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Flash Review, 5-2: Partner Dances
About Tango, About Intimacy -- and About Tulsa

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2008 Alicia Chesser
Photography copyright Christopher Jean-Richard

TULSA -- To look at what Marcello Angelini has accomplished in 13 years at Tulsa Ballet is to see what a community-based arts revolution looks like. Thirteen years of serious imagining, planning, fundraising, and creating have resulted not only in the development of a company recognized for excellence at home and abroad, but now also in a newly renovated and expanded rehearsal and school facility and an adjacent very modern, very spectacular $5 million theater, Studio K - Kivisto Hall, dedicated to the creation of new work. The April 24 opening of the paint-not-even-dry 300-seat black box ("Don't fall asleep tonight, because we can see you from here!" Angelini joked before the performance) featured three new ballets, under the rubric "About Tango." This massive civic undertaking, which took 19 months to complete, involved local philanthropists, a local construction company, and an architect, Kathleen Page, who just happens to have danced with Tulsa Ballet back in the Roman Jasinski / Moscelyne Larkin days. As TB's foremost financial supporter, Tom Kivisto, noted before the show, "to party" in Tulsa means not to have a fancy soiree at one's home, but "to raise money for some great charity." (Such is the magnetism of TB these days that Kivisto was pulled in after seeing just one rehearsal; he had never even seen the company perform until two years ago.)

All this offstage action -- manifested practically in the company's raising $17 million in a five-year capital campaign -- makes for a surprising spectacle: serious dedication to the art of ballet in the middle of the United States, to the extent of building a whole new theater committed to new choreography and to bringing the community closer to the art form. TB is certainly a great cause with a great history; what's also remarkable is what Angelini has done with this opportunity. Why choose tango as the theme for an opening event like this? Tango tells a love story, and thus can speak to everyone. It is a particularly vivid coincidence of movement and emotion. It is unfamiliar to this audience, and thus has the potential to be challenging. Most of all, it is intimate -- body against body -- just as in this new theater dancer and viewer are practically eye to eye. This seems to be Angelini's intention with Studio K: to speak to the community in a new way with the vocabulary of dance, to engage it with this sometimes still foreign, old-fashioned-seeming art form so that it becomes a living, breathing thing and not just a spectacle seen from afar at the big Performing Arts Center downtown.

The first ballet on the program is "Tango Is...," choreographed by Argentinians Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo to a variety of tango tunes. (I use the present tense intentionally; the show runs through May 4, offering 10 performances in two weeks, which means it's the longest-running program TB has ever presented besides "The Nutcracker," which means great things for dancer development, as well as audience development.) Ghi and Merlo are Argentine tango dancers who have won several world championships and a Tony for their work in Broadway's "Forever Tango," created their own show "Tango Dreams," and produced a series of acclaimed instructional videos. (In other words, they're servants of their art as well as stars.) "Tango is not just drama," they said in an interview quoted in the evening's program; it is "drama, passion, fun, love, and athletics." Their piece for this new theater aims to introduce all this to viewers who, when they think of tango, most likely envision a smoky club, a sexy woman with a rose between her teeth, and a guy in black with Aqua Velva in his hair. It can be that, Ghi and Merlo demonstrate, but it can also go in different directions -- just like love.

A brilliant eight-piece band featuring local musicians, led by TB's music director Nathan Fifield, who painstakingly recreated 21 different tango arrangements for this evening, plays on a platform at the back of the stage. The sound of guest artist Gerardo Perez's bandoneon sizzles into the ear as 15 dancers in lush little dresses and suits begin a languorous demonstration of familiar tango movement, amidst a scatter of black chairs and with a full moon projected on the back wall. There are tight, fast turns; a fluid yet taut upper body that whips into sharp angles from luscious extensions; intricate changes of speed and dimension that exemplify the push and pull of intimacy. Rupert Edwards, in a vibrant red suit and red fedora, takes center stage, drawing black-clad Alfonso Martin and Katrina Gonzalez to him. The three move together, with Edwards guiding them from a simple ballroom tango into a much darker dance about passion and jealousy. At one point, Gonzalez stands between the two men, her slim, sinuous leg extended and telescoping from one to the other, until finally it chooses Martin, and they continue on their own. The six other couples come in and out of the stage space, dancing in pairs and in groups of just men and just women (the men's dance, to a rippling bandoneon piece, is particularly elegant). Watching "conventional" tango dancing at such close range brought a rush of questions to my mind. Is it a woman's realm here, or a man's? Who's in control? What is the "spirit of tango," anyway? How much comes from technique, and how much from spontaneous energy? The first segment of "Tango Is..." succeeds marvelously in its objective of drawing us in to the world of this dance.

