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It was a sticky, humid day at the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but this did not stop Puerto Rican bomba y plena musicians Viento de Agua from giving a dynamic performance that had the audience on its feet dancing.

Here is a video I made of Viento de Agua performing a plena. I did not catch the name of the song, so if anyone knows what it is, please comment. Plena is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music that we were told has its roots in the sound of a train. You can certainly here this underlying “chugging” sound in the music. Plena is one of the many caribbean styles that lends its rhythms and styles to salsa and merengue. It is characterized by the use of percussion instruments and vocal harmonies to form the rhythm and tune.

The second half of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs July 1-9 on the National Mall. The three featured themes this year are:

  • Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture
  • Wales/Cymru

and my personal favorite…

  • Las Americas: Un Mundo Musical / Music in Latino Culture

Although the Wolf Trap is only a few miles from my home, save chaperoning a bunch of screaming kids at the International Children’s Festival, I am ashamed to say that I have never attended an even there. After spotting their summer ’09 calendar and the fabulous goodies on it (not limited to dance), that will hopefully all change. This summer’s dance lineup at Wolf Trap includes the following highlights:

  • Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance on June 16
  • Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on July 7
  • Merce Cunningham on July 14
  • 42nd Street runs July 17-19
  • Trey McIntire Project’s Face of America: Glacier National Park on August 19

This and much much more can be found on the Wolf Trap Site. The recession is not excuse– the lawn seats are the cheaper– and more relaxing– way to go. So grap a picnic basket, a blanket, and enjoy some arts under the stars this summer!

We dancers know that dancing is a good way to forget your troubles for a time; but what about dancing making you forget to catch your cross-country bus home? According to the AP, 83-year-old Mussa Muhammad was so elated after attending the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., that after becoming separated from his group, he “‘just danced and danced with a couple of young women he met along the way.” His fellow travelers waited for him for five hours before heading back to South Bend, Indiana. Luckily, the resourceful Muhammad found his way back on a Greyhound bus, ” still wearing the black-and-white suit with red dots that he wore to the inauguration.”

Speaking of forgetting stuff… The other day, the song Just Dance by Lady Gaga came on the radio and for the first time I really listened to the lyrics. The bouncy tune and cheerful refrain belie the disturbing lyrics about a girl who is so wasted that she has no idea who she’s with, where she is, or where her personal belongings and clothes went. Then the different guys who sing at the bridges want to take advantage of her disorientation by having their way with her. This song is definitely good evidence against binge drinking in clubs. Then again, I’d never seen the video, either…

I had such high hopes for NBC’s new show, Superstars of Dance, but in the end it was a disappointment. There were a few nice moments, but ultimately, I turned the TV off before the show ended.

Superstars of Dance is billed as an international dance competition, with categories for solos, couples, and groups. It is hosted by Michael Flatley (aka The Lord of the Dance) and Miss USA Susie Castillo. The executive producer is Nigel Lythgoe, which explained why the whole thing felt like a sort of second-rate So You Think You Can Dance reunion.

Countries represented in the show are the USA, Russia, Argentina, China, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, and India. There is a judge from each of those countries, who must sit out on the voting when their own country performs. I was frustrated that not all the judges were introduced. I would have liked to know what their dance background was. A friend mentioned this morning that it felt like they were trying to make the show into a faux Olympics, complete with the conversation with the dancer and the “coach” afterwards.

A lot of the dancing was sort of ho-hum. Some of it was spectacular but more for a “wow” factor than for artistic quality. For example, a modern/hip hop group from Australia had fantastic tricks and rhythm but it wasn’t anything close to a revelation– more like pandering to people whose ideals of dance are formed by MTV and SYTYCD. Robert Mourain, the one-trick pony we saw doing contortionistic popping and locking on SYTYCD was back representing the US in the solo category; why? Also, talk about perpetuating sterotypes…why are Riverdance-type dances the only ones representing Ireland. Could it be because of Michael Flatley’s role in the show? It was so cheezy.

