Views and Reviews

The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott



Photo by John McAfee

Artists from Atlanta's growing international community came together for an exciting, exotic evening of entertainment in Calo Theatre Company's production of Once Upon a Christmas in Olelucia, a dance/theater show presented at Horizons School during the first week of December 2012. The program reminds us that the company hails from Japan, South America, Central America, Eastern Europe and Iran, as well as from Atlanta. What a palette of colors, figures and faces exhibiting a mutual determination to meet the demands of duende in flamenco's fierce foot stamping, hand clapping, finger dancing drive to express the depths of desire!

The flowering of flamenco is identified with Spain, but its roots are in the gypsies' journey out of India, with stops in Egypt (hence the name gypsies), as well as movements north and south again in Europe before settlement in Spain, from which the travelers made a further diaspora into the Americas. It's refreshing to see that intensely Spanish art form given new and interesting cultural accents in Atlanta.

Calo Gitano Flamenco Academy was founded in 2000 by Marianela "Malita" Belloso-Pinto, born in Venezuela and a flamenco dancer from the age of six, together with Persian guitarist Farzan Kendrick. They were joined later by Malita's husband Kevin Wilson, also a singer and dancer. Farzan has since left the company for other projects, but not before this core trio established the only dance studio in Atlanta that focuses solely on flamenco and cultivated it over the past decade to create, by its ventures out of the academy location into multiple venues, a strong presence in the city.

Calo Gitano's energetic venture into theater began in 2011 with their production of Raices, a dance drama devoted to the journey of gypsies as they laid down roots (raices) and continued to transplant them in their movements around the world. This impressive debut was reviewed in The Grapevine (see below).

My own enthusiasm for the company's work comes from a strong feeling that Atlanta's identity as an international city feels real in these productions, not just because faces and voices reflect so much diversity but because the work is artful, professional, and full of unexpected delights. Perhaps the greatest surprise in this presentation is what feels like an artistic discovery of major importance in the comic talents of Kevin Wilson, whose virtuoso handling of the linchpin role of Don Faustino, Chamberlain to the royal household of Olelucia, weaves together not only the plot elements but the tonal coloring as well.

The concept and story were developed by Mary Beth Morrison, who also wrote the script and directed the actors, and Malita Belloso-Pinto, who choreographed the show. Both performed in the play: Mary Beth as Dona Isabella, the housekeeper, a saucy counterforce to Don Faustino, and Malita, who normally is the lead dancer in company productions, as one among many talented dancers in the ensemble. The collaborators took elements of folklore and wove them together in a tale set in the fictional Olelucia.

The plot is simple: it is Christmas Eve in Olelucia. We are at the palace of King Alfonso and Queen Alejandra. Under the direction of Don Faustino, the servants, including housekeeper Dona Isabella, are preparing to receive the royal court. Princess Adelina has slipped the confinement of the evening mass to stir up some mischief among the servants until her chaperone and governess Dona Petrona arrives and returns her to her quarters.

Soon the stage is flooded with people, including a comfortable King Alfonso, an elegant Queen Alejandra, a well-behaved (for the moment) Princess Adelina, and the ladies-in-waiting, accompanied by Dona Petrona, known among the servants as "the dragon." The royal couple announces that soon they will be receiving the French embassage on a diplomatic mission. High excitement!

Prince Celestin and his sister Princess Angelique arrive with their entourage. The sister acts as ambassador for her brother who has come to woo Princess Adelina but whose lusty eye can't focus on his intended bride. There are too many erotic distractions. The headstrong princess of Olelucia is not warmed by his ways.

The movement of the plot is accompanied by song and dance that engages everyone on stage again and again until noise outside the palace leads Don Faustino to discover at the gates a band of gypsies seeking shelter from a storm. The king takes a hard line and wants them turned away, but his rigidity is softened by the intercession of the more compassionate queen. Gypsies enter with "hearts full of wonder and souls deep with dreams." They liven up the palace by offering entertainment in exchange for food and drink and shelter.

The situation calls for lots of dancing and singing and merry making, furnished in extravagance by the musicians, singers, and dancers of the Calo Theatre Company in their roles as gypsies entertaining the court (and us) with tangos, sevillanas, tanguillos, fandangos, and bulerias. Most charming is the belly dance performed by a trio referred to as �the Moorish Entourage,� clad in low-slung harem pants. Much fun comes with Don Faustino�s reactions to the shimmying and shaking and trembling of lady flesh, which causes his chin to quiver in percussive attunement with one dancer�s belly while the audience quakes with laughter.

The presence of gypsies changes the musty-fusty, static quality of the royal household by giving license to adventure, a clearing of the air. Malita exercises her offstage teaching skills when she, as a gypsy, instructs one of the maids how to flirt with a fan (in a delightful dance called caracoles), giving credence to the idea that what you know may come in handy one day. In this case, it is in the next few minutes.

This particular maid catches the eye of the French prince who follows her to a rendezvous offstage that captivates him. He returns to the party and elevates that maid to the status of duchess so that she can become his wife. The prince seems genuinely to have fallen in love with the maid, played in earthy comic style by Maria Carolina Belloso-Wheeler, and his affection is touching, as if, reversing the order that usually comes to mind, the experience of having sex might indeed cause one (sometimes) to fall in love.

Woven into the motif of discovery is the gypsies' identification with the Anjanas, or "fairy folk from the north" whose mythology has associations with Christmas. They go about making love magic and pronouncements like this one about the prince: "We only showed him what was in his heart and helped him express it."

