In the 1950s, you could hang out on West 52nd Street and drop into one jazz club after another. The Palladium at Broadway and 53rd featured Latin bands headed by greats like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito. Killer Joe Piro offered on-the-spot lessons to those who couldn’t hold their own on the dance floor. In the haze of trumpet calls, swaying hips, cigarette smoke, and booze, you could get drunk just on the rhythms.
Ballet Hispanico director Tina Ramirez seeks to recreate this atmosphere in Palladium Nights, choreographed in 2006 by Willie Rosario and since slightly revised, with the directorial help of Sergio Trujillo. Over two hours long, including an intermission, the piece, like several of the company’s recent works, has various individuals arriving at a club or gathering place—bringing with them their desires, hangups, and antagonisms and playing out those urges on the dance floor.
After a snappy educational film on the Palladium’s history, the curtain goes up on a stage full of musicians in white jackets. Arturo O’Farrill’s sizzling Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra includes four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, bass, percussion instruments, and piano (played by O’Farrill). The dancers trickle in, providing plenty of “behavior” and sidelines interaction, along with their spins, split jumps, very high kicks, and mamboing in couples. The set-up is full of promise.
In Palladium Nights at its best, the gorgeous dancers transcend their stereotypes and focus on one another rather than on the audience. The roles in themselves are underdeveloped. Iyun Harrison periodically takes a swig from a pocket flask, but his drinking doesn’t establish his character any more than his pirouettes do. Long-limbed Irene Hogarth-Cimino (in a stunning white satin gown by Emilio Sosa) trails a boa and flaunts a super-long cigarette holder, but we don’t know much about her, except that she came alone. Eric Rivera, as “Casanova,” keeps pulling out a comb and refreshing his slicked-back coiffure, but vanity doesn’t define him. In fact, he ends up leaving, not with one of the glamour girls, but with a prim, bemused tourist who has tossed away her glasses and let down her hair (Ariel Shepley copes excellently with this difficult role—looking as if she doesn’t know the dances while doing them well).
The mix includes a bumptious sailor (Nicholas Villeneuve); a bespectacled nerd whose dancing is nevertheless beyond spry (Waldemar Quiñones-Villanueva); a sweet, adventurous schoolgirl (Jessica Batten); a prissy meddler (Angelica Burgos); a couple who give ballroom instruction and do exhibition dancing (Candice Monét McCall and Rodney Hamilton); and “Miss Chi Chi” (Natalia Alonso). Alonso, wearing a fringed red dress, is a flame on the dance floor; she also gives the most nuanced performance—wholeheartedly joyous when the music takes her, introspective when she dances alone onstage, visited in turn by three men she has perhaps dreamed, their slouched-down hats rendering them faceless. Also beguiling is a number for Hogarth-Cimino and four men who treat her as their personal princess—at least for a few minutes. But the showy duet for Monét McCall and Hamilton, despite their skill, is all over the place—not quite an adagio act and not quite a hottest-hips-in-town display. A lot of time is given to jealous looks and little shoves when she pairs up with Rivera and he with Alonso, but the situation isn’t fleshed out. And although the dancers sit respectfully when the musicians play alone, there’s little warmth exchanged between the two groups.
Palladium Nights resumes after an intermission exactly where it left off, and although the second half has more variegation in mood and tone than the first part, I find myself wishing for the dancing to be more infectious, the characters more real, and the length just a bit shorter.