Xeitgeist ~ the spirit of the event
by Melinda Darlington-Bach

Decades of Dancing Ghosts...
The Tosca Project at American Conservatory Theater

The Tosca Project at American Conservatory Theater"If only the walls could talk..." How many times have we longed for the secrets and stories comprised of memories from times gone by? What emerges so beautifully that truly fits the bill is the Tosca Project at ACT. Due to heavy ticket sales, this innovative show was just recently extended. What has been created from a 4-year collaboration between 10 time recipient of National Endowment for the Arts grants, award-winning San Francisco Ballet choreographer, Val Caniparoli alongside legendary Artistic Director of ACT, Carey Perloff is a beautifully rendered, thoughtful journey through the decades of the infamous Tosca Cafe.

Historically, Tosca has always been a safe, non-political refuge for artistes, dancers, avant-garde beat poets and seekers of la vie boheme. It is as if the filmy apparitions are called forth in this combination of theater and dance, sharing with the rapt audience many stories that span their 90 years of existence. The perfect replicated interior set complete with squeaky, double doors is wonderfully designed by Douglas Schmidt. The smoky interior immediately imparts the appropriate backdrop for each decade. The Bartender, played brilliantly by Jack Willis, provides a spine of sorts to the arc of the story. His unrequited love and deep sense of loss are key to moving the plot forward. As his torment becomes too great, the legendary Madame Armen Bali and eventually her daughter, Jeannette Etheredge take the helm of the cafe.

Relying heavily on the incredible talent of the top notch dancers Sabina Allemann, Lorena Feijoo, Pascal Molat all from the prestigious San Francisco Ballet along with Nol Simonse, Sara Hogreff, Kyle Shaeffer, Rachel Ticotin, Gregory Wallace and Peter Anderson Mr. Caniparoli touches on all the important historical and political upheaval by choreographing non-stop, stunning sections of stylized dance.

When Madame Bali was nightly holding court in her cafe, one always knew whether the Royal Ballet or American Ballet Theatre were in town performing. You were guaranteed to see Nureyev, Margot Fontaine, Barishnikov or Natalia Markarova being whisked in slipping past the velvet rope into true VIP fashion into the legendary "back room".

Eschewing a true narrative, from the opening Russian vignette of White Swan and Vaslav Nijinsky's, Afternoon of a Faun's, strong music choices are strung together from opera, to traditional jazz, from psychedelic and disco replacing scripted dialogue. A few stand outs are the heart wrenching pas de deux between the sailor (Molat) and his girlfriend (Feijoo), the cascade of dancing hippies through the swinging double doors, with a hard edged pas de deux again delivered brilliantly by Lorena. Another touching section was the homage to the very ill Rudolf Nureyev (Molat), who up to the end, was a very close personal friend to Madame Bali.

Another part of this collaboration that works so well is blending of the strongly-trained dancers who can also deliver as actors and the talented actors are able to join the dance ensemble seamlessly.

If you watch very carefully and suspend disbelief, your visit to the Tosca Project will provide a 90-minute, jammed packed look into the phenomenal comings and goings of the spirits that haunt their famous North Beach home...Tosca Cafe.

Photo: Kevin Burne

~ Marin Arts Magazine, July 2010