Dona Petrona, the "dragon" governess, whose ancestry is a mystery, turns out to be a gypsy/anjana herself, a discovery she makes as she is compelled by some inner force and by outer voices to enter into the dancing. Kim Christopher is convincing in both aspects of her role, as dragon lady and as the gypsy who discovers herself on this occasion.

The atmospheric change also results in Princess Adelina's winning from her parents their permission to marry the gypsy king, whose true identity turns out to be that of a northern European monarch, out in disguise, seeking a worthy mate: the princess, of course! King Alfonso loudly protests the insult of the French prince abandoning his daughter, but when he is cajoled nicely by the queen and the happily liberated princess, he finally tells his daughter, "I want you to be happy. You may wed as you choose."

Princess Adelina, in a vivid and appealing portrayal by Gloriela Rosas, chooses the imposter gypsy who has by now won her heart, and who turns out to be a real king. I might have been more taken by the script had he remained a gypsy, even if King Alphonso had raised his state, as he was about to do when it was explained that, no, the gypsy was already a king in disguise. Identifying him as an established monarch fits a certain kind of fairy tale motif of the peasant turning out to be a royal person, but it goes against the free-wheeling values of gypsy life. At this point, we don't much care, given the festive energies that make us feel buoyed by the show and the season.

I congratulate the co-directors on handling well one of the persistent questions of the world, "What does a woman want?" by furnishing the only satisfying answer, given so charmingly in another tale (from King Arthur's Court) called "The Loathly Lady," in which we learn that the answer to the question is, "She wants to have her own way." In this entertainment, Princess Adelina has her own way, and the audience is satisfied.

Kevin Wilson, as Don Faustino, recaps the play as he has introduced and managed it to the end, with quick wit and wonderfully expressive gestures of face and hands and figure. He commands the scenes (not so difficult, considering that his height is well above six feet), setting them up, ushering them along, and retreating to the back of the stage to do much of the singing, sometimes with Malita or the whole ensemble, accompanied by lively pianist Jose Garcia as well as percussionist (and music director) Jerry Fields, who paced this production in the energetic and harmonious way it required. The character of Don Faustino seems to have come right out of the Restoration period drama in England, bringing from the comedy of manners its characteristic wit, its hints and scents of aristocratic boudoirs, its sensual innuendos and rakish behavior. The overall tenor of Once Upon a Christmas in Olelucia, however, is more wholesome and generous in spirit. As I have intimated more than once, the surprise is how eagerly and skillfully Kevin Wilson lays claim to the role.

The host King Alfonso is played by Eugenio Beltran with an appropriate comic appeal, and Queen Alejandra is performed with royal aplomb by Pam Sharpe, who sings beautifully. Austin Thiery as Prince Celestin, Sara Wade as his sister Princess Angelique, and Claudio Campos as the gypsy king, are attractive and convincing . Kudos to them and to all the dancers I haven't mentioned who are lovely to look at, exciting to hear, energetic and inventive in their footwork, armwork, handwork, fingerwork, and bellywork, not to mention their smiles and flirts: Ashley Nichols, Rachel Gortwiz, Andi McAfee, Ikuko Wasaki, and Maki Hashimoto.

During the final scenes, I glance down the row to see one member of the audience, identified to me earlier as the mother of Malita Belloso-Pinto and Caro Belloso-Wheeler (the family name reminds us that offstage the two are sisters) , and behind her, Kevin Wilson's mother, both rapt with attention to the dancing, several times breaking into smiles, laughter and applause. It is heartwarming to have this moment of connection with the offstage lives of our Calo Gitano singers and dancers turned thespians.

At the end of the play, I turn to my sister Nancy and say, " I feel as if Christmas has come tonight." I can see in her starry eyes that she agrees with me. Personally, we wouldn't mind launching the Christmas season every year with this play and these performers. That's a hint to Malita and her cohorts to bring it back! Let it become, like the many theatrical variations of A Christmas Carol, a traditional part of the city's holiday ambiance, coming onto the Atlanta stage like a caravan, hearts full of wonder and souls deep with dreams, bearing Spanish flavors and spices from the Orient, showing us all what is in our hearts and helping us express it.


Other Grapevine articles related to flamenco and Calo Gitano:

The following photos are by Brett Stanley

Dona Isabella (Mary Beth Morrison) and Don Faustino (Kevin Wilson) making merry

Princess Adelina (Gloriela Rosas) dancing with Housekeeper (Mary Beth Morrison) and maids Rosita (Ashley Nichols), Dulce ((Cara Belloso-Wheeler), Margarita (Rachel Gorwitz)

Don Faustino surrounded by indignant housekeeping staff

Don Faustino, bested by the maids

The Moorish Entourage (Maria Carolina Belloso-Wheeler, Ashley Nichols, Mary Beth Morrison). Looking on: Princess Angelique (Sara Wade), King Alphonso (Eugenio Beltran), Queen Alejandra (Pam Sharpe), Princess Adelina (Gloriela Rosas), Dona Petrona (Kim Christopher).

Three Maids Dancing

Prince Celestin (Austin Thiery) and his sister Princess Angelique (Sara Wade)

Gypsy King (Claudio Campos) and Princess Angelina


Gypsy Nuri (Marianela "Malita" Belloso-Pinto)

Copyright 2012, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved