Kodo One Earth Tour – Mystery

Kodo One Earth Tour
Mystery
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
March 20, 2015

Kodo One Earth Tour: MysteryBeginning in the darkness, in an atmosphere of quiet ceremony, then gradually building over the course of the evening into an explosion of power that rocked the opera house, Kodo delivered a sensational performance at BAM on Friday night. At the heart of their show is the ancient and sacred art of the taiko drum of Japan, drums that are used at festivals in prayer to summon the Gods.
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Steeped in this tradition, Artistic Director Tamasaburo Bando and Kodo’s ensemble of fourteen men and women drum, sing and dance in styles that range from the deeply spiritual, to the hilarious, to the exhilarating. But even as the artists amped up the excitement to the level of a rock concert, they never seemed to stray from their traditional roots.
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In the program notes, Producer Nobuyuki Nishimura speaks about the challenge of presenting ancient and sacred Japanese folk arts on theatre stages in foreign countries to audiences who are unfamiliar with them. I would imagine that some would argue that it shouldn’t even be attempted. There was one Japanese speaking commentor on BAM’s blog who complained that the presentation was too commercial.
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But I felt that Kodo managed to communicate beautifully with the American audience without compromising the sanctity of their art. As their energy intensified throughout the course of the evening and brought the audience to their feet, I felt as if the we experienced and respected the sacred within the exhilaration. Even as the complete ensemble displays their precision and virtuosity, they do it while stepping around the stage in a circle, each player humbly backing away as if to offer the spotlight to the person next to them. It seemed to emphasize the unity of the group and an unbroken circle of tradition.
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Bando’s program notes read like poetry, suggesting that those in the audience embrace the mystery of darkness. Indeed, the concert begins on a darkened stage. Drummers in black costume emerge. A dot of white light hovers over each of their heads and blue light beams from each foot. They remind me of fireflies. Their movement often takes its lead from the rhythm of the drum, and seems to embody the energy of the natural world. I felt as if I was in a dense woodland, catching glimpses in the distance of graceful animals, birds or insects that I’d never seen before. As far as I could tell, all of the instruments were crafted from natural materials and this enhanced the earthy atmosphere of the performance.
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The physicality of the drumming is seamlessly transformed into choreographed dance. In one sequence, three large drums are stationed around a very large central drum. Three men circle the central drum as they play, shifting their playing from the central drum to the satellite drums, leaping with primal energy into barrel turns as they travel from one drum to the next. The drumsticks become extensions of the hands, creating images of wings or tree branches. In another sequence, a trio of women encounter and appease a trio of hairy masked beings. They tell their story in staccato movements, with emphasis on the arms and hands. They are so lovely, and they draw us into their narrative, making us laugh. Dancers and players sometimes seem to drift from one station in the formation to another, as if they are propelled by the music rather than executing steps. They move without any hint of pretense. There is a beautiful and inspiring humility to their showmanship.
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The variety of drums used seems limitless. There are drums on the floor, drums strapped to the body, drums held in the hands, drums whose barrels are different lengths and make different sounds, drums with different voices and pitches. They come together with bells, flutes and vocal harmonies which are beautifully layered into the music. At times, there are rapid shifts in dynamics or tempo but all of the movement remains flawlessly synchronized and we are awed by the virtuosity and precision of the players and the dance.
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The audience cheered wildly throughout the performance. There were standing ovations and a rush of enthusiasm in the crowd as we left the theatre. The performance had been so exciting and so moving that it made me wish I’d brought a host of friends to experience the dazzling beauty along with me.


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Carmen de Lavallade – As I Remember It

Carmen de Lavallade Carmen de Lavallade
As I Remember It – New York City Premiere
February 20, 2015
Baryshnikov Arts Center
All Photos by Stephanie Berger
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As I Remember It is a celebration of a life given to the arts, as told by Carmen de Lavallade. To see her, telling her life story, looking willowy, strong and gorgeous at age 83, moving with grace and purpose, performing this hour long one woman show, is to be inspired.
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One refrain from the show has Ms. de Lavallade saying “Everything with a purpose,” before she inventories the details of movement that make up a dancer’s work. As she dances, we can see the results of a lifetime spent paying attention to every small detail while still delivering the overarching emotion of each phrase. We can also see the spectrum of expression that can be achieved when a dancer is also an actress.
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The bare stage is set with an asymmetrical frame from which hangs material resembling white silk strands. The network of strands becomes the projection screen or the curtain behind the proscenium arch. The strands can ripple to lovely effect, as if being blown by the wind. Ms. de Lavallade wears the clothes of the dance studio, a leotard, jazz pants and a magenta colored sweater with long ties. Throughout the evening the sweater becomes part of her movement.

