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Swango, the fusion… - a review of the expanded show

by Robert Abrams
February 7, 2003
Helen Hayes Theatre Company
Westwood Area
Nyack, NY 10960
(845) 358-6065

Swango, the fusion… - a review of the expanded show

(See more on Swango.)

Review by Robert Abrams
February 7, 2003

Swango, the fusion…, the innovative dance show, had its opening night tonight of a three performance run at the Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack, NY (Rockland County). The audience tonight was a combination of Nyack locals and city dwellers who braved the journey across the bridge. I made the trip on a Red and Tan bus with a very friendly driver who dropped me off across the street from the theatre. Tonight's performance was worth the trip.

I had seen the show at Swing 46 several times, so I wanted to see if they were able to make a show that worked quite well in an intimate, cabaret/thrust stage setting translate to a larger theatre with a proscenium stage. As far as I can tell, they succeeded. I say "as far as I can tell" because I happened to be sitting in the front row, so the effect was more like the Swing 46 setting than if I had been sitting in the back row.

The basic structure of the show is the same. The show is still a joining of West Coast Swing and Argentine Tango with a plot loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. The plot is still what I like to call a tease of a narrative, which makes the show more modern dance with shoes than musical theatre. And as a technical aside, the structure of Swango has more in common with classic modern dance such as Martha Graham than it does with what is sometimes called post-modern dance. For those of you who haven't seen the show yet, the following will help make this review make sense: Robert is a Swing dancer who mostly dances with Nicola. Mariela is an Argentine Tango dancer who mostly dances with Mr. Cervila. Robert falls in love with Mariela. Their friends all think it is a bad idea and try to stop them, but love finds a way and Robert and Mariela end up dancing happily ever after, no longer afraid to lead an 8-count whip to Tango music (among other examples of hybrid vigor).

The opening sequence is still the same. The sight gag that sets up the premise and the tension of the show still gets a strong laugh. Some of the dance numbers have almost unaltered choreography, some have been expanded and modified, and some of the choreography is brand new.

The show is a fuller version of its former self largely because there are now sixteen dancers instead of eight, and the costumes have been upgraded. The show is also longer. The show is now about an hour and a half in length, contrasted with about 40 minutes in the Swing 46 version. The choreography is just as coherent and well modulated as before, and never drags despite the increased running time.

I liked the dancing in the Swing 46 version, but if anything the dancing this time around is better. Geralyn Del Corso was an understudy in the Swing 46 version, only dancing the role full time towards the end of the run. Her rendition of the opening number tonight was very confident, ably led by Mark Eckstein. I felt that, overall, the dancers had a more forceful attack tonight than they did at Swing 46. This was especially true of Antonio Cervila, Jr., who is new to the show.

Mr. Cervila brought a very different character to the role compared to Cesar's interpretation of it at Swing 46. While I liked Cesar's performance, and no one thumbs his nose with the same depth of feeling as Cesar, Mr. Cervila portrayed this Argentine tough guy who bordered on mean and nasty. It was a bold choice, and I think it worked.

This version of Swango has two flaws, and one of these flaws is a by-product of this bold choice. Mr. Cervila plays the dancer who is most protective of Mariela. At the end of the show, when Mariela is finally paired with Robert, Nicola and Mr. Cervila are left unpaired. When Nicola offered her hand to Cesar at the end of the show, as a way of righting the rift in the world, the gesture alone worked because Cesar's characterization was a gentle kind of protectiveness (think Johnny Depp in Chocolat). Tonight, when Nicola offered her hand to Antonio (yes, I know, it looks like I am being inconsistent by referring to him as Mr. Cervila above, but his character has changed by this point in the show, so it makes sense to change the way he is named), he had become a different person already - much happier and non-violent. This, frankly, didn't make any sense. Some evidence, at least in the form of a thought experiment, can be found by reflecting on the performance from August 29, 2002. At this performance, one of Nicola's ear rings fell off as she was dancing. After the number was over, Cesar walked over, picked up the ear ring and returned it to Nicola, all in character. Obviously, the real reason he did this was to prevent someone from slipping on it, but if one assumes for the moment that it could have been an intentional part of the show, Cesar's character doing this was believable in a way that Mr. Cervila's character doing the same thing would not be. They need to linger on the separation inflicted upon Nicola and Mr. Cervila at least a little longer. A dance number or two in which they both come to grips with their separation, followed by a number where Nicola softens him up a little so that he is finally ready to accept her proffered hand, would make the transition make sense. I know the Swango team is capable of expressing unmined potential given the transformation they have pulled off from the original show to this version. I think it is just this sort of continued character development that will allow them to find the next, perhaps Broadway bound, version in the fertile seed of the second version shown tonight.

