Dazzling, ambitious, and a little off
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.
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.