Fandango: A Skeptic’s Review
Published Apr 3, 2013 - (Updated Aug 29, 2013)
Fandango, the original musical/dance tribute to Mexico’s native and folkloric traditions created by the production company behind Teatro Vallarta, is back home, after years of touring, triumph, and turmoil. Is it worth the admission price? Managing Editor Paco Ojeda provides the answer!
It was back on February 24, 2010 that we reported on Teatro Vallarta’s first invitation to local members of the press to enter the completely-renovated venue, only days prior to its official inauguration by local and state authorities. If you are in a hurry to discover whether Fandango is an activity you should pursue during your vacation in Puerto Vallarta, or not, feel free to skip a few paragraphs. If, on the other hand, you’d like to learn about the history behind the show, the theater, the venue owners’ lofty plans and their ensuing reality wake-up call, feel free to continue reading this very informal account.
We’re Here (Get used to it!)
It is difficult to imagine a city the size of Puerto Vallarta not having at least one large theater or performance venue suitable for plays, concerts and musical theater performances. But such was the case only three years ago, prior to the highly-anticipated opening of Teatro Vallarta, a massive project that involved the rescue of an old downtown movie theater that had long since been abandoned, and its subsequent rehabilitation as a modern performance space. The project was undertaken by Grupo Plexon, a Guadalajara-based production company, specialized in “expo” type events commonly held at convention centers and/or banquet rooms in hotels—weddings and such.
As the property was being remodeled, word began spreading of a new, Cirque du Soleil-ish production called Fandango, which would be home-based at the theater. This was confirmed during initial press conferences, when Producer and Teatro Vallarta General Director, Manuel Díaz, announced that the 960-seat theater would be home to Fandango, “an expression of a modern Mexico” involving 30 dancers onstage, a 15-piece orchestra, and several dozen crew, including choreographers, costume designers, and stage managers. Theater remodeling aside, the creation of Fandango was estimated at $120 million MX, involving a creative team of 132 people that conceived the show from sketchbook to stage. “And when the show tours outside of Mexico, we hope it will be compared to shows like Cirque du Soleil,” said Díaz.
Unfortunately, that is not the only thing he said.
Not For Locals?
The official inauguration of Teatro Vallarta, and the very first performance of Fandango—for special guests only—took place March 6, 2010. Shortly before that, during the theater’s initial press conferences, ticket prices had been announced at approximately $100 and $80 USD per person. When reporters inquired about special prices for locals, Teatro Vallarta representatives pretty much dismissed the question (and locals!), by stating that Fandango was not a show for them, and that tourists—particularly those for whom English is their native language—would fill the theater to capacity several nights a week, to enjoy Fandango.
This notion was naive, to say the least. After all, unless you were too busy to notice—perhaps putting together an elaborate musical production of sorts—the economic turmoil that affects the world to this day, was already well underway at the time. Everywhere. So the idea that, say, a family of five—mom and dad, plus three kids—visiting Puerto Vallarta from north of the border and staying at a local hotel, would choose to fork over $500 USD to enjoy a musical show in Mexico that nobody had heard of, when they could pay the same amount of money back home (or less) to enjoy the touring company of a Broadway show, or even the real Cirque du Soleil, made sense to... nobody. Or perhaps only a few.
And as far as the local snowbird community, it was, after all, March, and many of them—as they always do—were already packing their bags to return home north of the border after another winter/spring season in Puerto Vallarta, a crucial oversight by Fandango producers, who might have seen a different outcome had they waited until the following Fall to launch their ambitious project.
Given the not-so-subtle dismissal of locals, who had eagerly anticipated the opening of the new venue just as much as anybody else, the local press had a field day with the statements made by Teatro Vallarta representatives, and pretty much panned Fandango even before it opened to the public. And when it did, and the masses got their first glimpses at the costume designs—either at the performances themselves, or as the cast repeatedly sauntered up and down the Malecón in full regalia to entice ticket buyers—things seemed to shift from bad to worse by the day.
The Public’s Reception
Charros with tight pants that were open on the sides to reveal bare skin; shirts unbuttoned, tied around the waist; ladies with ruffled mini-skirts and sculptural legs, exposed torsos and tiny blouses supporting—or perking up—their breasts. This was all part of the “modern Mexico” vision behind Fandango: bold, sexy, skimpy. Not at all traditional. But when you launch such a production in the most conservative state of Mexico, paying tribute to the charro, arguably the most traditional (and masculine) of all Mexican icons, conservatives are bound to frown. And frown they did. It is possible that foreign visitors that didn’t mind the ticket prices and didn’t know the difference between authentic and “modern” enjoyed Fandango. But biased by the—mostly local—concierges at the hotels where they stayed, and public opinion, not to mention the much less expensive Mexican fiestas that take place in several local hotels, several nights a week on an ongoing basis, tourists simply stopped attending Fandango.
And just as they did, the ill-fated production was progressively forced to cut corners in order to make ends meet, gradually decreasing ticket prices to no avail, and stranding a considerable number of dancers, musicians and other professionals who had left steady jobs and homes in other cities to join Fandango. Some were able to find employment in local dance troupes or as part of the entertainment of the many five-star hotels in Banderas Bay that retain their own talent. Others were not so fortunate. Eventually, Fandango simply vanished, or at least it did so, locally.
