of the gate with splendid vigor, alive to every musical detail. Tricia Albertson lacked the extra sparkle that can make this ballerina role such a particular delight, but her crisp precision served it well, and Cox -- an admirably clear and unmannered dancer -- truly made the male role his own. In the magnificent solo, he filled out even the simplest movement with expansive serenity, and honored its courtly allusions with gravitas and eloquence.
The inspired pairing of "Sonatine" and "Tarantella" not only provided the obvious contrast in tone and temperament (wistful French reverie; exuberant Italian showpiece) but provided a deft illustration of how brilliantly and distinctively Balanchine reinvented the pas de deux. "Sonatine," which was originally staged for MCB by its original cast (Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous) and danced at both performances by Deanna Say and Didier Bramaz, did not quite exude the delicate perfume in this somewhat careful interpretation. Ravel's glorious music hints at lush exoticism, and while they had lovely moments of reflective, quiet beauty, there is still room for an extra level fo spontaneity and abandon to be reached.
Renato Penteado, at both performances, did "Tarantella" a great service by dancing without any excessive forced histrionics and letting the sheer, joyful musical verve of the choreography shine through. He took to the air with robust effortlessness and brought an element of surprise to his tambourine whacking. Mary Carmen Catoya was his piquant, feisty match on Friday, dancing with freshness and wit. Jeanette Delgado took over the role on Saturday and delivered an extra note of vibrancy and sly, saucy engagement.
Francisco Renno was the superb pianist for both works. Unusually, he was onstage for "Tarantella" -- in the upstage right corner, but one still feared for the dancers' ability to navigate through their space-devouring choreography -- and performed the Gottschalk score solo, rather than with the expected orchestral accompaniment. Juan Francisco La Manna was the conductor for the other three works, with Tim Devine directing the "NIghtspot" onstage band.
Miami City Ballet performs this program April 11 - 13 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Photos by Joe Gato:
Top: Carlos Guerra and Jennifer Kronenberg in Twyla Tharp's "NIGHTSPOT"
Bottom: Deanna Seay and Didier Bramaz in "Sonatine"