The two high points for me were the couple representing the US (Eric Luna and Georgia Ambarian) whose partnering skills I really admired, and the Argentine tango. Despite the horrible camera work and mediocre production format, they managed to keep it together and show viewers a peek into their art.

The low points were pretty much all in the solos. In particular, China. The woman danced with such long scarves it was hard to see any body movement. It was supposed to be a traditional folk dance, but it was set to a euro dance beat. The “Zulu” dancer representing South Africa looked more like a Rockette with all the high kicks than any African dance I’ve ever seen (feel free to call out my ignorance here if I am totally off the mark).

Too bad that another dance show has come up short. I’m glad to see so much dance on TV now, but we definitely need a quality increase. Some new faces would be good too. Nigel Lythgoe changed the face of TV with American Idol and SYTYCD, but it’s time for some fresh ideas. On the upside, my Monday nights are still free so I can go to dance class.

What is a dance rockra, you ask? It is one part dance, one part opera, and all parts are totally rocked out. Here I am, in the swamps of Northern Virginia, wishing once again that I lived in Manhattan, our nation’s cultural capital. Luckily I have a consolation prize this year: I will be attending the inauguration without having to sublet out someone’s crappy studio apartment for two grand a night and could even bike down to the national mall if I wanted. Haha.

But I digress…

Later this week, Parsons Dance Company and the East Village Opera Company will debut their untitled collaboration, an evening-length work that strings together several of the EVOC’s re-imagined operatic works into a story line that will be danced out by the Parsons dancers. According to the press release, “untitled is a thoroughly modern re-telling of a classic story of a tragic love triangle. With contemporary dance, aerial dance, live and recorded music, video projections, complex digital lighting and visual effects, untitled is the most ambitious production created by Parsons Dance in its 22 year history.”

I discovered the East Village Opera Company about two years ago courtesy of Pandora. Their winning combination of opera greatest hits and Queen-esque power rock ballads (rockra, if you will) had me at hello. Be sure to check out the song that first captivated me, Au fond du temple saint, the well-loved Pearl Fishers duet, re-arranged into a power rock duet between a man and a woman. Here they are with their version of the Queen King of the Night aria from The Magic Flute.

And here is Parsons Dance, performing Nascimento Novo:

The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue (at 19th Street), NYC
January 6-18, 2009
Tue, Wed and Sun at 7:30pm; Thu, Fri and Sat at 8pm; and Sat and Sun at 2pm. Family matinee performance on Saturday, January 10 at 2pm. Tickets: $59, $35, $19 (Joyce Members $44, $26). JoyceCharge: 212-242-0800

Program A: Thu 1/8, Fri 1/9 and Sat 1/10 at 8pm; Sun 1/11 at 2pm and 7:30pm; Wed 1/14 at 7:30pm; Thu 1/15, Fri 1/16 and Sat 1/17 at 8pm; Sun 1/18 at 7:30pm. World Premiere of untitled featuring the music of EVOC: Overture, La Danza, Maria, Mari!, Habanera, Che Gelida Manina, Flower Duet, La Donna E Mobile, Ave Maria, O Mio Babbino Caro, Una Furtiva Lagrima, Un Del Di, Ebben? Ne Andro Lontana, When I Am Laid in Earth, Butterfly Duet

Program B: Tue 1/6 and Wed 1/7 at 7:30pm; Tue 1/13 at 7:30pm; Sat 1/17 and Sun 1/18 at 2pm. Family Matinee: Sat 1/10 at 2pm. Swing Shift, Ebben (an excerpt from Program A), My Sweet Lord, Fill the Woods with Light, Caught, and Shining Star

Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day of colon cancer; she was 81. Known for her catlike voice, you may not know that she was a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in the 1940s. She worked in theater until just last year.

Here she is in her catwomanly, humorous element:

The video for John Legend’s Green Light has a delightful reference to our favorite large-scale Hollywood choreographer, the master of the synchronized fan dance, Busby Berkeley. I like how they appear in a woman’s martini glass, at about 3:25

Embedding is disabled for this video, but you can view it here.

