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Royston Dance Company - StreetSwing!

by Robert Abrams
March 3, 2007
Queens Theatre in the Park
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Flushing (Queens), NY 11351
(718) 760-0064
Check out www.Roystondancecompany.com to see clips of the show as well as clips of Swango.

The Royston Dance Company will be performing at the White Plains Performing Arts Center the first weekend in May 2007 (May 4-6).
The Royston Dance Company's production of StreetSwing! was worth the trip to The Queens Theatre in the Park. Having never been to this theatre before, and being slightly apprehensive of the directions provided on the theatre's website, I did the Manhattan thing and took a cab. This cost $38, including tip and toll. It turns out it was just as well, because the 7 train wasn't running all the way to Times Square, and since I didn't know that, I would likely have had difficulty getting there on the subway. Knowing all of this, the return trip, for which I did take the subway, was fairly simple since the theatre provided a shuttle service between the theatre and the Shea Stadium subway station. The trip out, from the Upper West Side, took about 30 minutes in a cab. The trip back by subway took closer to an hour.

The Queens Theatre in the Park is a medium sized venue. It was a very comfortable space with great sight lines. It will be even better when they finish their current $20 million dollar upgrade.

I have seen Robert Royston and friends perform everything from competitive lead and follow to pure abstract dance shows to shows that verge on being a full musical with an elaborate plot (without the singing). I wasn't sure what to expect today. StreetSwing! turned out to be both a great show and a service to the dance community. The show laid bare West Coast Swing for the audience, both the structure and the history of the dance. While the show included plenty of fancy, do-not-try-this-at-home footwork, it also presented the most basic of West Coast Swing moves set in simple choreography. This let the audience see that West Coast Swing is a dance style with an essential beauty that is not dependent on flash or virtuosity. Of course, these are professionals, so the show had plenty of both too.

Part of my job as a dance critic is to find things to critique. Robert Royston makes this a very difficult task because he is just so good at what he does (of course, I am either extremely knowledgeable for this analysis, or extremely biased, because I happen to also take dance lessons from him). However, this time Robert left himself wide open to criticism by including a lot of talking in the show. I happen to have earned a CTM with Toastmasters and have won some speech contests, so I know a thing or two about public speaking. The talking in the show was very informative and entertaining, and not at all dull and didactic, but that is not what I want to talk about here. To help Robert and company improve their show, and to establish what I strongly believe is a first for dance criticism, I decided to take on what in Toastmasters is a standard role: Ah Counter. Ahs, Ums, You Knows and similar interjections detract from a speech. A person who can speak without such utterances is more likely to be judged as a convincing speaker, even if the audience isn't consciously attuned to the technical elements of speech quality. Robert does a fair bit of public speaking in his role as MC of many dance competitions, so I think he is experienced enough as a speaker to be eligible for honest criticism. People are often unaware of their own interjections. By having an Ah Counter, one can get a better sense of one's performance, and then work to improve it. Normally an Ah Counter rattles a jar full of pennies or some such each time an Ah or Um is said, but I refrained from that and just counted them. Here are the results. In the space of an approximately two hour show with plenty of talking between dance numbers, Robert Royston had 16 Ahs. Ronnie Debenedetta had 4 Ahs. Rex Jones had 9 Ahs. No one else in the cast spoke. That is not so bad, but they could do better.

So let's talk about the dancing, since that is what most people expect to be talked about in a dance review.

The opening number, Fever, featured strong forms in terms of the way the dancers' bodies were positioned. This sense of strength was enhanced by the lighting. This opening number also said something about Robert Royston himself. He has created a dance company called "Royston Dance Company". He could have used this as an ego trip for himself. You could tell that he is just not that kind of guy because he positioned himself in the back line of the first number. But those of us who take lessons from him already knew that he isn't the kind of person who puts on airs, even when he deserves them. The moves in the opening number were fairly simple, including basic sugar pushes (push breaks to dancers who have no sense of romance), basic whips and the like. The choreography of this number also had a simple structure, which was mostly a line of dancers moving in sync or a line with one couple featured. I thought this was a good way of revealing the appeal of West Coast Swing to a non-Westie audience, which today's audience almost certainly was. Not that all of the moves in the opening number were easy. Some of the moves were plenty difficult, but the dancers made them look easy.

After the opening number, the show moved into its main mode, which was essentially an extended lecture-demo. For instance the History of Swing number showcased short bits of Lindy Hop, Jitterbug/East Coast Swing, Sophisticated Swing, and Blues Dancing. The lecture portion included interesting tibits for why partner dancing has changed over the years, including both economic analysis (unionization of big bands made social dancing to live music too expensive to present), and dance analysis (The Twist became popular and stopped couples dancing in the late 50s because it removed the element of touch and girls wanted to get out on the floor and shake, but guys didn't think it looked manly). They then continued the history up to the rebirth of Swing dancing with West Coast Swing. On the whole I thought this segment was nicely done, but they did not provide an explanation for partner dancing's rebirth. An extra sentence or two here would really enhance this number. Also, Robert claimed that West Coast Swing is the most popular form of Swing dancing. This may be true, but, as a researcher, I would have liked to hear some hard evidence of such a claim.

