Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
March 17, 2018
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
It was the luck of more than the Irish for those who happened to be in attendance at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre on St. Patrick’s Day to see Argentinean dance troupe Che Malambo. The performance, co-presented by DANCECleveland and Cuyahoga Community College, was a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring spectacle of dance, music and gaucho-inspired artistry like no other.
Conceived and choreographed by Frenchman Gilles Brinas in collaboration with Che Malambo’s dancers, the program celebrated the malambo folk dance traditions of South American cowboys (a.k.a. gauchos).
As the curtain opened halfway Saturday evening to reveal the roar of drumming from Che Malambo’s dozen-member all-male troupe bathed in blinding white light, the atmosphere then took on the intensity of an oncoming train as the curtain opened completely and the boot-wearing performers, costumed in all-black and full of machismo rushed forward en mass to the delight of the audience.
When the dust finally settled on that raucous opening dance sequence, drummer Fernando Gareis and former finalist on France’s Got Talent, dancer Miguel Angel Flores, were all that remained onstage. The two began what would be a long-running, bravura dance section centered on one-upmanship competition. Flores, in a call and response duet with Gareis, engaged in aggressive and showy malambo tap dancing that included hard foot stomps with the heel or “el repique,” and “la cepillada,” where his feet brushed the stage in various rolled-ankle taps and steps. Flores was soon joined by dancer Daniel Medina who immediately challenged him to a dance competition which led to subsequent waves of dancers entering the stage to similarly challenge those who came before them in testosterone-fueled exhibitions of male posturing and skilled dancing punctuated by guttural vocal exclamations of “top that” pride.
Brilliantly choreographed, staged and performed, the competition section was a harbinger of even more stunning performances to come beginning with Fernando Castro dancing a barefoot solo using fast-moving and intricate “floreos” steps that barely made contact with the ground. As with the previous competition section, Castro was then joined by other barefoot dancers showing increasingly greater skills than those that danced before them and building the dance section to a frenzied and satisfying climax.
On a bare stage and danced only to live drumming or solo acoustic guitar-playing by the troupe’s dancer-musicians, Che Malambo’s production appeared deliberately stripped down to honor its rustic gaucho heritage while also adding nothing to distract from its adroit dancers’ performances.
In an evening full of memorable dancing, the hands down highlight of the program came in a boleadoras (a throwing weapon consisting of two or three balls on a rope) twirling solo by Medina. With the superior skills of an Olympic rhythmic gymnast taken to seemingly impossible extremes, Medina’s performance with the boleadoras was mind-blowing. Controlled, breakneck speed whipping of a boleadora in each hand produced optical illusions of halos of light surrounding Medina as he danced across the stage crisscrossing ropes and banging the tiny balls at each end off the stage in a rhythmic pattern to match his foot tapping.
Likened to popular touring dance shows such as Riverdance and Ballroom’s Burn the Floor, Che Malambo’s program blending world-class dancers, dancing and boleadoras displays, may have topped them all, taking the term crowd-pleaser to whole other level.
After a musical interlude by Gareis playing guitar and singing a traditional Argentinean folk tune, the program concluded with a fiesta section led by the troupe’s most diminutive member Francisco Matias Ciares, who after a humorous section of the dancers coming to the front of the stage and mugging at the audience with ear-to-ear smiles, launched into a fitful and hilarious solo that set off the rest of the troupe similar rebellious solo dancing.
And what would a celebration be without more feats with the boleadoras? The fiesta also included a dazzling group boleadoras number and another astonishing solo display of boleadoras skill this time by Walter Kochanowski who whipped the spinning ropes so fast around his head as to beat up a cloud of sweat from his long hair to the cheers of the audience.
While not DANCECleveland’s typical dance offering, Che Malambo stands as one of its best in recent years in terms of spectacle. The boisterous standing ovation the troupe received at program’s end showed there is an appetite by area dancegoers for high quality, universally appealing programming such as this.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.