Carmen de Lavallade
Though dance fans will devour this performance, I felt that it could be just as accessible to those who aren’t familiar with dance. It’s the story of a life well lived, and the humanity of the woman who lived it. The story is also set within the context of the American experience throughout the decades in which Ms. de Lavallade has lived and worked, including the struggle for civil rights, and the pressures brought to bear on artists during the Red Scare.
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She recreates her childhood in East LA by listing the fragrances of flowers and citrus fruits that grew there. She recreates wisps of childhood dances that she and her sisters acted out to accompany their favorite radio programs. She speaks of her grandmother and each one of her aunts by citing something special about them — with just one well crafted phrase we begin to get a feel for who they were, from artists and educators to activists. She speaks with great affection about her father, who worked as a master bricklayer and who raised all of the food that the family ate.
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Her cousin Janet Collins was the first black ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Determined to follow in her cousin’s footsteps, Ms. de Lavallade begins to take ballet classes in which she is the only person of color. During this era, it was not uncommon for a group of white girls to walk out of a ballet class if an African American girl was present. Of this time, Ms. de Lavallade says, “I focus on my dance. I rarely go out.”
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When she came of age, she found that her prospects were limited because very few companies would even consider hiring a black dancer. She was hired by Lester Horton.
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Most modern dancers have taken class in Horton technique, but Ms. de Lavallade gives us living breathing insight into Lester Horton and his company. His company practiced on stage, not in a studio. There were no mirrors. They worked on complex stage sets and rehearsed getting around the stage with their eyes closed. The dancers were also expected to do chores. “Clean the bathrooms, sweep the floors.” They worked seven days a week.
After carefully observing Bella Lewitsky, Lester Horton’s muse, in the role of Salome, Ms. de Lavallade was called upon to perform it at age eighteen. Horton encouraged her to dance the role in her own artistic voice. She reenacts how, on her opening night, she stepped through the curtain, only to have the tape with her music break.
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The Horton Company came to the 92nd Street Y in New York City, having crossed the country in a caravan of station wagons. In a wonderful sequence, Ms. de Lavallade re-enacts phrases of a dance, using the long tails of her sweater as a stretchy modern dance costume, wrapped around her head and shoulders. She peeks out at the audience from behind the fabric and her brow furrows. “The house is half empty!” With no advance publicity, the Horton Company’s season turns out to be a financial disaster for the company, who had to wire back to California for emergency funds just to get home. It is weeks later that the reviews appear, and the company wins critical acclaim.
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They struggled financially, so Horton took to choreographing for the movies. As Ms. de Lavallade shows footage of her first speaking role in a film, she cautions the audience, “Don’t blink.”

Carmen de Lavallade
There is a lovely informality to her telling of the story. When she plants her foot on an ottoman and nearly misses, she just wags her finger at the thing and does it again, this time getting it right. When she forgets the name of someone in her story, she moans that it’s terrible to get old. Someone off stage feeds her the person’s name. It’s all done so easily and organically that we don’t know if she intended it that way or not.
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After Horton’s death, company member Alvin Ailey begins choreographing. They both wind up in the cast of the musical _House of Flowers_, along with Pearl Bailey, Arthur Mitchell and her future husband, Geoffrey Holder. It’s around this time that Ailey and Mitchell begin to form their own companies. She goes on to work with Ailey in a venture called the American Dance Company, but she receives top billing and this creates trouble.
We’re shown a clip of the opening of a 1961 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. At first I was so surprised. Had there really been dance of this caliber regularly shown on TV in this era?
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But before we can become nostalgic, Ms. de Lavallade reminds us of the political climate of the day. Not only did she have to deal with racism and segregation on the set — the Powers That Be did not want her dancing with her partner Claude Thompson who was black, but instead with choreographer John Butler. She also had to swear an oath that she wasn’t a Communist, as did everyone who appeared on the Sullivan show. She quoted Bella Lewitsky, who when appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, said “I’m a dancer, not a singer.”
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Though Ms. de Lavallade’s stories are riveting and left me longing to hear more, it was her charm, humor and her affection for the stories and the people she knew, that made the performance so memorable. She is a woman who achieved the heights of artistry, worked with a host of renowned artists, and made history along the way.


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Panel Discussion with Dance Iquail

