|Irene Hogarth-Cimino in "Palladium Nights."|
Ballet Hispanico's "Palladium Nights" is a very hot idea that takes a disappointingly long time to warm up. But when it does, it downright sizzles. An unprecedented collaboration between Tina Ramirez's renowned 37-year-old dance troupe and the five-year-old Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by Arturo O'Farrill and in residence at Lincoln Center, the two-act ballet aims to re-create an evening at New York City's Palladium nightclub during the golden age of Latin Jazz.
Neil Patel's simple set design works well. The stage is set with cafe tables and red hanging light fixtures, with the orchestra on risers spread across the back. The music by the all-star 18-member orchestra cooks, and the dancing is fabulous -- Ramirez's 13 charismatic dancers have impressive technical facility and stylistic panache. So far so good.
However, the evening's weak spot is the choreography itself. Crafted by Broadway veteran Willie Rosario, it often looks flat and unimaginative, barely mining the rich variety of the Latin dance tradition. Many of the group works look alike , and he wastes much of the solo firepower at his disposal. For a number of tunes, the dancers just sit it out, letting the orchestra come to the fore. And that it does, often outshining the dance. But you can see the dancers are itching to get back out there -- Rosario just doesn't give them enough to do.
The first act is slow. The opening number is a meet-and-greet as the ballet's characters wander onstage. They are all stereotypes, but colorful and given real theatrical flair by the talented dancers. There's the golden couple, the nerdy guy, the outrageous flirt, the uptight librarian, a sailor, an ingénue. The scene is set for a little romance and jealousy. Natalia Alonso's Miss Chi Chi tries to move in on the relationship between Veronique (the fantastically supple Candice Monet McCall) and Antonio (Rodney Hamilton.) The couple, introduced by O'Farrill's MC/bandleader as the club's "lovebirds of dance," presents a beautifully danced jazz ballet duet that is sensuous and lyrical but amateurishly constructed. It looks like something a regional ballet company might feature combined with flamboyant lifts, swings, and flips reminiscent of pairs figure skating.
The second act finally starts to take off. The music gets a little more transparent and features some fabulous solos -- the ultra- smooth trombonist Reynaldo Jorge and conga player Tony Rosa are standouts. This seems to spark more adventurous choreography, including a cute number featuring blond bombshell Lola (Irene Hogarth-Cimino), who finally puts down her long cigarette holder to dance with four men who try to partner her all at the same time. To Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," a mambo romp is a whirlwind of partner changes sending dancers spinning into a circle, then flinging them off to the edges.
But some of the best dancing is during the curtain call, when each dancer gets a brief moment to shine in all his or her virtuosic glory. That's when it really hits home how underutilized the dancers are, especially Waldemar Quinones Villanueva's clownish, bobble-headed stumbler Sparky, who could have stolen the show with just one substantive solo. Ultimately, "Palladium Nights" feels like an evening of missed opportunities.