Having confirmed and deepened the audience's expectations about tango, Ghi and Merlo set about to challenge them. There's an element of camp deep in the heart of tango somewhere, apparently, because two of the evening's three ballets seize on it. Here it shows up in the form of three guys with natty, ratty Rod Stewart haircuts, skinny black pants, and long bright scarves, who shimmy onstage in the company of three buxom women with pantaloons and big bottoms (and when I say buxom, I mean "water balloon" buxom). Their dance is jokey and bawdy, with a fair bit of good-natured ass-grabbing: tango as caricature, tango as play. The choreographers follow this segment with a different sort of lightheartedness, a sweet love ramble for two happy people. Again Gonzalez and Martin dance together, now as if it's the day after (or perhaps before?) their long, languid night. In a light turquoise dress Gonzalez shows her range as she skips across the stage, cavorting with Martin where before she'd perched like a delicate black bird, rear tipped up, with one leg cocked. An intense, earthy solo for Edwards follows, then all seven couples, each woman in a different red/black dress, complete the piece. These are not dancers trained in tango, nor are they accustomed to performing for such an up-close crowd. Emotions are suddenly very evident on faces; any trace of insincerity, any lapse in timing (of which there were a few), shows. The dancers warmed to the small space as "Tango Is..." went on, and by the last movement were compellingly both loose and focused. Of the supporting dancers, Serena Chu and Alberto Montesso gave particularly pure performances that taught me something surprising about tango: it can be ironic, and deeply so, but it may not smirk.

Tulsa Ballet's Karina Gonzalez, Soo Youn Cho, Alexandra Bergman, Ashley Blade-Martin, and Kate Oderkirk in Ma Cong's "Blood Rush." Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

After this superb introduction to tango dancing, Ma Cong -- a TB principal dancer and the company's resident choreographer -- brings us to another level altogether. "Blood Rush" is far and away the best work he has ever made. This theater's intimate scale has brought out something new in him, namely an impulse not to do too much, but rather to work close and go deep. There are no random movements here, no throngs of dancers scurrying to grab momentum, as has been the case in his earlier ballets. Instead Cong has trimmed his style to the bare essentials and in it captured the tense, pulsing, keening energy of the music (seven challenging pieces by Astor Piazzolla). There are five women in black bodices and flat red tutus (perhaps TB's costume designer Jo Wimer is referencing a William Forsythe ballet?) and six men in black. The movement is balletic, but the guts are tango. A slow promenade in arabesque quickly shifts to a wide second-position plié, back to the audience, with arms outstretched, which later evolves into the same position, cockeyed, with one foot pointing down toward the floor. Cong's familiar fluttery port de bras finds a focus in this ballet: it points to other things (the posture of a bullfighter, for example, in a dance for two men), not just to itself. Every moment is surprising, but not so much so that you feel you can't trust the choreographer's lead.

Tulsa Ballet's Daniela Buson and Wang Yi in Ma Cong's "Blood Rush." Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Everything in "Blood Rush" points to two breathtaking pas de deux: one, early, for Martin and Gonzalez, the other, near the end, for Daniela Buson and Wang Yi. Buson, coming out of retirement to dance this work, remains an in-house example for the next generation of the level of artistry Angelini expects from his company, and a personal inspiration for Cong. In these two duets, more than anywhere else in the program, the spirit of tango comes alive. The Gonzalez/Martin duet is set to Piazzolla's "La Calle 92," which is, for me, full of echoes of Stravinsky's 1932 "Duo Concertant," to which George Balanchine choreographed his famous pas de deux. A violin rips and slides and pounces up and down the scale, shifting from minor to major and back again, an instrument in counterpoint with itself: just like two people dancing a tango. Gonzalez, having shed her red tutu, dances in a tiny black lace corset with her black-clad partner. The scene is a boudoir, perhaps; the pas de deux evokes the delicate, pungent back and forth of foreplay. (Throughout the program, Les Dickert's lighting has an industrial feel, like shadows on concrete, quite appropriate to the modern surroundings and to the brutally forthright dances displayed therein.) These two dancers have been groomed as partners for a few years, and this pas de deux takes their relationship to a new level of maturity. It is a seamless stalking, concluding with a hair-raising spin in which Martin takes Gonzales from the splits upon his shoulders down to the floor as Rossitza Goza's violin shivers chillingly down the scale. (According to Fifield, Goza is the only one other than Gideon Kremer, for whom it was written, ever to play this Leonid Desyatnikov arrangement.)