DanceIquail.01.14-7715 lightPanel Discussion with Dance Iquail
Riverside Theatre
February 2, 2015
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On February 13th and 14th, Dance Iquail will be presenting a ballet titled Black Swan at the Ailey Citigroup Theater.   Executive and Artistic Director Iquail Shaheed and Harlem Arts Alliance presented a powerful program of dance, talk, film and video, along with a panel discussion on the subject of the ongoing segregation, diminished resources and social disenfranchisement that still exists in the dance world in 2015.  The evening went from strength to strength and left us with much to consider.
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The program opened with a short excerpt from Carmen de Lavallade’s As I Remember It, a solo performance in which poignant movement, film, and storytelling weave an unforgettable memoir about her venerable life on stage.  The full length show will be presented at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, February 19th – 25th.  Producer Anna Glass referred to the event as “Carmen giving a master class on stage.”  Ms. de Lavallade, who at 84 remains fit and beautiful, moving with grace and elegance, talked about her experiences with theater and dance, and how study and work in each discipline enhanced her abilities and expression in the other.
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Dance Iquail presented But Beautiful, an excerpt from Black Swan, choreographed by Iquail Shaheed with music by Nina Simone.  I was impressed by the unique voice of the choreographer and the dance’s fresh approach to combining classical and modern movement.  The dancers are barefoot, the women wearing black leotards and black tutus that are short in front and longer in the back.  Several references are made to iconic ballets.  The dancers stand still on the diagonal, their right arms raised, reminiscent of Balanchine’s _Serenade_.  Then with what seems like telepathic timing, their arms softened with classical grace, and I couldn’t help but sigh at the power and the beauty of that little gesture.  Four women take hands to form the line of the Cygnets from Swan Lake, and they execute the port de tete from the classic choreography.  But their torsos contract and they peel off from the group, one by one, as if to display their individuality and to reject the conformity demanded of the present day classical ballerina in body shape and skin color.  Dance Iquail’s mission is to use the art of dance as a conduit for combating issues of social injustice primarily experienced by the disadvantaged.  This was expressed beautifully in the dance.  This is the type of mission that I deliberately seek out in the arts.  I look forward to seeing their evening length performance at Ailey and their future work.
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Panel discussions that pack the punch of Black Swan: Solidarity Beyond Colored Pointe Shoes are way too few in the dance world.  Panelists included Karen KB Brown, former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Artistic Director of Oakland Ballet, Andrea Long-Naidu, who danced with New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, Iquail Shaheed, Zita Allen, dance writer, journalist and historian, and moderator Baraka Sele, former Assistant Vice President of Programming for the NJPAC Alternate Routes series.
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Recurring themes in the discussion included our generation’s awareness (or lack of awareness) of dance history, and what we’re passing on to the generation now coming up. Not just the performance highlights, but the struggles and resilience faced by black dancers in the context of racism and segregation in American history.  Iquail Shaheed talked about the need for a community engagement campaign.  This is so vitally important.  We have to call things by their right name.
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Zita Allen, the first black critic for Dance Magazine, talked about her early ballet training in Austin, Texas, where she was only allowed to come to the studio if she came in through the back door, accompanied by eleven other students (and no fewer) after everyone else had already gone home.  When one student quit, the rest of the group was no longer welcome.
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The story was told about the career of Raven Wilkinson, a light skinned black ballerina who was invited to join the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in the 1950’s, provided that audiences never found out that she was black.  She was often made to wear white makeup on stage, to travel separately, and she was excluded from performing in certain towns in the American south.  While the company was in Atlanta, word was leaked that there was a black dancer in the company.  In response, the Ku Klux Klan sprang into action.  They barged into rehearsal, cornered Alicia Alonso, and demanded to know if she was the “n” in the company.
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Not all displays of racism are as blatant, but they are just as damaging.  Alicia Graf would be told “you’re too tall” for a specific role.  Josephine Baker had to become a caricature in order to draw an American audience, while in Paris she could be glamorous.  It’s said that Balanchine wanted ballerinas to have skin the color of a peeled apple.  Courtney Lavine and Aesha Ash were corps dancers who were never able to move up the company hierarchy.  Iquail Shaheed overheard his teachers, while casting a ballet, saying of him that he needed to stay out of the sun.
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Baraka Sele pointed out that the demographics of ballet companies do not reflect the demographics of the country, yet the companies receive funding from, among other entities, the American government.
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She also encouraged ballet students and fans to read and know history.  “It’s not enough to raise your leg high.”
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Zita Allen echoed this, stressing the importance of understanding the historic context of favorite ballets.  It enhances a dance fan’s appreciation of Revelations if she understands what was going on in America circa 1960.  Ms. Allen encouraged young choreographers to care about the world that they are living in and to address the political in their works “even if it’s done obliquely”.
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Karen KB Brown talked about the absurdity of putting black ballerinas in pink tights and pink pointe shoes.  This type of costuming cuts the look of the dark skinned ballerina in half.  For choreographers and artistic directors who protest that they can’t use a black ballerina because she will stand out too much, Ms. Brown’s “solution oriented” advice was that they should hire more than one.
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Several of the panelists gave book recommendations.  Books mentioned included The Black Dancing Body and Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina by Brenda Dixon Gottschild, The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.  Andrea Long-Naidu advocated reading spiritual books, to help dancers develop the inner strength that they will need to progress in the dance world.  Iquail Shaheed talked about sending his students to the web to research dance history.  He recommended Jacob’s Pillow’s Interactive Web Site, where he was able to learn about the genesis of Creole Giselle.  He put out a call for dancers to put their archives up online, where they’d be available to everyone.
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I loved this event.  Those who made up the panel were so inspiring.  They raised thoughtful questions, they taught me and they left me with a thirst to learn more.  I’m hoping that there will be more talks like this to come, because they are sorely needed.
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The video below, Sun Moon Child with music by Imani Uzuri was shown at the end of the evening.  Take a look.  If you’re older,  it will bring back great memories that might drive you to tears.  If you’re young, it will school you.


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Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake at BAM

SwanLake20150115-123Mariinsky Ballet
Swan Lake
BAM
Howard Gilman Opera House
January 21, 2015
All photos by Jack Vartoogian courtesy of BAM
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Of all the ballets that I’ve ever seen, Swan Lake remains my favorite. Having the opportunity to see the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) perform it in Brooklyn was nothing less than a privilege.
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This was a wonderful production from beginning to end. The technical excellence of the individual dancers was there, exactly matched by the precision of the company and the heart and soul brought to the lead roles by the principal dancers. The Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by American born Gavriel Heine, combined with the acoustics of the old opera house, allowed me to hear voices and nuance in the music that I’d never heard before.

SwanLake20150115-334In the role of Prince Siegfried, Timur Askerov is somewhat reserved. We don’t see big displays of emotion or childishness from him, but we do feel Siegfried’s love for Odette expressed through his dancing. He is regal and dazzling. Without the use of any overblown gestures, he was especially dramatic in the moment that he pledged to marry Odette.
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Vladislav Shumakov, in the role of the Joker, was a show stopper. He comes between the players at the party with good comic timing. He gets great height and hang time through a series of stunning and challenging jumps. Yana Selina, Nadezhda Batoeva, Filipp Stepin were notably lovely in the pas de trois. Andrei Yermakov made a dark and fascinating Rothbart, more creature than man. His commanding presence was menacing.

SwanLake20150115-323Yekaterina Kondaurova, who danced the dual roles of Odette and Odile, kept me riveted and left me with new things to consider about this ballet. I loved the understated elegance and economy of her acting, and every gorgeous detail of her dancing. As Odette, she doesn’t display the customary nervous and desperate energy, yet we still feel such compassion for her. So much is made about the thirty-two fouette turns that must be executed by Odile in this ballet, but on reflection after having seen Ms. Kondaurova’s performance, I feel that Odette could be the more challenging role. She danced it with a sophistication that I’d never seen before. Mr. Askerov partners her masterfully.
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Toward the end of the lakeside scene, there is a protracted rest in the music in which the action on stage freezes as Ms. Kondaurov holds a pique attitude. This surprise worked to enhance the other-worldly atmosphere of the scene and to underscore the seriousness of the love shared by Siegfried and Odette.

