Last night, I went to the only night of Ballet Hispanico‘s engagement at the Kennedy Center

 

Palladium Nights is what I would describe as a full-length salsa ballet. The stage was set up like an old-time nightclub (i.e., the Palladium) with risers for the 18-piece, white tux-clad orchestra, and tables and chairs surrounding the dancefloor where the 10 clubgoers danced out the little dramas that occur in the course of a night out in the club.

 

I’ve never seen a full-length salsa ballet before and didn’t quite know what to expect. What I did know was that I was incredibly excited about seeing two hours of live salsa music and dancing. When I think salsa performance, I think 5-minute cabaret style routine. I think matching outfits, synchronized dancing, part couples, part shines, and always within the basic structure of the salsa step and turn pattern, with perhaps some shines or a hip-hop interval thrown in.

 

While Palladium Nights was not earth shattering for me in every way, it brought me a long way in rethinking new modes of salsa performance. Choreographer Willie Rosario did a nice job at times of incorporating the beauty, grace, and technique of contemporary ballet and modern dance in a harmonious and cohesive way. And there was also some pretty great dancing, choreography, and live music thrown in to boot.

 

To keep a full-length ballet engaging, it’s usually necessary to bind it together with a plot (yes, I found it hard to sit through Balanchine’s Jewels). As for the plot of Palladium Nights—well, to paraphrase a friend—it just got in the way of the dancing at times. It was a pretty simple plot, yet difficult to follow at the same time. That was because there seemed to be different, mostly unconnected dramas that played out between various subgroups of the dancers and it was hard to keep track of them or figure out what was going on.

 

Honestly, I think they just used the ‘plot’ as a way to keep us on the edge of our seats till the next time we could see the heavenly dance pairing that was Candice Monet McCall and Rodney Hamilton (playing the parts of ‘The Palladium’s Own Lovebirds,’ the performance act of Veronique and Anotonio). At some point after their second piece, they seem to have gotten in a fight and wouldn’t dance with each other for a couple songs, so I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see when they would reconcile and dance together again. Hands down, the most memorable moment of the night was Trumpet Fantasy—Veronique and Antonio’s Nightclub Act. They danced barefoot, a modern/afro-cuban cha cha cha pas de deux (wow, that’s a lot of languages in one sentence) that respected the musical phrasing and rhythmic structure of the music. The lines, the grace, the connection, the choreography—it was all perfect. When it was all over, I rapturously sighed, “I want to dance like her.” My friend said, “I want to be her.” Yeah.

 

One charming story line that I was actually able to follow was that of Lola, the flapper-esque vamp danced by Irene Hogarth-Cimino (whose legs seem to go on for about 10 miles), complete with a bob, a boa and a long cigarette holder. She finds romance with Buster (Nicholas Velleneuve) a sailor in the Navy. But when she catches him kissing another woman, she endeavors to dance with all the men in the club to make him regret his actions. All of them together, at the same time, that is. And I’m not talking about a salsa tag team. The most amusing moment was when her 4 partners, all stacked up one behind the other, led her through a samba-esque reverse roll .

 

One good function of the plot I will concede was that it allowed each dancer to dance in character without appearing out of sync with the others, even when the whole corps danced in unison. This expectation of being totally the same and in unison is of course the product of the salsa performance group box I’ve been thinking and performing inside of (and also, the corps de ballet). By having each dancer dance within their own character’s style and costuming, even the moments of unison seemed like organic spontaneous dance scenes in a nightclub—just like in the movies! So the plot was a necessary mechanism, but I wish it had been better integrated into a cohesive whole.

 

Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra was just as important a character in Palladium Nights. I loved seeing the band up there on the stage with the dancers. The dancers interacted with the band and the music, just as salseros do when they dance to live music. It simply would not have been the same if they were in the orchestra pit. The musicians were masterful, with many memorable solos—particularly the trumpet in Trumpet Fantasy. The band also had its moments to shine alone, when the dancers sat at the tables, shimmying, bopping, and even “air saxophoning” to the music.

 

Palladium Nights really spoke to me in that it put into a “higher art” this style of club dancing that I love so much. Technically, not everything was perfect, and I did have some qualms about the cohesiveness of the plot and the dancing, but overall this was a lovely elevation of salsa to a level I have not seen before. Personally, it’s helped me to think about the box when I think of salsa choreography and has also validated to me the beauty of combining some of the structure, passion and tradition of salsa with the grace, technique, and more rhythmic fluidity of modern dance.

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