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Off Broadway and Onscreen  

I was nowhere near the Theater District last week, yet I saw a variety of Broadway-inspired dancing. The choreographer Justin Peck—New York City Ballet’s neo-Robbins figure—was attached to both. He and his wife, Patricia Delgado, choreographed the dances for the Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production of the “Buena Vista Social Club” at the Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea.  He also choreographed the Robbins/Bernstein dream ballet for Bradley Cooper’s new film Maestro

Performance

Atlantic Theater Company: “Buena Vista Social Club” with choreography by Justin Peck

Place

Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan, NY, December 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Atlantic Theater Company in “Buena Vista Social Club.” Photograph by Ahron R. Foster

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The “Buena Vista Social Club” dances were the meatier fare, though I’d have preferred a few more courses. This show, a fictional extrapolation of Wim Wenders’s 1999 documentary of the same name, worked best when it operated like an actual Cuban social club. The opening number did this beautifully. Musicians filtered in at the same time as the audience, then the full cast assembled around the talented tresero Eliades (Renesito Avich), who led them in a more rousing rendition of the song “El Carretero” than the one featured on the 1997 album or in the film. Everyone onstage stamped out the “bam bams” together, and though the dancers were mostly seated, they and the musicians clearly had the music coursing through their bodies. When they finally did hit the dance floor of the Buena Vista Social Club, it was a release. 

The club dances were the highlight throughout. Though the stage was tiny, three couples managed to perform many snaking lifts. They assisted each other in mid-height cabrioles and floating attitudes en tournant. There were off-balance pull-outs in penché (for the men!) and several Peck-ish lifts that flicked out and then retracted. These lifts were the punctuation for the hypnotic, run-on-sentences of mixed Latin social dances. These grounded and hippy moves were great, providing an intricate rhythmic complement to the onstage band. I particularly loved a beach ball contraction reprise. The mélange of salsas, rumbas, etc. was sometimes interrupted by modern accents—as when a dancer used her foot to bend her partner’s leg at the knee and pulled him in a different direction. This quicksilver maneuvering was impressive—and necessary in such a tiny venue.  

Atlantic Theater Company in “Buena Vista Social Club.” Photograph by Ahron R. Foster

I wouldn’t have minded if the musical had stayed in the 1956 social club setting, but there was a lot of time-traveling to the Tropicana Club and to 1996 for the studio creation of the group’s album. Some of these jumps were fruitful.  Any chance for the commanding Natalie Ventia Belcon, as the elder Omara Portuondo, to show off her pipes was welcome. But in general, the plot meandered in its attempt to create backstories for so many characters.  The most successful ones, Omara and Ibrahim Ferrer, had the most fleshed-out tales. (Olly Sholotan, as the Young Ibrahim, was especially captivating.) But even their stories had holes. Overall, the plot was sketchy and overly sentimental. At the end, I had more questions than tears to shed.    

The music from the original album is so powerful, I wished to hear more of it played by the full band. As it was, so many character-building detours showcased less important songs and dances than the ones that could have been. Kenya Browne and Danaya Esperanza, as the younger Omara and her sister Haydee, performed a few soulless “duets for tourists” in garish, matching gowns and Carmen Miranda headgear. They were like a joyless version of the sisters in “White Christmas.” Dancers in baby ballerina dresses (the costumes were by Dede Ayite) subbed in for them in a few flashback scenes when the elder Omara was singing, and it seemed a waste to have these shadowy body doubles doing lyrical passages on the cramped stage to muted versions of big Buena Vista Social Club hits like “Chan Chan.” The orchestration and the dancing felt shoehorned into plot devices. Marco Ramirez did the book, and perhaps this show would have been more successful if it were more of a straightforward jukebox musical. In one scene, the older Omara was in the studio auditioning a flautist on the tune “Candela.” The band was cooking, and she started to groove to the swelling music as her doubt turned to joy. Like Omara, this was a show that wanted to jam and move more than it allowed itself to.  

Atlantic Theater Company in “Buena Vista Social Club.” Photograph by Ahron R. Foster

The dancing in Maestro was even more brief, but it was crucial nonetheless. Peck’s dream ballet stemmed from a sequence in which Bradley Cooper, as Leonard Bernstein, wanted to escape a dreadful business lunch. With his future wife, Felicia Monteleagre (Cary Mulligan), he magically transported into a theater to watch Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free”—for which he’d composed the score. First, they sat in the audience. Then they moved onstage and into the ballet, watching at a side table like the other cast members.  When Benjamin Freemantle, as a sexy sailor, beckoned to Bernstein, the latter’s attraction was palpable—which hinted at his marital struggles to come. But then Cooper became Freemantle and excitedly finished dancing his solo.  

This all happened quickly, and it was capped by a chaotic group finale that pulled Bernstein and Monteleagre apart and thrust them back together—the entire plot in miniature. In this short dance break, Cooper got at an essential aspect of Bernstein’s life. Music was his refuge; a place in which he didn’t have to be any one thing to any one other person. His moment of trading places with a dancer to physically channel his own music was telling. It was also foreshadowing for the climactic scene of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 in the Ely Cathedral. In the Ely scene, Cooper turned in his best work as an actor—showing Bernstein’s full-bodied abandon in the abstract, genderless, sexless realm of music. This was an example of movement and music coming together to further a narrative better than words possibly could. Bernstein’s life was messy off the podium, but on it, he could unify his many sections and conduct himself into a glorious whole.  

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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