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Early on in the Black Swan Pas de Deux, the stage lighting dims, magnifying the danger as Odile is casting her spell. It stays this way until the moment of truth, when the lighting returns to normal, intensifying the chaos that ensues. With every lift of her chin and every haughty glance, Ms. Kondaurova is captivating.
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As for the production in general, I found the lakeside sets to be especially enchanting. The swans truly move in the entrained fashion of a flock of birds. They seem to sense one another in a telepathic fashion and they move in unison with beautiful precision, as if they are of one mind. This was especially evident as the cygnets executed their crisp clean footwork.
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I found the divertissements in Act II to be among the best I’ve seen in terms of choreography and flair. I especially loved the stylish long reaches and the deep elongated side bends performed by Lyubov Kozharskaya and Anastasia Petushkova in the Spanish dance.

SwanLake20150115-151SwanLake20150115-327This is a long ballet. With two intermissions and a prolonged third act, it runs over three hours. Yet the bows and curtain calls went on for quite a while, with howls and screams growing louder as they rose up from the balcony where we were sitting. This was a very special night in the theater and the audience knew it.
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I have to tip my hat to BAM. They always go the extra mile to enhance the audience’s experience. They e-mail ticket holders a few days before the performance, sending along links to interviews, articles and video to provide context for the ballet. This is much appreciated.


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Premiere Division’s Winter Show

PDivision.Jan15-5901_7_capPremiere Division
January 4, 2015 – Matinee
The Winter Show
DiCapo Opera Theatre
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Premiere Division’s Winter Show delivered well crafted performances of three story ballets choreographed by Artistic Director Nadege Hottier.
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The Little Match Girl was heart breaking in its beauty and sadness. Ms. Hottier’s choreography captures the isolation of poverty and exclusion against the backdrop of glamorous life in a big city. Players from The Bleecker Street Septet are lined up across the back of the stage as the dancers bring mid-twentieth century New York City to life, complete with gangsters and paper boys roving the street alongside Ziegfeld Girls dressed in lovely period costumes. The stage lighting, which is often on the dark side and sometimes done in sepia tones, enhances the atmosphere of a bygone era of the city.
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As each group dances, others remain on stage, posed like figures in a wax museum. The Ziegfeld Girls dance on pointe, but Ms. Hottier adds lovely jazz details, like an occasional dip into the hip, a flexed foot as a musical accent or finger snapping to the bassline. Mac Twining, Salim Ingram and Julian Watson provide strong solos. Their turns and leaps are powerful, but it’s their musicality that really impresses me. This has to be said of the entire company. I’ve rarely seen a group of dancers this young who are as sensitive to the music as they are to their technique.
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Kalliope Piersol, in the role of the Little Match Girl, gave one of the standout performances of the afternoon for me. She seemed so confident in her technique and the execution of the choreography that she was able to disappear into her role and conjure such compassion for her downtrodden character. She watches the glittering lives of the city’s characters from the sidelines. When she dances, she infuses each step with emotion. She reaches out, her hand tense with desperation. Her torso contracts as she hugs herself against the cold and we can feel the chill. She sails easily through turns which, along with her rose colored costume, seem to symbolize the strength of her dreams and her spirit, and her will to go on in spite of the hardships she endures. Her sadness and suffering stands out in sharp relief against the frolic of the characters she watches on the street.
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Finally ground down by her hard life, she sinks to the floor. Soprano Allison Clare sings Rachmaninoff’s mournful Vocalise as the Match Girl is visited by an angel dressed in black, danced by Kellyann Pintauro. Ms. Piersol and Ms. Pintauro dance together in solemn beauty, often in unison. Even though the story of this ballet is so sad, it is danced with such uncommon heart and sophistication, and staged with such style, that I’d love to see it again.

