Monday, April 12, 2010

Ports of Call

The Ethnic Dance Theatre has been around for more than thirty years now, developing shows that bundle music, costumes, and dances from exotic places into ambitious productions, many of them with a specific geographic focus. Aside from the technical difficulties presented by the music and dancing itself, the EDT has always faced the challenge of making its performances theatrical without undermining the homespun village flair that differentiates folk performances from more modern and idiosyncratic forms of dance expression. Dance journalists are likely to dismiss such productions as “homespun”—at best, fancy footwork that you can’t really see from a distance and rigid postures that bespeak antediluvian cultures where individuality of expression is a no-no. On the other hand, those who attend the group’s shows regularly know exactly what they’re in for—music, costumes, and dancing that you won’t see anywhere else which take you to places you haven’t been to for a while, if ever…at a very reasonable price.

Considered in those terms, the EDT’s latest show, Ports of Call, was a rousing success. The cruise-ship theme made it possible to range widely in cultures—far more widely than a real cruise ship ever has. It also allowed for a generous display of travel slides (and doesn’t everyone love a slide show?) The performance contained numbers from Bulgaria, India, Iran, Greece, Latvia, Norway, Brazil and Costa Rica, among others.

The EDT specializes in dances from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, yet the numbers were uniformly top-flight, perhaps because artistic director Don La Course drew upon the choreographies of local specialists to augment his own areas of expertise. The band recruited for the show, led by Tim O’Keefe, was similarly packed with performers well-versed in the traditions involved. Keyboardist Mohammed Lulu elicited a surprising array of sounds from his instrument and vocalist Natalie Nowtyski also played a prominent roles the proceedings, belting out tunes with utter confidence in more than a few languages I’d never heard before. As for the dancers, they seldom flagged, whether executing a simple Latvian Schottische, fighting with canes, or honoring the Mother Goddess, Gujarat-style.

I couldn’t say if the costumes were authentic but they were certainly spectacular in more ways than one. The Cosa Rican number featured flouncy white outfits and straw hats; the women’s outfits for the numbers from Mumbai and Trabozn, though entirely different, must rank among the most elaborate silk pajamas I’ve ever seen. The men’s outfits tended to veer more toward the “Taliban look.” By dispensing with an elaborate encore to the finale, a foot-stomping Turkish line dance complete with flashing disco lights, the EDT put the final flourish of good taste on the performance.

We wandered down the street after the show(which was at the Ritz Theater) to a restaurant called the Northeast Social, a pleasant place offering $4 glasses of wine and a tempting menu. One minor blot: The accordionist near the door made conversation somewhat difficult, and his repertoire, though it ranged from Beethoven’s “Für Elise” to Don McLean’s “Starry Night,” suffered in comparison to the stuff we’d just been hearing.

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