And since we like to talk about dance around here, I must note how much I love this song. I can’t listen to it without dancing around the room!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a dance video that was filmed in almost a single shot. Video choreography seems to cater so much to close-ups and rapid-fire angle and shot changes. I find the choreography in this video (Beyonce – Single Ladies) a little odd, but it is at least unabashedly so. It’s also quite refreshing not to have to watch yet another closeup of the singer mouthing the words to the song.

Kind of calls to mind this one…

…is grabbing a table in the perfect September sun on the Woodrow Wilson Plaza to listen to live salsa by Verny Varela and his orchestra. Even better than dessert…a post prandial dance. Trust me, it makes your day sooo much better (and is much better for you). Your TPS reports won’t look so bad after that.

Live! on Woodrow Wilson Plaza: noon-1:30 pm, Monday-Friday, June-September. Totally free and another reason to love DC.

There is a nice (albeit brief) article about Juan Luis Guerra in the NYT today that addresses the problem of world music (“music whose lyrics we can’t understand”). The music sounds great and perhaps hints at something exotic, different; but without understanding the lyrics we may be missing out on something huge.

Guerra–one of the musicians whose music I most enjoy both listening and dancing to– is an excellent case in point. His music is eminently pleasing to listen to, but did you realize that that infectious dance beat obscures a biting criticism of the state of healthcare? That the deliciously romantic melody and smooth singing belie a striking use of language and poetry? Upon every listening I gain a new insight into the Spanish language, Dominican culture, musicality, and meaning.

When I became fluent in Italian, Italian music was no more “world music” to me, but a whole new world of pop, rock, rap, R&B, folk, and more. When I learned to dance salsa, merengue, cha cha cha, and bachata, and to comprehend the Spanish words, tropical music was no longer “world”– or even “Latin” music to me, but four new distinct genres of music with their own musical and rhythmical structure, and tradition of political expression.

To be honest, the term “world music” rather grates on me, and I avoid its use whenever possible. The same thing has happened to dances not originating in the European or American traditions in the U.S. Anything that does not fit neatly into the categories of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, or ballroom dance are “world dances,” discounting the rich tradition and meaning behind each one of them.

It was with great excitement that I read the news that West Side Story is going to be revived. It will be a version for the 21st century, with much of the script being rewritten into Spanish and greater attention to authenticity in casting. Lest we worry that something would be lost in translation, the play is in good hands: it will be directed by Arthur Laurents, the author of the play’s book. The genesis of this version lies in a very interesting story reported in the New York Times:

Mr. Laurents, who turned 91 on Monday, traced the origin of the new revival to his companion of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who died in 2006.


Mr. Hatcher was a fluent Spanish speaker, and on a visit to Bogotá, Colombia, saw a staging of “West Side Story” in Spanish.


In that version, Mr. Hatcher reported back to Mr. Laurents, the language had transformed the show: the Sharks were the heroes and the Jets were the villains.


That sparked the idea of incorporating Spanish into a modern revival. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Mr. Laurents said. “But I had a lot of trouble because I was depending on Tom, who is fluent. And then he died.”

 Thanks to the persistence of the producers of In the Heights (which lends some street cred to dealing with the New York latino experience in musical form), West Side Story  is currently in casting and is to debut for a four week run in December at the National Theater right here in Washington, DC. The link to the full NYT article is here. (Bonus: a link from the NYT article to Brooks Atkinson’s original review of the play, which proclaimed it “an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets.”)


Also of note, Bill T. Jones is bringing the music and life of Fela Kuti (the Nigerian musical superstar and political leader) to the stage in the off Broadway production of Fela! The New Musical.

This promotional video provides some insight into how the musical came about:

There are plenty more videos at I enjoyed watching all the different rehearsal videos, particularly having been so recently involved in the production of a musical myself. Hopefully I will get a chance during my busy summer or fall to make it up to NYC to check this one out. Fela Kuti seems like a very interesting subject for a musical, allowing the socio-political content to be framed by the music that reflected it.

In which I am cast

It’s been almost a month since I told you about my audition for the musical, and I know you’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if I got the part. Why has it taken me almost a month to get to this? Well, my friends, that’s because I got the part, and have been busy rehearsing!