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Guest artist Alexandre Barranco plays the part of the Witch Mother Gothel in Rapunzel. Dressed in a sensational floor length black and gold gown with ram’s horns sprouting from his head, he alternately lurks and raises his chest like a sleek animal on guard.
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In the role of Rapunzel, Emily Abrom is angelic. A long legged ballerina dressed in white, wearing her long blonde hair loose, she enters the scene like a beam of ethereal light. Her adagio movement is regal and her developpes are luscious, unfurling till the very last tone of a phrase. The Adventurous Prince who courts her is danced by Mac Twining, a young man who moves with assuredness and exudes charisma. Their pas de deux begins with the two of them holding hands while standing back to back, which seems to captures the sweet and tentative movement of a new young love, as well as Rapunzel’s apprehension about retaliation from the Witch if she gives in to her heart. The Prince carries Rapunzel on his back, but soon enough she embraces him, even as the Witch looks on and eventually drives the two apart.
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Mr. Barranco is arresting as the Witch twists and plots and attempts to intervene and control the fate of the two young lovers. He moves slowly, wielding a sword with power and ferocity, and we fear it will be used as a weapon against the young ones. A defiant Rapunzel returns to the Prince and their love vanquishes the Witch, who writhes on the ground until she lays still.
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Ms. Hottier’s take on The Nutcracker is stylish, original, and full of risks given the familiarity that many ballet fans have with all the different Nutcracker choreography so heavily influenced by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Ms. Hottier’s Nutcracker also has the flavor of the mid-twentieth century city.
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The Housekeeper in the Party Scene, played by Kellyann Pintaruo, is adorable as she struggles to balance a stack of brightly wrapped Christmas presents to be placed alongside a diminutive tree. The guests are hilarious, moving in modern dress, low in plie, duck walking and thrusting their chins forward, changing focus with comical timing. The women look as if they’d stepped out of the pages of an old time issue of Vogue. Clara, played by Kalliope Piersol , drifts off to sleep hugging the Nutcracker doll given to her by a Dandy, a guest at the party. She wakes to find herself with the Dandy, traveling through the Swirl of Snowflakes, and arriving at a Toy Store with a Machiavellian owner. Emily Abrom is all icy elegance in a white fur coat, dancing the role of The Lady Snow Queen with her Cavalier, Jacob Hiss. Wayfarers dance in raincoats and pop open their umbrellas while one lone Snowflake, Micayla Frank, lies on her stomach, facing the audience with a cute dreamy smile as she flutters her legs.
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The Toy Store scene features the variations that we all know and love, Spanish, Chinese, Marzipan, Arabian and Harlequin. The dancers are most entertaining and theatrical, and the costumes by Noriko Hara are magnificent. Alexandre Barranco is formidable as the Dandy, in a solo full of striking leaps and turns. His footwork is precise, silent and clean. Again, I am thrilled to see that his technique is matched by wonderful musicality.
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The Waltz of the Flowers is so far removed from any other version that I’ve ever seen. It is steep in technical demands, yet the dancers are up to it and appear to execute the dance effortlessly. Instead of being a big colorful production number, most of the movement is adagio. Kalliope Piersol’s Clara  is girlish, innocent and lovely, even as she demonstrates great strength, performing challenging promenades, penches and long balances on pointe.  She is expertly partnered by Mac Twining.
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I’m impressed with Premiere Division and I look forward to seeing future work from them.
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Founded in 2013, Premiere Division offers year round training and summer intensive programs for strong dedicated dancer, focused on high quality individualized training and an enriched stage experience. While the core training is rooted in strict European traditions, they also, by the means of in-program workshops, establish training in modern and contemporary techniques and styles. Their training emphasizes strength, endurance and precision. Artistic Director Nadege Hottier has trained in contemporary ballet with Maurice Bejart, and with neoclassical masters Valery Panov and Uwe Scholz.


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Coming this Christmas – Vicky Simegiatos presents The Nutcracker

2014_8.5x11_vicky.inddThe Vicky Simegiatos Dance Company presents The Nutcracker
A full length classical ballet

Historic St. George Theatre – 35 Hyatt Street – Staten Island
2 blocks from the Ferry
Sunday, December 21, 2014 – 1:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M.
Tickets $50 and $35          Tickets on sale NOW
St. George Theatre Box Office – 718.442.2900
VSPAC Studios – 7110 Third Avenue in Bay Ridge – 718.680.0944
(after 5:00 P.M. weekdays – all day Saturday)
Tickets also available through Ticketmaster
All photos by Kim Max

Download the flyer here.


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Italian International Dance Festival

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Italian International Dance Festival
October 24, 2014
Julia Richman Theater
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The Italian International Dance Festival presented an abbraccio dell’arte (embrace of art) featuring dance companies from Italy and New York which are directed by Italian artists. The festival’s Artistic Director Antonio Fini and Creative Director and host Tabata Caldironi presented a delightful program of folk dances, contemporary ballet, jazz and musical theater.
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Tarantella, opened with an intense solo danced by Fini, who also choreographed the piece. His tambourine rattles with passion and urgency as he sinks to his knees and arches his back. The program notes tell us that according to Southern Italian legend, the bite of a spider or the bite of love could kill a person. To rid yourself of the poison, you have to “dance, dance, dance and dance”. The tenth grade students of Talent Unlimited High School join Fini for a festive folk dance. Their hair is down and they are barefoot, dressed in swirling white skirts. The girls are fresh faced and smiling, the very image of young love. It was delightful to see the many ways that each one brought her own unique expression to the choreography. They seemed to tell so many different stories. Wonderful!
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Fini returned in Dancing with Noa, a very moving pas de deux danced with Noa Guy, a woman of sixty who’d been partially paralyzed in a car accident. The piece employs creative movement in shifts of weight, floor work, gorgeous lifts and turns, and swooping falls. The dance captures what is universal in movement — it can still be so expressive, even when it comes in an unfamiliar or unpredictable fashion. The closing moments are especially dramatic — Ms. Guy is stock still, being held upside down by Fini, her long white hair fanned on the floor as her feet point toward the heavens.
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Michael Mao choreographed Song of Helena for students and dancers of Staten Island Ballet. It’s a lyrical contemporary piece, set to Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, telling the story of a young woman in Poland incarcerated by the Gestapo during World War II. On the wall of her cell, she wrote a note to her mother telling her that that the Immaculate Queen of Heaven supported her, and that her mother needn’t cry. The dancers wear long white dresses. At times they seem like angels weaving through formations and encircling one central character. Or maybe they are fellow inmates collectively resigned to their fate. The ballet movement is haunting and lovely with expressive port de bras and luxurious unfolding extensions. The closing moments remind me of Balanchine’s Serenade. Instead of one girl arching toward heaven, the dancers rest on the floor as one walks into the distance, toward her fate.
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Antonio Fini wowed the audience with Gym-Me, a comic look at the antics of gym rats. Dressed in workout clothes down to the sweatband around his forehead, he trains fanatically, stretching, planking, doing crunches. He flexes and runs laps and makes a huge display of how hard he’s working. Then comes the posing, down to kissing his own biceps. Very entertaining.
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It was a thrill to see none other than Edward Villella appearing on stage to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award. His list of accomplishments is dazzling, from his career as principal dancer with New York City Ballet, to Artistic Director of Eglevsky Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet, to his founding of Miami City Ballet. At 78 he remains fit, handsome and charming. He received a standing ovation as Mr. Fini and Ms. Caldironi presented his award.
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SLK Ballet performed Amaciza (Italian for ‘friendship’), choreographed by Sara Knight, to music by Inti-Illimani. It’s a jubilant ballet with a folk flavor, danced with hair down and bare feet. The dancers kick up their whirling white skirts and perform festive turns with their hands reaching skyward. This dance has a wonderfully joyous atmosphere and the dancers were just lovely.
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Dancer Alessandra Corona has something so special — you feel it from the first moments that she steps on to the stage. Antonio Fini partnered her in a romantic pas de deux from Dinner With Friends, Ms. Corona’s new production, which will open in Rome in November. She is riveting as her back arches and she ascends into a high lift. There is something girlish and innocent in her movement, along with a strong expression of passion. It was a pleasure to be introduced to her work. She was recipient of the Extraordinary Dancer Award from the festival.
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Jazz great Luigi was honored in Jazz Tango, performed in smooth style by Dianna Folio and Joey Doucette. Ms. Folio’s Homage to Luigi featured three electrifying young men. The dance begins by chronicling the exercises of the jazz class. As it opens up, we see travelling floor work that evolves into some iconic phrases from great old Hollywood films. The boys perform spectacular silent leaps. Their technique is so clean and they move with great flair.
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The evening closed with a musical theater performance — excerpts from a show that is about to open in Italy called La Sposa in Blu (The Blue Bride.) The show stars famous Italian drag queen Platinette, who comes home to find that her home has been burglarized. It was tough to follow the story, given that the entire production is in Italian, but the performance of the songs was quite rousing and Samantha Fantauzzi was especially captivating in the role of the neighbor. Platinette is a wonderful comic who later opened her arms, looked toward the sky and expressed gratitude to Joan Rivers.
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Bravo to Mr. Fini and Ms. Caldironi for bringing this evening of Italian culture to New York City. Mr. Fini’s Alto Jonio Dance is offering a Summer Intensive in Italy in 2015. Visit the festival’s web page for further information.