While You Were Sleeping
Devoid of its golden egg goose, Teatro Vallarta set out to learn as much as possible about successful programming and scheduling of acts and entertainment that might interest the local public. This is not an easy task, considering the audience diversity in age, origin, and demographics, and expectations, not to mention its annual fluctuation. Puerto Vallarta is a tricky town. There are English-speaking expats and tourists from the US and Canada, and there are Mexican nationals that have lived here for generations. There are sophisticated audiences that can appreciate a Gramophone Award-winning touring violinist, and those that will inevitably be wowed by another one, bragging about his very own Stradivarius—regardless of whether he can play it well or not. And then there are those who don’t know if they are supposed to own, ride, eat, book a room at, or listen to one—Stradivarius, that is. But all are equally deserving of suitable entertainment at the theater, and most can actually afford it.
Through trial and error—not to mention a successful association with OCESA/Ticketmaster Mexico, the country’s powerful talent and ticketing conglomerate—Teatro Vallarta has spent the past two years progressively gaining (or, in some cases, re-gaining) the public’s trust, reporting full-house attendance to some of its performances. Meanwhile, Fandango underwent a much-needed overhaul, touring through several cities in Mexico, and garnering a nomination to the prestigious Lunas del Auditorio award in 2011 and 2012. The award is bestowed annually by Mexico City’s Auditorio Nacional, one of the country’s most important performance venues. (It is the Auditorio Nacional, that controls the licensing throughout Mexico for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series, now successfully screened at Teatro Vallarta.)
Teatro Vallarta’s general manager, Salvador Luna, an accountant by trade and an accomplished dancer himself—not to mention an original Fandango cast member—was charged with auditioning, assembling, rehearsing and polishing a local cast for a new production of the show. This is the version of Fandango that I enjoyed last week. Given the challenge, tools and resources at hand, Luna did an outstanding job!
As described by its website, www.fandango.mx, Fandango is a Mexican show that combines dance, music and theater to showcase the warmth, color and magic of our culture. The show is performed in two acts during which a group of dancers and musicians perform a history of Mexico’s folklore, beginning with Pre-Hispanic dances and progressing through the country’s rich and varied repertoire, all of which would require at least a dozen Fandangos to capture and enjoy. The production relies on a cast of 35 dancers and musicians, along with video projections and additional, pre-recorded music.
While not faithful to authentic choreographies, costumes and musical arrangements, Fandango is an enjoyable metaphor for some of Mexico’s most emblematic folkloric dance numbers and periods. Those in the know will quickly recognize the difference between the real deal and Fandango, and will either accept it or not. And those not familiar with our heritage, will truly appreciate this quick immersion to it.
Most notable is the production’s tribute to our own state, Jalisco, and its iconic charro, or horseman. And while many will associate the elaborate “tap” routines with Riverdance, Michael Flatley’s Irish dancing phenomenon, they will be equally surprised to learn that zapateado, or shoe tapping, is very much a Mexican tradition as well, particularly in Jalisco and Veracruz. There are several solo and small ensemble numbers that allow for the rest of the company to switch costumes, and a spectacular Mariachi band with a member skillfully performing traditional lasso rope dances, something that will impress many not familiar with them. Truly exciting!
To keep things interesting, performers enter and exit the stage from the audience on occasion, and the grand finale features a fireworks display that will leave you clapping—and somewhat coughing—for more.
Room for Improvement
While Fandango tells an interesting story about the history of folk dance and tradition in Mexico, it could do much more to help audiences make connections with it along the 105-minute journey. At the very least, a show program with brief explanations of each number—in English and Spanish, of course—would have made a big difference. For example, one of my favorite numbers subtly shifted from a rhythmic afro-cuban dance and beat to an undeniably Mexican one, paying tribute to the many cultural influences that the Caribbean has had upon our country. But this might easily go unnoticed by anyone not familiar with Mexico’s history. A show program would have made all the difference there. Examples such as this one abound.
The excessive use of smoke machines throughout the production left me wondering what was the point of the cast perfecting their complex zapateado dance routines if we couldn’t even see their shoes clearly most of the time. There is something to be said for evoking a mystic mood with some smoke onstage—some being the operative word here—but, like salt in your food, too much of it spoils the dish. Conversely, if smoke is a must, a better, more sophisticated use of the robotic lights throughout the show is in order, one that flows with the choreography more seamlessly.
There is one element of Fandango that could fail entirely throughout a given performance and you wouldn’t even notice: the video projections. The choice of showing new age-ish clouds moving in slow motion, palm trees that could have been videotaped anywhere in the world processed with unnatural colors and other antics, did not serve the story or the dance numbers in any way I could perceive. Projecting the dance number names, or Mexican folk terminology, or even some of Jorge Enciso’s beautiful graphic motifs of ancient Mexico would have been much more effective at creating an authentic, Mexican mood throughout the performance.
As a work-in-progress, Fandango “version two” has certainly come a long way, alongside Teatro Vallarta and their ambitious plans from three years ago when they first opened to the public. Today, with more humble, grounded goals, Teatro Vallarta has become an indispensable institution, and one we should all be grateful for, despite some of their initial choices. Puerto Vallarta has become a better destination for having a theater capable of hosting more sophisticated performances, thus increasing the appeal of spending vacation time here.
During intermission I exchanged opinions with several members of the audience, from folks traveling from other parts of Mexico, to foreigners. We all agreed that Fandango is definitely a worthwhile experience, one that many foreign visitors looking to better appreciate Mexico and its culture should definitely consider while visiting Puerto Vallarta. And as local director Salvador Luna continues to fine tune his cast and ensemble, not to mention all the aforementioned production elements, I look forward to a return viewing sometime in the future.