In the third number, Soul Serenade, Ronnie Debenedetta and Brandi Tobias showed off nice hip pops and sharp changes of direction which were never mushy, even when slow. Their faces drew me in without being fake. This was a classic West Coast Swing.

In Red Alert, Parker Dearborn and Jessica Cox presented a showcase style West Coast Swing. They brought out the rhythm in the music, which happened to be music also used in Bend It Like Beckam. This was a number where the audience was less likely to think they could do it themselves as there were impressive lifts, flashier costumes and faster movement. Which doesn't mean the other numbers were lesser. As any dancer knows, dancing well slowly is not as easy as it looks. Fast dancing just tends to be more obvious.

Robert Royston, Brandi Tobias and Nicola Royston performed Trois, a number from the show Swango. The choreography for this number felt more artistic and less social than the previous numbers. The number has a clear intention that arises out of the characters and the plot of the show it is from. I also thought that it was more balletic in the sense that it created shapes across the stage. By shapes, I mean something which is similar to, but not quite as extreme as, the poses that are the goal of some forms of ballet. The other numbers were more about creating flow, which is often the goal of social dance choreography. Both shape and flow have their place in choreography. It is possible that the fact that I have seen Swango many times, and thus that I know the number arises out of a plot, colors how I see it in comparison to numbers I have been told do not come from a plot. Nonetheless, my hypothesis is that if one were to quantitatively break down the pattern of pauses in Trois compared to the other numbers, the results would be significantly different. Trois takes a social dance to the same level as, and in a similar choreographic mode as that often used in, a great ballet pas de trois.

Jimmy Mulligan and Stephanie Batista danced a professional debut. Their dancing was well done overall.

Robert and Nicola Royston performed Honky Tonk, which was a West Coast Swing set to Country music. Their dancing was very high energy, while still being loose and relaxed. There were no wobbles in their lifts. The style of the choreography was Country, but they still managed to inject a little Tango embellishment. Argentina has cowboys too, after all. The number was fun to watch.

Ronnie Debenedetta and Brandi Tobias performed a Country-Western two step called It Don't Mean A Thing. This number included many amazing spins in boots.

Starting off Act II, Rex Jones and Deborah Szekely performed North and South. She is from Brooklyn and he is from Atlanta. They proved that a country that can shake together can stand together. I did think the music in this number may have been a little loud for this audience.

Jimmy Mulligan and Nicola Royston moved right into Do You Wanna Dance without an intro speech. Where as the previous number was loud and informal, this number was quiet and black tie. They were very elegant. Their extensions were reminiscent of Foxtrot. They showed that West Coast Swing looks as natural in black tie as it does in jeans.

Ronnie Debenedetta, Brandi Tobias, Rex Jones and Deborah Szekely performed Four Play in location appropriate Mets shirts. This number was a West Coast Swing rueda. Rueda is a form of partner dance done with a group that features much passing of followers from one leader to another. While, in my experience, steal dances, where one dancer cuts in on another in the middle of a song, are fairly common at West Coast Swing dances, full scale rueda-like dances are not. Having seen this number, I think they should be. Someone should start teaching West Coast Swing rueda classes so that the rest of us can have as much fun as these four dancers were clearly having.

Parker Dearborn and Jessica Cox danced Future of Swing. Robert Royston claims they are the next stage in the evolution of West Coast Swing. I am not sure I would go that far, but I did think they had great showmanship. They danced West Coast Swing to what I think of as "club" music, and it looked as natural as the numbers danced to country, blues and pop. They had plenty of fancy moves, but they also made the simple elements look good. Their strong forms, enhanced by dramatic lighting, echoed the same from the first number of Act I.

Robert and Nicola Royston performed I Got the Blues. They were always having fun, even when performing difficult moves like lifts, which were done with ease and style. They again threw in a little Tango. They make you want to do that too. Watching Robert Royston perform in Swango is what made me decide to change my focus from Ballroom to West Coast Swing.

The full company performed a Jack and Jill. The audience picked who would dance with who. This was a real Jack and Jill where the dancers did not know the song or even the style before the music started playing. The audience loved it. The company should give the audience ballots so that the audience can vote on a winner. Since the purpose of this show is to open people up to West Coast Swing, it could take this process further by giving the audience a chance to talk about what they saw and liked. Taking the time to count ballots, admittedly, might slow down the show, but they could do it during a talkback. It would also be very interesting to do a study of inter-rater agreement by comparing the votes of the audience with scores given by professional judges.

To end the show, the company performed an energetic Swing Jam. This number started out looking very improvised and social, and then transitioned into the sort of formal, synchronized formation that started the show, as if to remind us one last time that whether it is danced in a bar or on a stage, West Coast Swing is well worth watching. StreetSwing! is a great show that can be enjoyed by hard core West Coast Swing dancers and newcomers to dance alike.
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