I wasn’t expecting to make it past the first round, and then I really wasn’t expecting to make it past callbacks (this being my first theatrical audition ever). As such, during the whole audition process, Mr. P and I were discussing our summer vacation plans and had pretty much determined that we would be going out of town for three weeks in July. The show was scheduled for three weekends in July, but of course since I wasn’t going to get the part, that wasn’t an issue, right?

Murphy’s Law, people… The next day I got a call from the director telling me that I had been cast as featured ensemble. What should have been amazing news was tempered by the sinking realization that Mr. P and I had a big decision on our hands. My first thinking was that I was willing to give up the play. Mr. P has not been back to Italy to see his family in three years and that made it a non-issue for me. At the same time, I told the director that I would do the play, intending to show up for the first practice “just to see what it was like” and then tell them that something had come up. I was feeling conflicted.

To complicate matters, I told my colleague (the one who’s heavily involved in community theater and had told me about the audition) that I had gotten the part– followed by a scream and a hug by said colleague– and then told her I wasn’t going to do it since we were going to Italy– which was followed by “ARE YOU CRAZY?!” She impressed on me what an incredible accomplishment it was to have not only made callbacks, but to be cast as featured ensemble, given the reputation of the company, and how perfect a match the show was for my interests and abilities. Then I made the mistake of going to the first rehearsal and seeing how many scenes I’d been cast in, and that I was dancing in two numbers (having been erroneously told by the director that I would not be a dancer). Having been issued my libretto, casting sheet, and met the rest of the case, there was no turning back. It was time for a heart to heart with Mr. P.

Mr. P gets “husband of the year” designation. From the beginning, he could sense how important this was to me, and even though I was fully willing to give up the opportunity, he agreed to move our vacation to August and tolerate the crazy rehearsal schedule. If you know anything about Europeans’ vacation schedules, you know that August is the worst possible time to go there. Everyone is on vacation. All the businesses in the cities shut down and people head to the beaches and mountains in droves. Prices are inflated for the month, which is suicide on top of the current dollar-euro exchange rate. Mr. P has been fully supportive and invested in the whole process, and has never once let on that he begrudges it.

In which I begin rehearsals

 The first few weeks of rehearsals began sitting down. The goal was to get the vocals down before attempting any choreography or staging. This play has a very strong ensemble component and there was lots of vocals to memorize. Although I am very familiar with this play, having listened to it throughout my childhood, I had to relearn it from the perspective of a mezzo soprano = with harmony. It’s easy to memorize a melody line, but much more of a challenge to memorize the harmony lines of an at times quite dissonant score. All this sitting down made me wonder when we were going to dance. It also gave the opportunity to get to know my fellow cast members.

This is a new social experience. I was in band in high school. I did not really mix with the thespians. I found them to be dramatic and self-centered. Let me tell you something– some things never change. Even as adults, thespians are no exception. Dancers are largely toned down when they are not dancing; musicians can live up to the nerdy stereotype; many thespians are at full speed all the time. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with them, but they are also a fun group. Luckily, there are a couple of dancers to keep things in balance, and the principal actors are with very few exceptions, completely un-divas.

Throughout rehearsals, I’ve felt like a little sponge. Everything is new and I’m just trying to absorb all the information and direction that is coming at me from every side. As things get added in, it gets more and more complex. Humility and unquestioningness (is that a word?) are the name of the game right now.

Next installment: Dance rehearsals, a crisis of self esteem, and (hopefully) redemption

I said in my last post that I’d be writing about a new challenge I’ve embarked on and the new experiences and lessons that have come with it. What is it you ask? Ok, the title of this post gives it away, but all I have to say, is: Broadway, get ready, ’cause I’m on my way! Not so fast, this is community theater.

A little while back, a coworker who’s heavily involved in community theater forwarded me an audition announcement. They were looking for dancers. The musical, only one of my favorites of all time, was one that I knew backwards and forwards, having listened to the soundtrack a bazillion times with my sister when we were younger.

