Thursday, November 28, 2013

SPOTLIGHT: Guillermo Figueroa, Artistic Director of the Figueroa Music & Art Project

There are many tales of reinvention in theatre, and Guillermo Figueroa's approach to his artistic career has centered around taking chances and embracing the changes that a career in the arts can encompass. Raised in a family of music lovers, the violin was placed in his hands at the age of  five, and the instrument became the catalyst to his lifelong pursuit and love of music.

As a third generation musician in his family, Figueroa's musical studies began with his father and uncle at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico and continued later at Julliard, here in the United States. A renowned violinist, he went on to perform with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York City, and many more companies as a guest musician. Figueroa was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet for a decade, performing with the ballet company, and even collaborated with ballet master Peter Martins to have a piece made with him onstage, playing the violin, alongside a piano, and two dancers performing.

His inspirational approach to music has brought forth more than dance pieces, but four concertos with orchestra written for him, which Figueroa performed the world premieres of, and many smaller works which have been composed for him also. After playing a Berlioz opera in Carnegie Hall, Figueroa became fanatical for the composer's work, confessing he absorbs as much of Berlioz's music as possible in his off hours, and even went so far as to organize a Berlioz Festival, commemorating the 2003 bicentennial of the birth of the composer here in Albuquerque, featuring lecturers, poets, painters and, of course, musicians, to commemorate the event.

His work as a conductor and guest conductor have allowed him to collaborate with some amazing artists, such as Itzhak Perlman, YoYo Ma, and Placido Domingo, to name only a few. Collaborating with Ernesto Cordero once again, Figueroa recorded Cordero's concertos for the Naxos label, earning him a Latin Grammy nomination in 2012. When asked how these profound experiences affect his own art, Figueroa insists that by finding ways to combine artists and their various artistic expressions, whether by graphic arts, music, or dance, the audience benefits the most.

Never one to slow down, Figueroa worked as the music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony while also acting as the conductor and music director at our own New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, starting in 2002. When the Symphony folded, Figueroa couldn't see letting the momentum go here in New Mexico, and so began the Figueroa Music and Arts Project. Created with the vision of combining music with other art forms, (a forte of his) and bringing excellence in performance quality and artistic focus, the Figueroa Project collaborates regularly with other New Mexico artists and companies to bring performances of the highest caliber for audiences to enjoy.

Click above to watch Guillermo Figueroa perform Insula, written for him by Ernesto Cordero

His Diaghilev-like approach has encouraged many in our New Mexico arts community to collaborate and with such masterful combinations onstage, the audience is the true winner. It was just such a collaboration that first brought him here in 2000, when Patricia Dickinson Wells, currently the artistic director of Festival Ballet Albuquerque, asked Figueroa to conduct "The Nutcracker," setting off the chain of events which culminated in his offer to become music director at the New Mexico Symphony.

Figueroa and Dickinson Wells never stopped their artistic collaboration, with one concert recently concluded ("The Firebird and Tchaikovsky") and another gala event to come. "New Years Eve in Vienna," modeled after the well known Vienna Philharmonic concert broadcasts, feature a lighter fare of music as well as some Hungarian dance pieces, giving the audience their own taste of Vienna. Featuring the dancers of Festival Ballet Albuquerque, the event takes place on December 31st at the National Hispanic Cultural Center at 8 pm. For a additional price, those wishing to make an evening of the concert are invited to stay afterward for the catered reception to raise a glass.

Looking towards the rest of the 2013-14 season, Figueroa is excited about even more unique combinations of art forms that are in the works. In February, collaborating with the St. Johns Church in downtown Albuquerque, as well as the chorus of St. Johns, an all Baroque program will be presented. And in April, the Figueroa Project will perform a chamber-oriented program, "German masters and the Holocaust, a Theatrical Remembrance." Featuring music of Schubert and Mozart for the first half of the program, the second half will be Marc Neikrug's "Through Roses," featuring the actor John Rubinstein (son of acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein) alongside the music, during a reminiscence of a holocaust camp.

Knowing resources should be shared, and fostering collaborative efforts among the companies in order to achieve a new and higher expression of art, is what makes Figueroa such a uniquely talented musician and artist. For tickets to the gala, their future concerts, and more information about Guillermo Figueroa and the Figueroa Music and Arts Project, check out their website at

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Spring Awakening by UNM Dept Theatre & Dance

"Spring Awakening" is one of those musicals with a cult-like following, audience members ask each other, "Is this your first "Spring"?" Well, this was my first "Spring," and with a controversial reputation preceding it, I had high expectations of this first experience without knowing exactly what it would be like. And, like so many firsts, it was beautiful, scary, ugly and tender all at once, thanks to the pool of talent currently producing work at the University of New Mexico's Theatre and Dance department.

Photo by Pat Berrett
Set in a provincial German town in 1891, it may at first seem difficult to understand why this musical is so massively popular, especially with younger performers and audiences. But with universal themes of rebellion, insecurity, curiosity, burgeoning love, rejection and questioning faith comes the answer; it's a story about being young and yearning to know everything while still searching for your own identity. The tragedy of this tale, we find, does not lie with the youths who question so much of their world's faith, its gender roles and, most particularly, its unwillingness to discuss sexuality. The tragedy is the unwillingness of the leaders, parental, scholastic and spiritual alike, to speak the truth to their youth and empower them to make enlightened decisions.

