Thursday, March 31, 2022

Ambitious 'Once Upon a Time Called Now’ Inflames, Then Overwhelms the Senses

Russell Hall, Roxanne King, Michela Marino Lerman, Orlando Hernández and Alfonso Horne making merry. Photo by Kevin Lau.

BY MARI S. GOLD

“ONCE Upon a Time Called Now”
is a kaleidoscope of tap dance, live jazz, creative lighting, dazzling costumes and just plain hoofing to intricate rhythms set against a spoken narration.

The work, at the Joyce Theater through 3 April, opens on a background aglow with apricot-colored lights illuminating the silhouettes of musicians and empty peacock chairs. It’s Mardi Gras, evidenced by twirling parasols and bodies – sad and joyous – in semi-single file as they weave through the imagined streets of New Orleans.

Renowned dancer Michela Marino Lerman is at the center wearing a suit ablaze with sequins. Not that of a bullfighter, but with the sparkle that befits the winner of the 2019 Hoofer Award (See video below of Lerman&Co. in action). She is also a bandleader, educator, director and all-around creative wonder behind this 90-minute entertainment set in the spirit world.

Love Moment, the band led by Lerman, plays a tight blend of original music. The mostly jazz and spiritual numbers combine with energetic arms and legs tapping one- and two-footed movements to impart a sense of community to every moment. In “Once Upon a Time Called Now,” Lerman casts herself as Kahina and invites the audience to accompany her on a journey back from the afterlife on a quest to achieve self-love, acceptance and enlightenment. Music, dancing and projections are set against a recorded narrative by writer/actress Anna Deavere Smith.

Kahina’s journey of self-discovery begins with revisiting her ancestors in ancient Egypt. There, she searches for her ba, a major aspect of the soul that can appear in bird form expressing the soul’s mobility even after death. As she works to rid herself of negative character traits like materialism and ego, Kahina recalls Orpheus whose instructions during his descent into the underworld were “don’t look back.”

These ideas, developed as Kahina’s internal monologue, are implicated in Deavere Smith’s poetic narrations. Thankfully, they move the ideas forward because these notions of Kahina are sometimes hard to follow. The narrations are also often enmeshed with self-help truisms along the lines of “find your center.” These unfortunately distract, rather than enhance the power of those brightly beating feet.

The dancing, comprising solos and group movements, is interspersed with the narrative as feet stamp out intricate rhythms. The tapping is vigorous, demanding and often flashes brilliantly, but the overall effect grows somewhat repetitive as do the steps. Sometimes, there is almost too much to take in as the mind tries to follow the narrative while the eye – and heart – is drawn to the dancing, music and onstage energy.

“Once Upon a Time Called Now,” blends internal self-seeking and a quiet, meditative state with great tapping, demonstrating the physical control evident in every step of the dancers. The costumes by Angela M. Fludd are free-flowing and designed to embrace every body type in keeping with the underlying theme of self-acceptance. Also, they have the added benefit of enhancing the exuberance of each dancer’s performance.

Michela Marino Lerman (center), surrounded by collaborators (from left) Russell Hall, Roxanne King, Orlando Hernández and Alfonso Horne. Photo by Martina DaSilva.

Meanwhile, the band and vocals add another layer of sensory satisfaction to “Once Upon a Time Called Now.” Yet as thrilling as it often is, the unceasing volume of the music grows hard to listen to as the evening wends on, making this writer wish for a brief change of decibel level.

This production is a sweeping, immersive experience with dazzling dance moves. And Lerman is a genuinely creative spirit both as dancer and leader, but she might be better served with less complex surroundings and greater concentration on what she and her talented troupe do best, minus the mumbo- jumbo.

Visit https://www.joyce.org/performances/michela-marino-lerman to learn more about "Once Upon a Time Called Now."

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