Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, headquartered at the intimate BeBe Theatre on Commerce Street, has just celebrated its 30th Anniversary, and yet I still run into people in town who’ve never heard of it. This is kind of amazing. Here is a local company that has not only been creating original, evening-length dances, but also collaborating with dancers and choreographers from around the world for long enough to have paid off a mortgage. They’ve survived boom and bust, rent hikes, floods, conservative backlash, you-name-it, and still they manage to put up a major new work every year. In more recent memory, they’ve been the backbone, with Jim Julien and Erin Braasch, of the zaniest annual performance event in town: the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival.
“The Fringe” represents one of the most important ways ACDT’s artistic directors, Giles and Susan Collard, have supported and nurtured the performing arts community here: by giving other artists, many of them just starting out, a place to perform. Their latest production, “Cabaret Fever,” is an extension of this idea. The show is directed by Nelson Reyes, and (as the title suggests) is a sort of variety show featuring a wide range of performers, including local African dance and drumming troupe Chix With Stix, latino dance troupe Sin Fronteras, ACDT’s own dance company, and soloists Harmony Johnson and Yeraldine Kennedy.
The show is billed as a “Tropicana Cabaret Celebrating the Life of La Lupé,” the famous Cuban singer and dancer whose repertoire and passionate stage antics Castro considered “anti-revolutionary.” Exiled from Cuba in 1962, La Lupé went first to Mexico and then to the U.S., where she made a tremendous name for herself as “The Queen of Latin Soul,” performing with, among others, Tito Puente and his orchestra. She died in virtual obscurity in 1992, but has attained a cult following posthumously — thanks at least in part to the incorrigible campiness of her style.
Yeraldine Kennedy (presumably a stage name) portrays the infamous La Lupé in a couple of lip-sync and dance routines that wonderfully set the burlesque tone for the show. In her opening number, “Fever,” she’s accompanied by the ACDT dancers: Jenni Cockrell, Cricket Greer, Kala Hildebrand, Jessy Kronenberg, Jaime Scott, and the newest addition to the company, Norianna Diesel. These women are all fantastic performers, and both here and in their second number (“Batea,” an ACDT repertory piece), they own the stage.
But the other acts are equally strong, albeit in wildly different ways. Harmony Johnson performs a rather tongue-in-cheek cabaret dance routine called “The Flasher,” and I was delighted to discover Chix With Stix, a group I’d never heard of before. Director Jessie Lehmann and her ensemble (Sarah Yancey, Emily Muscarella, Jessica Telfair, Lisa Wolfe and a special guest listed in the program as “Irvegg!”) manifest incredible energy, precision and stage presence. The traditional African rhythms they play are astonishing in their complexity, and yet the ensemble executes the arrangements with apparent ease. In the cases of Yancey, Muscarella, and Telfair, this is done while dancing — and not just shuffling their feet side-to-side either: this is seriously kinetic African dance. The audience Friday night went nuts.
Sin Fronteras was another first for me. Lucia Hernandez, Isaias Barajas, Rita Elena Vargas, Alejandro Magena, and Jesus Cipriano present several traditional Latin American dances — one involving, get this, machetes. Again, the expressive precision and stage presence of the performers is entirely winning.
Apart from the lighting in certain pieces (which was hyperactive enough to be quite distracting) the only weak part of the show comes, alas, first: a montage of video footage of La Lupé performing in her heyday. The quality of the video is so poor, we might as well be looking at a Monet submerged in a swimming pool — at night. And even if it were HD DVD, the montage needs to be about half as long as it is, or cut altogether. Why O why (I ask myself) do choreographers persist in the strange delusion that they have anything to gain by using video? Unless the images are abstract, highly processed, or at least of something other than people dancing, we inevitably compare them to the dancers on stage; and the dancers on stage inevitably lose. We just stop watching them.
But I digress. While the whole evening is more than capably directed by Reyes, the presiding ethos is embodied in Giles Collard, who serves as emcee and, not surprisingly to those who know him, also finds his way into a dance or two. Collard is one of those rare performers who seems entirely free of self-consciousness. As emcee, he says pretty much whatever pops into his head, most of it pretty amusing in a non-sequitur sort of way. He’s at ease here — as well he should be: this is the theatre that didn’t exist before he and his wife created it. And that’s perhaps part of the reason their audiences are so loyal: going to the BeBe feels a bit like going to visit your “odd” aunt and uncle. You never know in what state you’ll find things, but you can count on being welcomed and well entertained.
“Cabaret Fever” runs through Sunday, April 26, 8pm. Tickets: $10 / $12. The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce Street, Downtown Asheville. Director: Nelson Reyes. Master of Ceremonies: Giles Collard. Starring Yeraldine Kennedy as La Lupé. Other performers: Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, Chix With Stix, Harmony Johnson, Sin Fronteras.