Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza were a ballroom dance team who performed in clubs and onstage in the 1930's and '40's, and were touted as America's "Greatest Dancing Couple" on the cover of Life Magazine. American Tango, performed on a recent weekend at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica by the State Street Ballet of Santa Barbara, is a balletic rendition of their lives and careers.
The narrated ballet tells their story from their first meeting at a dance hall in New York to their rise to fame with the help of the notorious mobster Dutch Schultz. They went on to be featured on Broadway and to tour internationally, earning big paydays along the way. With the decline of the ballroom dance craze, the team faded from prominence and the two divorced, with Frank continuing to perform with his new wife.
While the skill and grace of the lead dancers, the lovely Leila Drake and a solid Jack Stewart, are undeniable, the rest of the production is flawed and forgettable. Direction and choreography by William Soleau feel tight and unimaginative, but the chief problem is the story itself, which was written by Veloz and Yolanda's son, Guy Veloz. Veloz inserts a narrator (valiantly played by Joseph Fuqua) to guide the action, but his clunky dialogue does little more than interrupt the few dance sequences.
More serious is the lack of dramatic action in the piece, which simply recites these show-biz lives in a reverential, flowery tones. Perhaps out of filial piety, Veloz does little to illuminate the character of his parents, leaving the piece as nothing more than an encomium from a devoted son. Dramatic conflict is largely absent, and we are simply left to work our way through the predictable chronology of the characters' lives. Granted, it is challenging to tell an effective and textured story through the medium of dance, although that has been accomplished many times before. In this instance, the creative team simply wasn't up to the challenge.