The pas de deux for Buson and Yi, to Piazzolla's pensive "Milonga en Re," takes Cong's overarching idea -- tango spirit, ballet form -- to its ultimate expression. The energy is hers: passionate, focused, fearless in body and in emotion. She winds around Yi, and together they wind in and out of two black chairs set side by side in a corner of the stage. They shake their hands at each other, as if in furious Italian argument, then turn away to quiet themselves. Buson wears her dark hair short and parted on the side, a little mass of curls above her ear, like a flapper. As Yi sends her radiating out and curling back in long lifts, there are titters of laughter in the audience; apparently, we really do still need to be challenged to see and accept and understand intimate emotion expressed through dance. The gift that this theater and this new choreography series bring to Tulsa is so perfectly figured in Cong's ballet, and especially in this pas de deux, in which passion finds a mature, subtle, and very serious language. This audience is used to the Swan Queen's drama, or the innocence of "The Nutcracker"'s Marie; it is getting used to the shadowy emotional world evoked by Nacho Duato and the physical exuberance put forth by Val Caniparoli and Stanton Welch. "Blood Rush" takes us deep into the ways emotion, technique, history, music, culture, and personality can work together to speak to us through this centuries-old art form, and this is precisely the place Angelini means to take us in Studio K.

Between these two stunning duets, the same energy pulses in solos for Montesso and Ricardo Graziano that turn into a men's duet (titters here too), then a quartet (no more titters as it becomes apparent that, oh, my goodness, it is a very beautiful dance, and Cong is in no way joking); then a wild rumpus for four women, their long hair whipping around them, to the batterie of drums; then a powerful quintet for the men in which they show nothing but total commitment in sharply angled positions and extremely fast transfers from air to floor and back again. TB currently features an astonishingly talented group of dancers, from the newest to the most seasoned. They come from 14 countries, and, clearly, the desire for excellence that exists at the top has trickled down through the whole operation. "Blood Rush" shows, from beginning to end, what magic Tulsa Ballet -- and this new theater, in particular -- is capable of.

The final piece on the program is "This Is Your Life," by Young Soon Hue, a dance-maker with a particular gift for storytelling. In a world where abstraction has been the norm for so long, this gift is a rare one, and worth appreciating. Hue's "Backstage" has been a tremendous hit with Tulsa audiences and on TB's international tours. Her choreography, to put it bluntly, moves moves moves, combining styles so quickly you hardly have time to tell what's what. In this piece, she brings the eponymous television talk show to the ballet stage, with Joshua Trader (who has been the company's vaudeville expert for some time now) as the host. Hue's conceit is ingenious: seat seven dancers at the lip of the stage, have them tell their stories -- of love, loss, and everything in between -- and then tell them again through dance. Trader introduces them one by one, providing translation where necessary. A young housewife (Kate Oderkirk) effuses about her "perfect" marriage to a stone-faced businessman (Yi). A very fabulous hairdresser from Spain (Graziano) describes how happy he is making women feel beautiful at the Sunshine Salon. A second businessman (Cong) complains bitterly, in Chinese, about his job; his parents wouldn't let him become an actor. A woman from Holland (Marit van der Wolde, speaking Dutch) is furious that her boyfriend is so popular with the other girls. A man (Martin, speaking Spanish) muses broodingly on his lover's explanation of why she left him: she had to because she loved him so much. And a woman in red (Alexandra Bergman) simply says: "I never should have gotten involved."

We see what Bergman's character means when she flings herself into a pas de trois with the "perfect" couple, and the first dance-storytelling begins. Yi rushes madly toward Bergman, his wife click-clacking behind him in her slim-waisted, full-skirted flowered dress straight out of the 1962 Sears catalog. The two women yank at his arms, Bergman clutching her bobbed head wildly. Passion, possession -- who owns whom? But it's all shared happiness at the Sunshine Salon, where Graziano plays the ponytail-fiddling host to three carbon copies of Oderkirk's housewife (Ashley Blade-Martin, Soo Youn Cho, and Chu). The mood is giddy, full of laughter, hair-checking, and mutual admiration. In a perfect moment, the four step slowly downstage, filing their fingernails in rhythm to the subtle tap-tap of a drum from the platform upstage. (Graziano breaks a nail coming down from a jump, and so detail-oriented a storyteller is Hue that she has him check it again a minute later in the midst of doing something completely different.) A tableau a la "Les Sylphides" brings this charming get-together to a close. It is superb camp, celebratory and inclusive.