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Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq

682_mrb_tanny_Kino_Lorber_Inc2_capAfternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq
Written, Directed and Produced by Nancy Buirski

From the opening moments of this film, which include grainy old footage of Tanaquil LeClercq and Jacques D’Amboise performing Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, it’s clear to see what made Tanny so special.  Her presence is arresting.  At one moment she is majestic, aloof, and almost other worldly.  In the next she wears an understated flirtatious expression as her leg turns in and out.  In the promenade we see why Robbins referred to her quality of movement as resembling that of an animal.  “A young colt soon to become a graceful thoroughbred.”  Promenades tend to be so focused and controlled, but in this one LeClercq seems to let go and move with abandon, as if she’s being blown on the wind, placing all trust in D’Amboise to keep her upright.

Through a series of wonderful old photos and stories told by George Balanchine’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, and ballerina Patricia McBride, we are drawn into the 1950s incarnation of New York City Ballet and its official studio, The School of American Ballet. Young Tanaquil LeClercq is introduced to us through the eyes of Mr. B, who finds her in the halls of SAB standing alone with her arms crossed after having been kicked out of her class.

Balanchine is described by Ms. Horgan, as always pursuing the next “one”.  In some of his most popular pas de deux, we can see a man searching for a woman.  Some have speculated that this narrative was autobiographical.  For awhile, Tanny was “the one”.  Balanchine started out by giving her small roles, eventually going on to choreograph iconic ballets around her.

“Dancers were usually short and quick, stocky and fast,” D’Amboise tells us.  But Tanny was tall and elongated, with a strong stage presence.  As Balanchine’s muse, she inspired him to take his dances in new directions to suit her movement and her body type.

It is so eerie to learn of the roles that Tanny danced that could have been seen as omens of her coming illness.  When she was still a student at SAB, Balanchine was asked to choreograph a ballet for a March of Dimes fund raiser.  He created a “grim pas de deux” in which he played the part of polio.  Tanny was cast in the role of its victim.  In Symphony in C, she famously fell backward into her partner’s arms.  Robbins said that he cried when he first saw her do this.  In Balanchine’s La Valse, she is dressed in white, then claimed by a figure dressed in black who transforms everything to black, from the stage to her costume, as the company swirls around her.

There is footage from Christmas 1956 of LeClercq and D’Amboise being interviewed for television after having performed the Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker.  They spoke about the company’s upcoming tenth anniversary and their winter tour of Europe.  It was at this point that the polio vaccine was being administered to the dancers of NYCB — there are even still photos showing the dancers standing in line waiting to receive it.  Tanny had been standing in that line, but at the last moment she decided against taking it, fearing it would make her miserable on the flight to Europe.

That decision sealed her fate.  On the European tour, without warning, she fell ill and was diagnosed with polio, which paralyzed her legs and one arm.

The film does a great job of depicting what life was like for those in treatment for polio. We are shown footage of hospitals with a row of iron lung machines, into which the ailing are placed.  We feel Tanny’s suffering and depression as we hear passages from heartbreaking letters that she exchanged with Robbins after the company returned to New York City, while she and Balanchine stayed behind in Stockholm.  The camera shows us her first letter, which looks as if it had been written by a five year old.  She could barely hold a pen.

When it became clear that the doctors could not cure her paralysis, Balanchine took it upon himself to attempt to do it.  He got involved with prayer groups and spiritual healers.  He trained her in Pilates type of exercises.  He would even hold her up and place her feet on top of his as he walked, hoping to trick her muscles into remembering how to do it.  In the following year, Balanchine choreographed Agon, and Arthur Mitchell points out that in the pas de deux, the man is placing the ballerina into different positions.  He felt that this was what Balanchine was doing with Tanny.

