Tom Strini
“Maria de Buenos Aires”

Dazzling, ambitious, and a little off

By - Nov 11th, 2011 12:56 am

Christal Wagner, in Maria red. This photo and the display photo by Matt Haas for Danceworks.

Watching Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, as staged Thursday at Calvary Church, was like viewing a large mosaic from two feet away. The geometry can be fascinating, the workmanship divine and the colors of individual tiles dazzling. But after a while you want those tiles to add up to something bigger. A story, maybe.

The 13 Danceworks dancers and two singers, representing Milwaukee Opera Theater, operated within and around an ellipse of chairs in the open space, very close to the patrons. (Sometimes the dancers played under the chairs. I’ll say no more, to preserve the surprise timing of this charming stunt.) Perhaps from the little balcony, you could take in the geometry of the dance; from the floor, it was bits and pieces.

The bits were mostly gorgeous. Choreographers Dani Kuepper and Simone Ferro gave their dancers — Simon Eichinger and 12 women — sinuous movement that displayed their extraordinary flexibility and strength through the middles of their bodies. Proximity to those bodies has a lot of appeal, especially in the case of the ever more spectacular Christal Wagner, in a featured role. Her clarity, force, amplitude, shape and rhythm would overwhelm anywhere and were all the more impressive up close.

Piazzolla, of course, is the premiere and revolutionary tango composer of the second half of the 20th century. The 16 numbers — tangos, a waltz, a fugue, an aria and a recitative are among them — are thrilling. An 11-piece Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, led by Richard Hynson, played them with great idiomatic verve.

But those numbers don’t add up to an opera.They don’t add up to much, really. The piece gathers no momentum and accumulates no meaning. It’s just one thing after another, and we end up where we started. Maria stands as an allegory for Woman, or Buenos Aires, or the Spirit of the Tango… or something. Horacio Ferrer’s surreal, free-floating, Yoda-like poetry (sample: “Three marionettes yesterday thrust a violet into my mouth”) tells us nothing and offers scant striking imagery. I didn’t miss the projected supertitles when they stopped working in the middle of the first act.

A reciting chorus, narrator Daniel Helfgot, tenor Nathan Wesselowski and mezzo Catalina Cuervo (as Maria) shared Ferrer’s text. The reciters adopted a portentous, Greek-tragedy heft, which eventually struck me as too weighty for the nonsensical words. (Sample 2: “As soon as you’re reborn you’ll hear the rain that is not yet.”) Piazzolla couched too many of Cuervo’s lines in insistent speech rather than song. What singing she has is mostly very low and chesty. It did not project well into the cavernous church, even with amplification. Her singing couldn’t get a fair hearing under these circumstances.

Wesselowski had much more to sing and made the most of it. Instead of opera, he was thinking Latin American bolero/tango singer. He nailed the genre, which fit the musical material and the fatalistic-pimp vibe of the character. Wesselowski, mostly seen hereabouts in small roles at the Skylight, proved himself both a fine and interesting singer and a stage presence of considerable force.

But on balance, this Maria de Buenos Aires is more dancing than singing, and I’m not convinced that the dancing fits. Kuepper and Ferro shied away from more than passing references to tango steps and went for barefoot, abstract, well-made modern dance. It responded chastely to Piazzolla, mainly as pure music and not so much to the emotional punch the music packs. Tasteful costumes in yards and yards of earth tones (only the two Marias, Wagner and Cuervo, wore red) also kept eroticism at bay. I realize it’s hard to be sexy with a dozen women and one man, but if you don’t express the erotic dimension of tango music, you might as well be dancing to Bach.

This program, completely sold out Thursday, repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 11-12, at Calvary Presbyterian Church at 10th Street and Wisconsin Avenue). Free tango lessons at 7:15 p.m. are included. Tickets are $20, $25 for reserved seats and $15 for students and seniors. Call Danceworks at (414) 277-8480 or visit the online box office.


Dancers L-R: Simone Ferro, Holly Keskey, Melissa Anderson, Kim Johnson-Rockafellow; singer Catalina Cuervo in red in the background. Danceworks photo by Matt Haas.

0 thoughts on ““Maria de Buenos Aires”: Dazzling, ambitious, and a little off”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Gotta (respectfully, of course) disagree with you on this one…I was enchanted for 2 hours.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting, Stefanie. I was intermittently enchanted. — Strini

  3. Anonymous says:

    For me, this production did what a great performance should do, it transported me to another dimension. Great dancers, great movement, and an orchestra that would have made Piazzolla quite pleased.

    I loved it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I gotta say I agree with Tom on this one when he said the dancing did not fit the theme or the music!
    Although the dancing itself was interesting, it definitely made me think “What are they saying and what is the significance of what it is they are trying to say?
    The other thing is I can tell you from personal experience that I know Crystal Wagner, I was in her Jazz Dance class last spring and to be honest, as good as she was, it struck me that she was the only one wearing the red besides the singer, and her style was not what I was used to seeing!
    Overall the performance made me think about other things and my mind wandered a bit.
    I was watching the performance from the top bleachers, so I had a goo aerial view of the show and as much as it had it’s peak kind of like a short story, you could definitely tell everyone’s style of dancing except for Crystal’s
    The singing itself was a little dry and the explanation that they provided made me laugh because of how not erotic it was, rather weird actually, I recall some line about a breast milk or something that as much as you want to say fits, kind of was phrased in a weird way that made me go “wait what?”
    Anyways to sum up!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Awesome things here. I’m very glad to see your article. Thanks a lot and I’m taking a look forward to touch you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

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