It was an opportunity I’d sort of been waiting for in the back of my mind. Unless you count being in the orchestra pit in high school way back in the day, I’d never done theater before. A lot of musicals have some amazing dancing, and they look like so much fun. More fun than some of the dance performances I’ve been involved with, dare I say…I figured the dancing in it would be latin-ish, so I might have something to bring to the table. The one catch was that I would have to sing, but my coworker assured me I just needed to be able to carry a tune. That I can do, though I can’t speak to the quality.

Bottom line: I had nothing to lose and figured the audition process would be a fun experience that would fortify me for the future. I had absolutely no expectation of making the cut. In the end, I think this gave me the ability to be relaxed and to be myself.

First, I had to pick a song. I’ve got a low range, so I went with Big Spender from Sweet Charity. Another good choice, as it allowed me to show my sassy side. I downloaded the sheet music and the song and sang along with it a bunch of times by way of practicing.

When I got to the audition I had to fill out a form stating availability, experience, part auditioning for (dancer, of course), and some other stuff including my “age range,” basically the ages I felt I could convincingly portray. I asked about this and was advised to go ten years younger and ten older. As I waited to be called I asked the other auditioners if they had any advice, since it was my first time. “Be charismatic” seemed to be the main tip.

I’d asked my friend if I should dress the part, and she told me not to as you don’t know what they have in mind, so it’s best to be a blank slate. When I got there, all the women seemed to be wearing red dresses (going with the latin-ish theme). Though I was dressed to dance, I was also funnily enough wearing a red shirt with black pants.

We were brought into the audition room in a group of five. I was to go last. As each person finished their audition, they left the room, so I actually auditioned in front of the judges only. I’m not sure if that helped my nerves or not, but I focused on charisma, and tried to move as naturally as I could while singing, despite having noticed the others stood still while they sang. Then again, none of the others seemed to be trying for a dancing part. A couple sashays and arm flourishes actually elicited a couple saucy “oohs” from the judges so I think that tactic worked. After the singing, the judges were most concerned about rehearsal and performance conflicts. One girl immediately got cut because she would be in Greece for a month during rehearsals (duh). After that was verified, each person was asked to do a chaine. Except for me– they said since I was a dancer I obviously knew how to do chaines and I could do choreography during callbacks.

I was a little miffed that I was all dressed to dance and couldn’t even do a chaine, but also a little psyched because it seemed I was making callbacks. Sure enough, the call came pretty soon that I was to attend callbacks a few days later. That’s when I started getting nervous. I hadn’t actually planned on making it that far!

At the callback, all those trying out for lead and dance parts had to learn a combination. It was moderately challenging and technical and took me a couple times to learn fully. Definitely more ballet than latin. I thanked my lucky stars I’ve been going to ballet class lately. Thinking back to the advice I got, I tried to focus on charisma, and on really nailing the moves that felt natural to me. It was impossible to tell what was going on– there were a number of expressionless judges and they kept assigning people to different places in the lines and moving the lines back and front. I have no idea how they kept track of anything, nobody even appeared to be taking notes. They may have been but it almost seemed they were going on memory alone.

I should note that there were tons of women that auditioned and not so many men. The dancing of the men left, for the most part, much to be desired. It was clear that as usual, the fiercest competition in dance is among women.

After the dancing portion, everyone else was brought into the room and we had to sing an excerpt from one of the show’s big choral numbers. No harmonizing was required, and the director moved rather quickly through the room to see how each person was blending with the group. Again, no visible note taking. I have no idea how they did that with so many people trying out. It was eerie.

At that point the audition was over. . .I honestly had very few expectations for myself. Not because I thought I did a bad job, but because I’ve never done theater before, and there were so many people auditioning I didn’t know if I’d stood out or would meet their casting guidelines. Still, I felt hopeful to have the opportunity for a new experience, and for a musical I love so much on top of that.

Stay tuned for the next installment to see if I got the part!

Unless you are a reader of The Manolo’s bemused coverage of the event, most of my American readers are unlikely to be familiar with Eurovision. From what I understand, it’s like the olympics of manufactured pop bands and pageantry.