Although in the current version Mr. Cervila's transformation is too abrupt, there is no doubt that the agent of this transformation is capable of setting it in motion. Throughout the show, Nicola sacrifices no emotion while dancing full out. If anything, her performance has improved since the original show. Even on a full proscenium stage, her anguish over her abandonment is palpable.

There is a second flaw in the show. This one is also a transition that seems too abrupt. This transition was also too abrupt in the Swing 46 version of the show. It occurs near the start of the show when Robert crosses to Mariela to ask her to dance. While it is true that since this show is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, Robert is fated to cross to Mariela, but I think it might enhance the show if this interest built a little more slowly. Part and parcel with this concern, both the Tango and Swing dancers need more convincing reasons to cross the floor and get tangled up in each others' space. At present, some of the conflict between the two groups seems forced. Since Swango is on some level a work of modern dance, it is fine to simply present the conflict as a premise, but I might try out some more natural choices and see where it leads. All they would need to do is place the bar at one end of the room, and the coat check or the bathroom at the other. This would force each group of dancers to cross each other's space for logical reasons.

Just to be clear, these flaws are relatively minor when the quality of the show is taken as a whole. The larger cast allowed the choreographers to show off the emergent properties of Argentine Tango. They also did a good job of showing off the competitive social roots of Swing. The choreography even allowed the audience to see the difference in character between the rueda style partner switches found in some forms of Latin dance compared to the steal style of partner switches found in Swing. Admittedly, rueda is most commonly associated with Salsa, and stealing is most commonly associated with Lindy and Hustle, but Swango is not the first to blur this particular line.

Laureen Baldovi had a well executed accented split. Jason Colacino and Kate Boyle had a fine sequence with two neck drops one after the other. Cecilia Saia's Tango was impregnated with passion. Robert did an outstanding job of trying to lead moves that left his partners mystified. This was one of those grace notes that was added to this version of the show that make the show that much more true to life. There is not a dancer alive who hasn't tried to lead something that he knows should work, which then for no identifiable reason, just doesn't. When Robert wasn't showing off these comic touches, he demonstrated that he can do high flying lifts just as well as his usual grounded dancing.

Overall, Swango was just fabulous. The audience gave a rousing standing ovation at the end of the show. The applause was deserved. Which makes me realize that the show has a third flaw. The show makes you want to go dancing yourself. Maybe you will be inspired to learn Swing, or maybe Tango, or even become a heretic and dance swango socially (it is not as far fetched as it may sound: I have led 8-count whips to tango music, so I know it can be done with a partner who isn't expecting it). The flaw is that when presented at a proscenium theatre, you can't just stick around for the dancing the way you could at Swing 46. This is a flaw that you, as an audience member, can do something about. Buy your ticket, take your dance shoes to the show, and afterwards go out dancing.

Swango was created and choreographed by Mariela Franganillo and Robert Royston, and featured Laureen Baldovi, Katie Boyle, Antonio Cerila, Jr., Ronnie DeBenedetta, Geralyn Del Corso, Mariela Franganillo, Mark Eckstein, Ronen Khayat, Mariana Parma, Nicola Royston, Robert Royston, Constantin Rueger, Cecilia Saia, Rebecca Shulman and Carlos Yannacañedo. Lighting design was by Paul Cardone. Music Editing by Manu Smith. General management by Mariana Parma and production stage management by Tamara K. Heeschen.

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