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Otero Dance Company - Rhythm & Passion

by Rachel Levin
October 3, 2009
San Gabriel Mission Playhouse
320 S. Mission Dr.

San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 308-2865
"Rhythm & Passion" is a smorgasbord of pan-Latin dance fare. It travels from the Caribbean to Buenos Aires, showcasing the two sultriest dances to emerge from the Hispanic world: tango and salsa. Yet it also makes a substantial stop in the countryside of Argentina for an obscure folkloric dance style known as gaucho, which was originally performed by the rough-and-tumble "cowboys" of the pampas, or Patagonian grasslands. The first act of the show visits the golden eras of each of these dances, respectively: tango in 1920s Buenos Aires, salsa in 1950s Havana, and gaucho in the 1800s. The second act cycles between these three styles, bringing the choreography into the present and future.

The show purports to explore the roots of the dances. Yet, at times, the medley of numbers seems a bit like Disney's "It's a Small World," with sets and costumes calling up the most familiar and stereotypic tropes like Tropicana showgirls in feathered headdresses rather than the grittier social and economic forces that molded these movement styles. Tango, for example, was born in brothels, and gauchos were reviled prior to the 1800s, but "Rhythm & Passion" keeps a family-friendly distance from these unsavory underpinnings.

Still, even if this is history "lite," the first act does dazzle with several high-energy performances in each genre. The tangos are refined, not seedy, scrolling through the expected themes of romance and rejection with a dash of slapstick for comic relief. The salsas don't skimp on sensuality or tropical excess. The gaucho dances seemed the most surprising and impassioned, perhaps because they are so unfamiliar to American audiences. Dressed in ponchos and flowing pants, the men stomped out a rhythm with their boots to rival tap or flamenco, a style known as zapateo. They also swung ropes fastened with balls at the end — a tradition known as boleadoras — which struck the ground in counterpoint to the zapateo for a frenzy of percussive sound.

In the second act, there were no sets or Disney-like backdrops at all, which served to untether these dance styles from place and historical context and present them as cultural commodities within the global village of movement. This portion of the show revealed tango's limitations; among the three dance styles, it seems the most resistant to modernization. Though the tango footwork was fancier than in the first act, it still felt formal and old-fashioned. The salsa offerings in this portion of the show were infused with modern influences from bachata to reggaeton to breakdance, making salsa seem the most malleable of the three dance styles for the 21st century. The show closed out with gaucho, which has the potential to be a sensation in its own right. It's an underexplored style with a modern sensibility (the thunder of rhythm calls to mind shows like "Stomp") that seems worthy of more exposure and experimentation.

Though the all-you-can-dance buffet format of the show subtracted from a sense of authenticity, the performers themselves were nothing short of dynamite, showing their versatility and talent by dancing all three styles masterfully. It is their rhythm and passion that carries this crowd-pleasing show.
Cuba Streets Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Cuba Streets
Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Photo © & courtesy of Jerry D.


Fog On Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Fog On
Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Photo © & courtesy of Jerry D.


Tango Group Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Tango Group
Photo courtesy of Otero Dance Co.

Photo © & courtesy of Jerry D.

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