What follows is surprising in a different way. Ma Cong the dancer is a showman, and he has every right to be. He is a thrilling technician with an explosive onstage personality. I loved to see him in the solo Hue created for him, then, because in it he puts himself completely in the service of his role, which calls for the exact opposite of "fireworks." On a gray stage, in a gray suit, he skitters and tumbles like a beetle -- like Kafka's beetle, perhaps -- as a gang of suits stalks him, their dark briefcases vaguely menacing. Cong sometimes seems stuck to the ground, ripping himself into the air only to fall down again. But there are moments of pure force unleashed, arms flung wide, and finally Cong's own briefcase flung into the wings. We see who this character wants to be, the soul that lives inside the suit (remember, he wanted to be an actor). It's one of Cong's greatest performances.

The woman from Holland with the popular boyfriend didn't tell us even half the story. He's Mugen Kazama, and he's a whole head shorter than she is (and just as funny). With the Sunshine Salon girl group scrambling for Kazama, van der Wolde finger-spins him with a hilarious roll of her eyes that says, "Man, I'm *always* spinning this guy around." It's Mats Ek meets Jimmy Cagney, and it's another indication of van der Wolde's unbelievable range. And, speaking of range, shall we talk strip-tease? Okay, there's a strip-tease in "This Is Your Life," which is indeed a bit of a tease as you wonder just how far Hue plans to let it go. Eight men seductively drop their trousers -- these were the businessmen hounding Cong -- and replace them with knee-length black lace skirts. They stomp and whirl around eight chairs, a sequence punctuated with peremptory male noises. When they're done, they recline on their chairs and light cigarettes, fanning themselves with their skirts: the secret life of suits. A "Love pas de deux" for Martin and Gonzalez (with her in soft shoes, a simple red dress, and a short Rita Moreno-style wig) focuses our attention again on one-on-one relationships as the ballet comes to an end. Gonzalez has matured so much in the few years I've been watching her that I can hardly believe she's the same dancer. Simply put, her body does what she wants it to do now -- and what she wants has deepened with her skill. By the end of their duet, the smoke from the cigarettes has drifted to the back of Studio K. The entire cast of the piece comes onstage for a "West Side Story"-esque finale, before Trader appears in game-show-host attire once more and, as the audience holds its breath, says the last words of the evening into his mike: "Did you hear *your* story?"

Hue herself acknowledges that her choreography is not Tango with a capital T, nor even a tango/ballet hybrid like Cong's. "Marcello said 'use tango music,'" she says in the program notes, "but he didn't want to limit me to make just another tango piece." Knowing that Ghi and Merlo would be on hand to do "real" tango, Hue decided to go in a different direction, one that was more familiar to her (though she has taken tango lessons and even performed it onstage). "This Is Your Life" uses tango, a dance about love, as a jumping-off point for her particular brand of storytelling, which entails exploring one theme from many viewpoints, with a dance language that is fast-paced and crowd-pleasing, but also demanding. The music -- short pieces by Piazzolla and Jacobo Gade -- ranges from elegiac to frantic to (in the full-cast finale) triumphant. Hue's point is that through this music almost any sort of human story can be told -- and that there are more stories worth telling, and worth telling through dance, than perhaps we know.

The very savvy friend (herself a former dancer) with whom I attended "About Tango" made a startling observation during one of the intermissions. When you stand in the lobby, surrounded by fine art, earth tones, granite, and glass, and look out the huge double doors, what looks back at you from across the street is a green, glowing sign that reads "Wal-Mart Pharmacy." My friend's comment summed up the larger project embodied by Studio K: "They can coexist." Indeed, there is room in Tulsa for the likes of tango, and for the many risks these choreographers and musicians took to bring it here in their myriad ways. There's room for intimate human emotion laid bare through this old art form. There's room for two men dancing together, and there's room for Serena Chu in a curl-and-set wig. The people at the Wal-Mart pharmacy -- and at Tulsa Community College, and Lee Elementary, and Holy Family Cathedral -- will benefit from this new TB enterprise as much as ballet aficionados and philanthropists will. They will be brought as close to this art as two people are when they dance a tango -- and with the same resultant loss of fear. Such is the way Tulsa Ballet is breaking down barriers and challenging conventional wisdom.

(For more on Tulsa Ballet's recent ambitious expansion and related fundraising, click here.)

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