Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Olé! Viva flamenco y viva Zorro!

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The word "delight" describes one's reaction to the very full house that greeted the Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre for its debut performance at The Cowles Center for Dance, Feb. 24. With a near-capacity crowd of 500, the audience was probably the largest the company has enjoyed since its 1993 engagement at the 472-seat Joyce Theater in New York City.

"Zorro" artwork and animations by Jonathan Thunder
Unlike many of the Minnesota dance companies that have stepped-up their performance games by adding live music for the Cowles' inaugural season, Zorongo's dancers always have shared the stage with at least one instrumental and one vocal musician. For this occasion, the company included seven musicians, led by its musical director and guitarist Pedro Cortés, Jr. Their number included vocalists Vicente Griego and Marisa Carr, guitarist Tony Hauser, percussionist José Moreno, flautist Bobb Fantauzzo, and percussionist and vocalist Óscar Valero.

As she has throughout a long and storied choreographic career of translating authentic flamenco from Spain to both Minnesota and the concert stage, Artistic Director Susana di Palma crafted an original, flamenco story ballet, this time bearing the title of "Zorro in the Land of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker (Moningwunakauning)."

Susana di Palma, artistic director
For the stage drama, Di Palma drew autobiographical inspiration from the story of her great grandmother, Susan Peacock Chisholm, whose Ojibwe name, Naa'wakwe Gaabow i kwe, means "Center Standing Woman."

In a nutshell, Chisholm married a Scottish fur trader and lumberjack. In the family struggle about the upbringing of their children, around 1900 a Franciscan missionary priest baptized their two daughters and took them forcibly to the Catholic boarding school for Native children at Bayfield, Wisconsin, designed to obliterate their language and culture. 

Family tradition recounts Chisholm's rage at the injustice and her determination to get her girls back. At one point, she walked from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin, all the way to Bayfield on the shore of Lake Superior, a distance of 80 miles. All of this drama was incorporated into the production.

Di Palma drew inspiration also from the novel "Zorro" by the Chilean writer Isabelle Allende, whose hero of Spanish and Shoshone parentage fights injustices against Native people in colonial California. In her fancy, Di Palma conjured the embodiment of the Ojibwe Trickster who morphs into Zorro to assist her great-grandmother.

Dancer Antonio Granjero, Zorro/Trickster
The production's impressive scale included poetry by the author Heid Erdrich, animation by the visual artist Jonathan Thunder, costumes by Sonya Berlovitz, puppets by Kristen Ternes, and lighting design by Mike Grogan.

The narrative, including requisite black capes and sword fights, played out against an omnipresent full moon among stylized birch trees with a dancing cast led by Antonio Granjero in the title role. Bridget O'Flaherty portrayed Susan Chisholm as a young woman, and Di Palma her older spirit form.

Pedro Cortés, Jr.
Rich in imagery on all levels, the performance was easily worth at least twice the admission price of $28, and Granjero's solo turns were worth that in themselves. I confess to missing the significance of Zorro's second cape which sported bright red lining.

A strong cast was rounded out by dancers Deborah Elias, Colette Illarde, Carolina Sierra, Gabriela Sierra, Myron Johnson, Andrea Plevan, Laura Horn, Jenna Laffin, Christine Kozachok, Catherine Higgins Whiteside, and Sarah Bartlett.

In its aspirations to provide a destination and all the tools of theater for the art form of dance, the Cowles Center was imagined and wrestled into existence to make possible exactly the kind of production that was Zorongo's "Zorro." One hopes to see many more like it, witnessed by capacity audiences.

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