I’m a little late to this, because I should mention that the winner was announced yesterday (SPOILER: Russia). That said, it’s never too late to rehash the pop culture kitsch and dancing that occurred.

No way am I going to sit through all forty-something entries. Lucky for us, our European correspondent, Owlfish, has been following the festivities and has selected the songs involving the best dancing for us. And when we say “best dancing,” we mean in the most pop culture way.

Let’s start with Iceland’s entry, which brings to fruition every youtube lip-syncher’s and bedroom dancer’s daydreams. Hilarious.

(Eurobandid – This Is My Life)

Next, Owlfish recommended Ukraine’s 2008 entry, but I much prefer that country’s entry from last year, which came in 2nd place. I could really dedicate an entire post to Verka Serduchka.

(Verka Serduchka: Dancing Lasha Tumbai)

Next is Greece, which features some nice solid teen boy/girl band choreography.

(Kalomoira – My Secret Combination)

Finally, Switzerland’s entry. Bonus points for actually singing in a country’s native language rather than all the others’ Ken Lee-worthy English. As far as music video dancing goes, this is definitely the most interesting and artistic.

(Paolo Meneguzzi – Era Stupendo)

Today is officially Pope Mania day in Washington, DC. Pope Benedict is stateside for a few days and will be giving a mass at Nationals Ballfield this morning at 10:30am before moving on to NYC. People have come in from all over the country and the world to attend, as was fairly evident on my very crowded morning commute.

The most delightful story coming out of Pope Mania is the involvement of a local acapella ensemble, the Suspicious Cheese Lords. I came to know the Cheese Lords when a friend and I were looking for something interesting to do one evening and saw an announcement for a free concert at a church. We really had no idea what they were, but how could a person in their right mind turn down the opportunity to see a group called the Suspicious Cheese Lords?

Turns out, they are an all-male acapella group that specializes in “sacred renaissance polyphony.” As the hauntingly beautiful vocal harmonies echoed around the chapel of the Franciscan Monastery, we knew we had discovered one of Washington’s jewels.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I received an announcement on the Cheese Lords’ mailing list, that they had been selected to perform at this morning’s papal mass. There was just one small catch: the name.

“Despite having performed at such venues as the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution,” says a press release entitled Too Cheesey for the Pope?, “their name still seems to make some folks a little uncomfortable: they’re listed in the official program for the April 17 event as ‘Sacred Music Ensemble’, with their real name discreetly tucked away in the acknowledgements on a back page.”

To my knowledge, silly humor is not against Catholicism, but perhaps some people think that such a name lacks the appropriate gravitas to be appearing in such close proximity to the Pope’s.

“Dr. Hugh Dempsey, Deputy Director of the [Pope John Paul II] Cultural Center, is a fan of the group. It didn’t hurt that the group has presented several concerts at the Center, and that one of its members, George P. Cervantes, works there. However, this did not guarantee that the Lords would be asked to perform. Dr. Dempsey had to convince the staff at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the primary organizers of the event, that having a group called the Cheese Lords sing at such an historic and dignified event wouldn’t be such a crazy idea.”

I know the Pope and assembled guests will be thrilled to have the Cheese– er, ‘Sacred Music Ensemble’ performing for them, and as a local fan, I hope it serves as a springboard for more national and international recognition for this talented group.

P.S., You’re probably wondering how such an unserious name came to a group of such serious musicians:

“The Suspicious Cheese Lords’ unconventional name is derived from the title of a [Thomas] Tallis motet, Suscipe quaeso Domine. In a playful translation of the title, it was observed that Suscipe could mean “suspicious,” quaeso resembles the Spanish word queso meaning ‘cheese,’ and Domine is, of course, ‘Lord.’ Hence, the title of the motet was clearly ‘Suspicious Cheese Lord’ – which in time became adopted as the group’s name. ‘I hated the name,’ says West. ‘And the guys loved it.’ And to this day, thanks to Skip’s cooking skills, the Cheese Lords continue to have dinner together before their weekly rehearsals.”


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