Fred Astaire is a household name, but few have heard of Veloz and Yolanda, considered by many to be the greatest ballroom couple of the 1930s and ’40s. This weekend, Santa Barbara’s own State Street Ballet (SSB) will tell their story in the world premiere of An American Tango. The show opens at the Lobero Theatre this Saturday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m., and also runs on Sunday, October 28, at 2 p.m. For tickets and info, call 963-0761 or visit statestreetballet.com. Here are three reasons to catch this tale of true love as told through the fancy footwork and glittering glamour of ballroom dance.
1. The Story: Choreographer and longtime State Stree Ballet (SSB) collaborator William Soleau teamed up with writer Guy Veloz, son of Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza, to tell the story of two kids from Italian immigrant families living in New York who rose to become the most dazzling ballroom couple in America. Using diary entries, archival photographs, and film footage, Veloz and Soleau have crafted a multimedia production. Actor Joseph Fuqua will narrate from the stage, providing a history of American ballroom dancing as the action moves from the speakeasies and dance halls of Hell’s Kitchen to the Broadway stage to the elite hotels and supper clubs of Miami, Havana, and Hollywood.
2. The Dancing: Though the dancers of State Street Ballet aren’t formally trained in ballroom, they’re fast learners. Soleau, who himself studied ballroom dance, has worked closely with lead dancers Leila Drake and Jack Stewart to achieve the grace and passion of the form. But don’t expect to see all the same moves as Dancing with the Stars. Ballroom dance as we think of it today was codified in the 1950s and ’60s, Soleau says, and Veloz and Casazza predate those stylized, formal techniques. “I wanted to be true to the era,” Soleau noted, adding that Drake and Stewart get to use their formidable ballet technique, too — something Veloz and Casazza didn’t have.
3. The Music and Costumes: If you’re a fan of big band, this is the show for you. Among the 18 composers included in the score are Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. As for the costumes, Casazza was known for having the most sumptuous ballroom gowns, and SSB designers have worked to re-create those jaw-dropping effects. “This era is kind of lost to history,” Soleau noted. “People don’t dress up for theater anymore.” Sounds like an invitation to dust off your top hats and head to the Lobero.