It took awhile before she could return to New York City, and it took longer than that before she’d go back to the ballet.  Mitchell invited her to teach at Dance Theatre of Harlem.  He described her as being able to “zoom” around the studio in her wheel chair in order to give corrections.  Virginia Johnson and Lydia Abarca were among her protegees.

In coming to terms with her condition and finding this new role for herself, Tanny was able to say that it’s possible that her polio had been a gift.  She went on to coach ballerinas in roles that she had danced.  As she found her way, it seems that those around her were able to come to terms with what had happened to her.  It’s most impressive that she was able to remain independent after she and Balanchine divorced.  Her doctors had told Balanchine that she wouldn’t live to see the age of forty, but she made it almost to eighty.

At the end of the film, D’Amboise deals with a subject that was rarely talked about in public in his generation.  Even a full ballet career is short in the context of an entire life.  Sooner or later, every dancer has to come to terms with leaving the stage and choosing a new path.  For Tanny, it happened way too soon, and in such a cruel fashion.  But hers wound up being a great story of resilience and the triumph of the spirit.


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Little Dancer – Guggenheim Works and Process

Little Dancer
Works and Process at The Guggenheim
October 5, 2014

poster2_smInspired by the obscure ballerina who posed for the famed Edgar Degas sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the new musical Little Dancer follows model Marie Van Goethem as she struggles in the Paris Opera Ballet circa 1880. For Works and Process, excerpts were performed by four-time Tony Award–winner Boyd Gaines, three-time Tony Award–nominee Rebecca Luker, and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck. Costume designer William Ivey Long moderated a discussion with director and choreographer Susan Stroman, book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.
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The conversation traveled a fascinating path through the lesser known details of art history, the circumstances of life in and around the Paris Opera Ballet, and the work that was involved in the eight years that it took to bring this production from the germ of an idea to a full blown musical which will be opening at the Kennedy Center at the end of this month. Much of Marie’s life remains a mystery. Little Dancer is presented not as an adaptation of her story, but as an imagining of what it might have been based on what little is known about her.
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We were given some insight into the life of artist Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of the ballet. He painted movement, fabric and texture, sometimes focusing on the dancers’ exhaustion and the boredom of rehearsals. A curmudgeon who never married or had any notable affairs with women, he found his eyesight beginning to fail him in mid life and that might have prompted him to create sculpture. In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, he presented Marie as a three dimensional being and he captured the details of her spirit that suggest a wider story.
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We learn that this sculpture was not well received in its day. It is a mixed media creation, something uncommon in its time, with a cloth costume, a real hair ribbon and real hair. Some thought that it was an image of a prostitute. The public was outraged. Degas received terrible reviews for it, and though he referred to it as his “daughter” he put it away and it was never seen again until after his death.
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The panelists agreed, and I’ve seen it myself, that girls love the statue. Young ballet students will instinctively strike a fourth position when they first see it.
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What we do know about Marie is that she was born into poverty. Her mother was a laundress and a drinker and her father was out of the picture. She had an older sister who didn’t make it into the ballet and eventually became a prostitute. Her younger sister became a ballet dancer of some note and then a respected teacher. As for Marie herself, she became a petite rat in the ballet and was eventually given a small featured role. But then she was fired and there was no further record of her life.
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In the number In Between, Degas (played by Boyd Gaines) first notices Marie (played by Tiler Peck) at an audition. The lyrics of this song so beautifully capture Marie’s attitude and circumstances — “the injured eye, the awkward stance, the transformation when she starts to dance” and “the rebellious little head toss”. Degas’ excitement at finding her is palpable in Mr. Gaines’ performance. We can feel how much this means to him, and we can anticipate the significance of what is about to come from their collaboration. And as for Tiler Peck, she can do it all. She disappears into the role of Marie and she sails through the choreography with the innocent spirit of a fourteen year old.
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Among the characters who populated Degas’ ballet paintings, there was a violinist accompanying the class. In Little Dancer we meet a young violinist named Christian (played by Kyle Harris). Stephen Flaherty talked about how this character was inspired by the musicians whom he’d met throughout his years of working in the theatre. Mr. Harris is endearing and mischievous as he flirts with Marie in Musicians, Dancers and Fools. Mr. Flaherty described Christian as being street smart and fast on his feet — not a conservatory guy. He sees himself in Marie — “Someone who dances to her own unmistakable beat.” Mr. Flaherty also spoke about his use of syncopation in the music performed by the younger cast members to showcase their youth and exuberance.
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Woven together with the behind-the-scenes stories of the lives of Degas and Marie, were the fascinating glimpses into how the story of Little Dancer came together. Ms. Ahrens and Ms. Stroman talked about their decision to add an older version of Marie (played by Rebecca Luker) to the story. She turns out to be a strong and powerful presence, because when she is on stage, not only do we see Marie experiencing her own life, but we can also see her older self reflecting on it.
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Ms. Stroman described Marie as having a bit of the Artful Dodger in her — she wasn’t beyond picking “a pocket or two”. In The Little Hole In The Wall Older Marie looks on as young Marie displays her trinkets for her little sister Charlotte (played by Sophia Anne Caruso) — trinkets that probably came her way either in an illegal fashion, or courtesy of an abonné, one of the black suited top hatted men who lurked on the periphery of some of Degas paintings. Abonnées were wealthy patrons of the ballet who sometimes paid the mothers for the company of the petite rats. In this number, Marie and her sister hide their treasures from their mother, and they dream of their futures as stars of the ballet. “That’s how we’ll get free!” The performance of this song packed such an emotional wallop. Ms. Peck and Ms. Caruso so beautifully portray the excitement and the innocence of young girls who are dazzled by their dreams. It’s the presence of Older Marie among them who deepens the emotions conjured in this song. In Ms. Luker’s performance, we sense that even with the hard knocks that Marie would have experienced with age, she still would have looked back on her life with no regrets.
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This emotion is intensified in Ms. Luker’s performance of Looking Back at Myself, in which Marie recalls working on the small role that she was given in the ballet. This song contains exquisite lyrics about the passion and determination that have to temper the fear and struggle experienced by those who choose this path. In a lovely closing moment, Ms. Luker raises her arms to a high fifth for just a split second before she assumes the stance of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
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This scaled down performance on the bare stage, combined with the stories told by the show’s creators, left me with a desperate longing to see the fully fleshed out musical. I hope that it makes it to Broadway soon.
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Little Dancer will be performed at the Kennedy Center in the Eisenhower Theater beginning on October 25, 2014.


