Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet presented the Los Angeles premiere of its charming evening length ballet, An American Tango at The Broad Stage this past weekend. The ballet in two acts with music by Waller, Gershwin, Ellington and others, is an homage to the Jazz Age and the saga of the star-crossed darlings of the American ballroom era, Frank and Yolanda Veloz. Their unlikely careers began in the dance dives of New York City in the 1920s, and reached a pinnacle in elegant, groundbreaking performances for the golden era of Hollywood dance films.
Choreographed and directed by William Soleau with a book by the Veloz’s son, Guy Veloz, the work was originally conceived as screenplay and here is given a heartfelt and visually appealing production for the stage by one of America’s vibrant, chamber ballet companies. Soleau is particularly good with American themes. His recent version of Appalachian Spring (also for State Street Ballet) showed the same keen flare for dance in an episodic narrative that is evident in An American Tango. While some of the subsidiary characters in the cast get passing treatments that border on caricature—the gangster Dutch Schultz, the dance rival Tony DeMarco, and the radio socialite, Walter Winchell—Soleau rightly keeps his focus on the Velozes with emotional, stand-alone duos that are liberally seeded with quoted movement from Frank Veloz’s original choreography. The first pas de deux in Act I, set to the music of Piazzolla’s tango nocturne, Oblivion, is a beautiful, understated moment that emerges seamlessly from the on stage action. But in each instance, the big dancing moments feel well integrated and purposefully wrought, shining an intense light on intimate moments of jubilation and despair.
Jack Stewart as Frank Veloz and Leila Drake as Yolanda give remarkable performances in the leading roles. Ms Drake is particularly believable and shines with deeply expressive dancing. Everything she does, from the incidental dancing in Act I to the ever more emotional duos in Act II showed a keen sense of developing a complex character. Stewart’s strength lay in his beautiful and virtuosic partnering. Joining them was a capable cast of twenty additional dancers fleshing out transitional scenes, including brief excursions into the dance fads of the era, and a tango based dance duel between Veloz and DeMarco (Mauricio Vera) that referenced some of tango’s early history as a kind of martial art in dance. The love story may be all about the Velozes but there is a part of An American Tango that also aims to breathe life into the era’s dance history.
Much of the storytelling in An American Tango is delivered through Auggie, an on stage narrator (the delightfully extroverted Joseph Fuqua) who, as a wisecracking, New York street tough, comments on the action. The conceit offers convenience but also distractions. That his was a non-dancing role tended to highlight the awkward moments but didn’t always give us something that the dancing couldn’t. I liked him especially in the dressing room scene as he escorts Yolanda onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. It was the one moment where he leaves his rough character behind and embraces a touching, bittersweet quality which deepened the story with more than simple narrative. The production’s evocative costumes by designers A. Christina Gianni and Anaya Cullen offered imaginative reproductions of elegant versions originally worn by Yolanda Veloz.
An American Tango is a complex show. It opens with a long overture set to Copland’s Our Town with floating projections of New York City. The multimedia designs and special effects (David Bazemore and Soleau) provide visually appealing settings that take you from the streets of New York to the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.Two large, rolling flats facilitate numerous, quick scene changes, and themselves serve as screens for projected images. All of that was managed with technical precision on Saturday. In the final scene, Stewart and Drake dance behind a scrim miming a filmed version of the real life Frank and Yolanda as they dance in a sequence from one of their Hollywood films. It was a poignant moment that resonated with a deep sense of nostalgia.
(The Gala Debut reception for “An American Tango” was attended by an enthusiastic opening night crowd including the choreographer William Soleau and many members of the Veloz family. An exhibit of Yolanda Veloz’s original costume curated by her daughter, Yolanda, was on display in the lobby. The ballet was produced by Rodney Gustafson, Artistic Director of State Street Ballet, and Michael Roush. The reviewed performance took place on September 21, 2013 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California.)