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Not the Same Old Shpeel
The new Cirque show dances to a vaudeville beat.
It’s a good bet that early 21st-century dancers haven’t given a great deal of thought to vaudeville. They might have paged through books documenting its heyday from the 1880s to the 1930s. Or they might have seen a revival of Gypsy, the Broadway musical that chronicles the fate of a showbiz family scrambling to survive in vaudeville’s waning days.
But the notion of “hoofing it” in a zany scenario that reimagines the vaudeville world—with tap, hip hop and “eccentric dancing” (anything from contortionist moves to “rubberlegs” to the more recent “robot” and “voguing” moves)—is a bit unexpected. Nevertheless, in collaboration with MSG Entertainment, Cirque du Soleil decided it was time to reinvigorate the form. So here comes an elaborate entertainment with a big budget, up-to-the-minute stagecraft, and turbo-charged music bearing the slippery title Banana Shpeel. The show, which had a tryout earlier this winter at the Chicago Theatre, opens Feb. 11 at New York’s Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side.
Written and directed by David Shiner, who staged Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza in 2007, Banana Shpeel spins the story of Schmelky, a vindictive vaudeville producer who is holding auditions for his latest show. The tryouts attract a series of clowns—pathetic losers one and all—who proceed to run wild, churning up old-style mayhem and slapstick, with extreme acrobatics and a slew of flashy dance numbers. It’s a show that clearly demands what Jared Grimes, its 26-year-old choreographer (cover story, May 2007), describes as “triple-threat performers.”
Last November, Grimes—who can dance up a storm while simultaneously talking a blue streak—was putting the final touches on one of the show’s big eccentric dance numbers. He shifted between demonstrating and gently critiquing his ensemble of 12 dancer-singer-actors as they ran through the funkily playful moves of his hybrid “tap-hop” style.
What was immediately evident was that this was not your average chorus-line contingent of sleekly uniform bodies. There were tall and short dancers, some reed-thin and others decidedly average. And though virtuosic dancers all, they were clearly selected for their high energy and colorful personalities.
“Auditions were a tough process,” Grimes confessed. “I needed great dancers who could also sing and do comedy. And I needed all different kinds of bodies so I could mess it up.”
Grimes himself was chosen for the crucial choreographer’s job after attracting attention as an emcee and star of Broadway Underground, the free-form dance and comedy showcase that plays on off-nights at B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square. His co-star and fellow emcee is his pal, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., a dancer in the Banana Shpeel company. Both men are part of that unofficial, fast-moving band of post-Savion tap masters who are putting a whole new spin on the tap classics by infusing them with an ever-evolving hip hop style.
“Banana Shpeel is something different,” says Fleming, 28. “As a tap dancer it can be hard to commit to traditional musical theater. But David [Shiner] wanted the kind of energy and spirit Jared and I put in our own show. Frankly, I never knew what that stuff they did in the 1920s and ’30s was even called. Now I know it was ‘eccentric dance’ from the vaudeville circuit.”
It is Cirque du Soleil’s hope that by channeling vaudeville through the fresh perspective of young talents like Grimes and Fleming, the old will feel new again. —Hedy Weiss
Photo of DeWitt Fleming by Kristie Kahns, courtesy Banana Shpeel
With new members and a new rep, the Kings of the Dance are back.
No ladies necessary. A spectacular new crop of dance royalty presides over the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles Feb. 16–17 and New York City Center Feb. 19–21. American Ballet Theatre’s Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg, and Jose Manuel Carreño; Complexions’ Desmond Richardson; The National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté; the Kirov’s Denis Matvienko; and the Bolshoi’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze form the current “Kings of the Dance.” Coming off of a nine-city tour of Russia, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine last November, where New York City Ballet’s Joaquin De Luz danced in place of Richardson and the Bolshoi’s Ivan Vasiliev filled in for Gomes in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the new incarnation of Kings returns to the U.S. after a four-year hiatus.
Gomes, whose wonderfully intuitive portrayals of princes and villains routinely earn standing ovations, feels honored to be a new addition to the program, which is produced by Sergei Danilian. “While I love Swan Lake and Romeo and Giselle, I’m really glad that the audience will see us in a different light. We get to show that we’re human beings first.” He is thrilled to dance Nacho Duato’s intensely physical Remanso for the first time—when ABT performed it in 1998, he only got to hold a rose behind the onstage wall.
With so much talent and testosterone in the same room, is there an undercurrent of competition? “There is no competition,” says Gomes. “Everyone is an accomplished artist and we all have something different to bring to Kings. We support each other.”
However, Côté, whom Gomes calls “fantastic,” tells a different story. “Men, especially principals, usually work on their own. A bunch of guys suddenly having to dance together—the whole room feels different,” Côté admits. “You do a lot of things full out. Everyone looks at each other and there’s major competition. If one person does six turns, the other person thinks, yeah, I can do that too.”
But both Gomes and Côté agree that the two-week rehearsal period was part of the appeal of Kings. “To see everyone adapt to the work—the great Russian dancers, how their style fit into Nacho Duato’s work,” says Côté, “was to see some really great dancing from all over the globe. Everyone was there with the purpose to make it all unified.”
Partnering each other was a trial-and-error experience for the new Kings. “We’ve had to learn how to do this really physical male partnering,” says Gomes. “There’s a moment in Roland Petit’s Proust where Guillaume literally jetés off my back.”
Côté adds, “Taming the power and intensity that two men generate is really hard. You’re used to leading in pas de deux all the time, and we had to find moments when one person had to push more, the other less.”
From Vestris, which Leonid Jacobson choreographed for Baryshnikov’s gold-medal performance in 1969 at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow, to Small Steps, a premiere for Gomes by American choreographer Adam Hougland, the challenging repertory is an eclectic showcase. It also includes works by Ashton, Eifman, and Wheeldon. The appeal for the audience? Says Côté, “There’s something about men trying to outsize each other.” —Kina Poon