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Misse and Centurion at Dardo Galletto Studios

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Gabriel Misse & Analia Centurion
Teaching Seminar at Dardo Galletto Studios
August 12, 2014

To lay my credentials on the table up front: I am not a tango dancer, nor did I have any prior experience or knowledge of tango before attending this seminar. I felt it was important to say this because Gabriel Misse ended this event by cautioning people not to go online and write about tango if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

So instead of writing about tango, I’ve chosen to write about my introduction to tango, and how I received it from two artists who revere its existence, its history, and its code. This event was graciously hosted by Karina Ramos of Dardo Galletto Studios in Manhattan, and facilitated by the charming Maria Quintanilla, who deftly translated for the dancers. The atmosphere was so lively and informal, and the conversation so heated and passionate, that the exchange of words lapsed casually back and forth between English and Spanish.

Gabriel Misse is the kind of artist and teacher you dream of. He can be stern and serious in one moment, pained by the disrespect that he feels is currently being shown to the tango of early 20th century Argentina. He’s animated and humorous in the next, challenging the audience with thought provoking questions about tango or taking to his feet to demonstrate a point he is making. His movement is pure elegance, even if he’s only standing still and holding his partner before the figure begins. Even as he and Analia Centurion were seated at the table fielding questions, their appearance was every bit as sophisticated as their movement is on the dance floor. In discussing tango, Mr. Misse speaks with reverence, and he would like to see the world maintain the same degree of reverence toward this art. We can see that this is something that he’s held as being sacred from the time he was a boy.

When asked who their tango idols were, Mr. Misse answered with an authority which would become the theme of the evening’s conversation. He voiced his respect for the artists and milongueros who took care of the tango and protected it, passing it down through the generations without selling out. He is not happy with the way that tango is currently being marketed in the United States and he voiced frustration that many younger audiences do not appreciate tango as it was in Argentina from 1917 through the 1950s, or disrespect it outright.

Both he and Analia Centurion named the work of Pupi Castelo as a great influence on their dancing. They showed grainy old videos of Pupi dancing with Graciela Gonzalez, while pointing out the small details that made their tango so beautiful.

Mr. Misse explained that tango is lead with the man’s arm, not with his chest. With Ms. Centurion, he demonstrated how the movement of his elbow leads one of her legs and his hand leads the other. He is troubled by the fact that today, in New York City, this technique is not being taught. Today teachers instruct the man to lead with his chest and the embrace sometimes breaks open so that a pose could be struck. “It’s the easy and lazy way that new people come to tango. If you learn to lead with the chest, within two weeks you’re dancing, but you’re doing it wrong.”

IMG_7421IEPerf21_7Both Mr. Misse and Ms. Centurion knew from an early age that their lives would be devoted to tango. He was seven when his love of tango began. At age eighteen he went to the milongueros themselves to learn tango. (He has a strict interpretation of the word ‘milonguero’ — he holds tango dancers to an extremely high standard and they have to earn the title. He claims that there are maybe five or six true milongueros left in the world today.) Ms. Centurion started studying ballet at age six, eventually attending milongas and learning tango there. She chose to leave school — she had often been absent because she was always dancing.

Both artists stressed the commitment and the holistic approach that they bring to tango. Their practice of tango is not something that they crank up each day when they come to the studio. Rather, it is their lifestyle. It’s in the blood and it’s part of them from the moment that they wake up each day. “Everything that life throws at you — you bring it to the tango.” As Ms. Centurion said, “You start getting in and then you can’t get out. You wake up thinking about what you’re going to wear.” Mr. Misse would spend eight hours per day working on his technique. He’d walk back and forth to better understand how the body moves. His feet are silent on the floor as he demonstrates figures. “Tango becomes part of your house. Not just at a milonga.”

Mr. Misse also stressed the importance of listening to the best orchestras, citing the music of Carlos di Sarli and Mariano Mores as among the best. He played several different recordings and described the importance of the voices and instruments over the beat. He feels that the devoted tango dancer should learn Spanish and understand the lyrics of the tango songs in order to properly dance to them. They must also understand and respect Argentine culture.

As Mr. Misse tells it, tango began around 1917, created in Argentina with influence from Napoletanos who had emigrated from Italy. It began as a dance of the people, danced in the streets. In the 1930s, it moved indoors to salons with smooth wood floors, and this gave the dancers the ability to turn and lead with the arm. Carlos Alberto Estevez, better known by the nickname Petroleo, had been a construction worker in Argentina. He was influenced by the motion of the pulley and he is credited with inventing the figures in which the woman revolves around her partner as he turns. A milonguero who didn’t perform on stage, Petroleo is credited as an important figure in tango in the 1940s.

Mr. Misse is not impressed with today’s world championships in tango. Too often the judges are competition organizers, singers, sports stars or inexperienced tango “experts”. Not milongueros. Both he and Ms. Centurion bristled at the idea that a competitor would arrive dressed in jeans and carrying their costumes. “You don’t change your clothes to dance the tango. You are always like this.”


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