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Tulsa Ballet

'In Black'

by Gretchen Collins

March 30, 2008 -- Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma

It was briefs, not boxers, at Tulsa Ballet’s world premier by noted choreographer Luciano Cannito. Although the three-part program was entitled “In Black,” Cannito’s “Viva Verdi” was costumed in pure white undies. Black followed in Nacho Duato’s “Remansos” and Hans van Manen’s “Black Cake.” All were performed at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, Chapman Music Hall. 

During the American disco craze (lamentable to be sure) of the 1970s, the Italians went a bit  “Saturday Night Fever-ish.” Anything John Travolta became a near obsession. Thirty years hence, Cannito, director of Italy’s Teatro Massimo Ballet, created “Viva Verdi.” This affectionate spoof is laugh-out-loud funny, danced to Giuseppe Verdi’s music (work with me here), punctuated with spurts of the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” tune from the movie that catapulted Travolta to superstardom. 

Giovanni Travolto, played by principal dancer Alfonso Martín in the Sunday performance, just wants a late supper, but his dreams won’t let him. They’ll do anything to make him let go of his polyester threads and disco balls. On stage, sits a table covered in a red-checked tablecloth, a large bowl of pasta and a nice red. One of the gags in this work is that the items on the table remain attached to it even when turned on its side. It establishes place while getting several laughs. Other quips include a cutout of the New York skyline and a toy fire truck that makes several stage crossings with siren shrieking, audience laughing. 

Early on, a lovely classical pas de deux, danced by Martín and soloist Karina Gonzalez, dissolves into comedy as Martín’s character can’t quite shake off the disco dust. First, he has trouble lifting her, then his cell phone rings and he drops her. He loudly (a contemporary annoyance) tells the caller he’s alone, all the while Gonzalez sizzles in more ways than one. They are precise dancers and play well off one another in both comedic and romantic roles. 

In another costume change, Martín appears in a long blonde wig and yellow jumpsuit, a la Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill: Vol. 3”). Male dancers in cosmetically bloodied headbands descend on Martín. A sword fight ensues. Surreal moments continue as dancers wearing Egyptian headdresses and carrying poles (still hanging in there?) appear in his hallucination. The dancers  stream on stage while Martín frantically moves his table as they fill the space to capacity. Martín’s Giovanni has a panicked concentration about him, while slowly realizing a threat. He turns to face a full stage of poles now bent into bows and aimed directly at him. 

There are beautifully choreographed classical movements in “Viva Verdi.” The ladies of the company, dressed in pristine white sports bras, slips and tutus, play it straight as Martín yucks it up. Only their arms betray their indignation--or desire to come off their toes?--by flapping in agitation at the shenanigans. The delicate movements complement Martín’s disco lapses. Not getting the message, they hiss at him like one big cat. 

Soloist Alexandra Bergman and corps dancer Alberto Montesso execute a lively bunch of missteps as the opera singers decked out in French Revolution-era clothing and powdered wigs (keeping up?). They pull a gender bender as Bergman catches and holds Montesso, then quickly drops him like the proverbial hot potato. It’s a short, but fun romp. 

At one point, demi-soloist Rupert Edwards, a strong dancer with much charisma, breaks out of the mold of classical dancers and succumbs to the throbbing disco beat. He continues his different drummer persona as the work ends. Several clotheslines, holding underwear and bed sheets, drop as “Viva Verdi” ends. The audience loved it. Martín struck the famous “Saturday Night Fever” pose as he took his bow, followed by more cheering from the audience. 

The relationship between Cannito and Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini goes all the way back to childhood. Both were born in Naples and are the same age. Their career paths have crossed often. By the age of 41, Cannito had produced 45 ballets and three musicals, directed five plays and four video clips. His works include “Marco Polo,” “Amarcord,” “Barbie’s World” and “Mare Nostrum” which was performed by Tulsa Ballet in 1998.  Although Cannito claims to forget his own choreography, you may be certain that the dance community will not. Look for “Viva Verdi” in your city soon. Hang onto those platform shoes. 

Nacho Duato’s “Remansos” made use of a single rose and a large silver square at the back of the stage. It is quintessential Duato, the Spanish choreographer who has created his own brand of contemporary dance. Costuming for “Remansos” consisted of black shorts and T-shirts with muted red and green tops for the leads.  While the choreography had the familiar angular limbs of  Duato’s work, “Remansos” had more flowing movements, reminiscent of his “Na Floresta.” This work seemed gentler than some of Duato’s other ballets. 

Alexandra Bergman again demonstrated her talent in this medium. She is an organic modern dancer. Also highlighted was demi-soloist Serena Chu who is a lovely sultry dancer. Principal Ma Cong danced a solo in which he spent quite of bit of time ricocheting from the stage floor showing off his considerable athleticism. 

The lighting for “Remansos,” done by Nicolas Fischtel (who also lighted “Viva Verdi”), was crisp. Especially inspiring was the sepia side-lighting of the square as Rupert Edwards hung from it to the music of Enrique Granados. 

Duato doesn’t like to explain his work so “Remansos” can be anything the viewer wishes. With the red rose being passed from dancer to dancer one can’t help but think romance, but the sharpness of the square and the fact that the dancers climb over and around it lends an edginess to it. Love is never easy. “Remansos” received a standing ovation from this Tulsa crowd. 

The sophisticated “Black Cake” closed the show. Again in black, the costuming was stunning after-five attire, beautifully lit by Joop Caboort. Choreographer Hans van Manen created a chic soiree balanced by the undercurrents of its guests. Imperfection hovers just below the dazzling apparel and is played out on the dance floor to the music of Stravinsky, Massenet, Mascagni, Janacek and Tchaikovsky. 

Soloists Ashley Blade-Martín and Michael Eaton danced a mellow pas de deux. Blade-Martín is maturing into a fine dancer. She was elegantly fragile in this passage with Eaton perfectly shadowing her. 

The next pas de deux was surprising. If the Harlem Globetrotters ever dropped their basketballs long enough to dance, this is what you would see. Cong and Bergman make a number of unexpected gyrations. Cong even dribbles her head! Through all his efforts to impress her, she is aloof. In the end, he prevails and drags her off stage. Bergman remains unflappable, buffing her nails with a bored look while skimming the floor. 

As the evening progresses in this piece, the guests get tipsy. It’s a drink fest of clumsy moves and goofy grins. When the booze runs low, their group cry gets laughs. Corps member Mugen Kazama as the waiter does his usual bang-up job in a small but funny role. He serves another round. All’s right with the world again.

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