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Our seemingly endless public fascination with celebrity couples can be traced historically in any number of directions — to the star-making machinery of the Hollywood studio system to the rise of newspaper gossip columns, which were the predecessors of today’s celebrity access television dailies, and even to the way in which the media has tended to foreground the family life of political figures, for better (think the Obamas) or worse (fill in the blank with your preferred scapegoat here). Yet one crucial link in this chain has remained relatively unexplored, at least until now, and that’s the era of the big dance pairs. Beginning in the early 20th century on Broadway and in metropolitan dance competitions across the country, and peaking in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of mass media, Americans looked to famous dancing couples such as Vernon and Irene Castle for cultural leadership. Watching these great dance pairs and learning the new steps they demonstrated ushered millions of people out of their provincial lives onto a more cosmopolitan and integrated musical stage.
On Saturday, October 22, State Street Ballet will bring the story of one of the greatest of these dance partnerships to the Granada stage in an original evening-length story ballet. Veloz and Yolanda: An American Tango began life as a screenplay in which Guy Veloz told the story of his famous parents, Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza: their humble origins in the dance halls of Tin Pan Alley-era Manhattan, their discovery by the Shuberts and subsequent rise to success on Broadway and in Hollywood, their brushes with the colorful gangsters such as Dutch Schultz who came to power under Prohibition, and their inevitable struggle against time as manifested both in their own aging process and in the waning of the dance pairs era. Although that film never got made, Veloz’s screenplay found its way first to Rodney Gustafson, founding director of State Street Ballet, and then through him to the prolific contemporary ballet choreographer William Soleau. As Soleau told Veloz back in 2012 when the project premiered at the Lobero and at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, “This story was made for ballet.”
Using an actor as narrator, Soleau and Veloz have fashioned a show that harnesses the slangy street credibility that Damon Runyon’s stories brought to Guys and Dolls to something bigger and more soulful. The fact that the opening overture is set to Aaron Copland’s Our Town indicates just how seamlessly Soleau incorporates the decidedly big-city material into a larger vision of a country reimagining itself. Following in the fancy footsteps of the Castles, who traveled with an African-American orchestra and gave white Americans permission to abandon their corsets, dance close, and move to the syncopation of early jazz, Veloz and Yolanda brought on the next wave, which was the great Americanization of all forms of Latin dance. From the tango to the samba, flamenco and cha cha cha, they did it, and they taught it in the chain of dance studios they opened across the country under the slogan “Walk in, Dance out.”
All three principals from the 2013 production are returning for this version, which will surely benefit from the grand scale of the Granada stage. Leila Drake Fossek is Yolanda Veloz, and it is hard to imagine a role more suited to her elegant and highly expressive style. Jack Stewart is back as Veloz and is likely to bring an even more assertive presence to the role as he tackles the challenge for a second time. Cecily Stewart dances the role of Jean Davi, Veloz’s second great dance partner (and eventual second wife), a part she originated and which gives choreographer Soleau a wonderful opportunity to paint contrasting portraits of Veloz at different stages of life.
An American Tango’s setting in pre-World War II America engages every aspect of State Street Ballet’s creative process. The ensemble romps through numbers set to music by Fats Waller and Duke Ellington in wonderful period costumes designed by G. Christina Giannini. Thanks to Mark Somerfield’s imaginative lighting design and multimedia set projections by Soleau and David Bazemore, Veloz and Yolanda can dance from the streets of New York all the way to the stage at the Hollywood Bowl without leaving the Granada. Veloz and Yolanda may have seen the end of an era with the eclipse of the big dance pairs, but in An American Tango, State Street Ballet shows how, through the spectacle of great dancing, their story continues to speak to us about the profound mysteries of romantic partnership.
State Street Ballet presents An American Tango Saturday, October 22, 7:30 p.m. at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. Call 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.