Photo by Pat Berrett
Stafford Douglas plays Melchior, the forward thinking rebel who's cocky, yet yearning for love. Wendla, the inquisitive young woman who plays opposite Melchior, is tender-hearted, although conflicted between the expectations others have of her. Dramatically, Andee Schray finds Wendla's varying emotions, and has an exquisite voice to bring to the role, with inflections that reminded me of Sarah Mclachlan at times, both haunting and beautiful. Douglas tells the arch of Melchior's tale by showing us the emotional transformation that circumstances put him through, finding the distinction between Melchior's arrogance and, later, his humility. Knowing that love and heartache in their world are inevitably intertwined, their chemistry-filled duet's lyrics remind us, "You're gonna be wounded / You're gonna be my wound / I'm gonna bruise you / You're going to be my bruise."

Photo by Pat Berrett
Around these two lovers we meet others who give voice to their own repression. In Moritz, Cory Meehan gives a touchingly honest approach to the parental rejection and perceived failure he believes himself to be. Never giving in to the pathos, Meehan makes acting choices, such a tender smile in some of the most humiliating of moments onstage, that give his character frightening depth and realism. Equally moving was "The Dark I Know Well," primarily Martha's song, played by Alexandra Uranga, in her embarrassing long sleeves and overly tight braid (examples of how the costuming extends each character's story, as seen through designer Erik Flores' eyes). There is an emotional void you see in children who have lived through grievous parental abuse, and Uranga finds this atmosphere without once slipping into something maudlin. Quite simply, the moment moved me to tears.

Photo by Pat Berrett
With a score whose sound is part modern, with electric guitar and bass, and part antiquated, with violin and viola, the music underscores the parallels between a repressive time long gone by, and the restrictions we continue to face today. As a tale that is quickly reaching modern audiences, director Kathleen Clawson cast this ensemble tightly, and they function together neatly within the whole of the story. Never to be overlooked, the show featured live music, complementing the cast's strong vocals, led by music director Paul Roth, weaving their vocal talents with the strings' melodies and creating this musical's unique and often haunting sound.

For more about the UNM Theatre & Dance Department, their performances at Rodey Hall and other venues, you can visit their website at , or call their office at 505-277-4332.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Boeing Boeing at the Aux Dog Theatre

Gather round, children, while Alissa tells you a tale of what air travel used to be. There were no TSA agents and you kept your shoes on, because flying was a glamorous activity and the stewardesses whose job it was to keep you comfortable while in the air were the sex symbols of their time. Synonymous with feminine appeal, a single stewardess was considered a coup for a man, so imagine having three? Boeing Boeing, a comedy of errors currently playing at the Aux Dog Theatre, gives us a glimpse into one man's fantasy life, setting this precarious situation comedy up so we can watch things as they inevitably fall apart. With each fiancee from a different country, working for a different airline and always in motion, Bernard believes he really can have it all (with a little extra help from his maid, Berthe), as long as his life runs as smoothly as the aviation time tables that he relies upon.

But of course, it's a French farce so the three fiancees converge upon their mutual Paris flat, disrupting the coordinated life of Bernard, played by Brennan Foster, and making room for his friend Robert to observe, and later interact with, Bernard's female complications. Foster's comic presence is often understated, and more believable because of the restraint, lending the broader strokes in this slapstick comedy an understated sense of credulity.

Directed by Victoria Liberatori, Aux Dog's Artistic Director, the giggles turn into guffaws as we witness Bernard struggle to manage the women in his life, but equally interesting are the individual personas of his fiancees. Gloria, his American fiancee working for TWA, is played by Sheridan Johnson as the bubbly personality whose enthusiasm for Bernard, her lover in France, is as exotic to her tastes as the flavors of the foods she eats.

Gabriella, the Air Italia stewardess played by Merritt Glover, is luscious and temperamental, and ultimately the one who compels Bernard the most. Finding a balance between her vocal inflections and her physicality, Glover gives us plenty of sauce to Gabriella's gravy.

His third fiancee is Gretchen (played by Jessica Osbourne), from Germany's Air Lufthansa, who is conflicted between her love for Bernard and her burgeoning attraction for his friend Robert, played by Matt Pruett. Fearless in her approach to Gretchen's conflicted decisions and her extreme, German emotionalism, Osbourne finds a variety of emotional levels and dimensions to her character, making the twists of her character's fate more believable as well.

The only woman Bernard isn't sleeping with (that we know of) is Berthe, his "domestic servant," played by Angela Littleton. Well aware of her employer's shenanigans, Littleton's Berthe is the reluctant accomplice with an arsenal of verbal barbs that she handles as gracefully as she does his antics. As Bernard's friend Robert, Pruett brings out his character's transformation, taking him from a wide eyed, Wisconsin innocent into a more worldly and sophisticated man, such as his continental friend, all while learning how to manage the expectations of a woman. Pruett's facial expressions and comic delivery are reminiscent of Jim Carrey at times, with a commitment to the physical humor that requires a touch of inner daredevil.

If you're ready for your boarding pass, book your trip by getting tickets at their website or by calling their box office at 505.254.7716 and climb aboard their flight full of frivolous fun.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Firebird & Tchaikovsky, by Festival Ballet Albuquerque and Figueroa Music & Arts Project

A dynamic partnership can bring new life to art, most certainly. And, when the Figueroa Music & Arts Project teamed with Festival Ballet Albuquerque to present their joint venture, "The Firebird & Tchaikovsky," new life was given to a beautiful company duet composed of so many talented local artists.

Figeuroa Project director Guillermo Figueroa spoke directly to the audience throughout the show, sharing his knowledge while introducing each piece. The first half of the program, presented at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, began with Insula Tropical, a series of pieces for violin and strings based off Caribbean folk music and written by Ernesto Cordero. Next on the program was the classic Serenade for Strings by Piotr Tchaikovsky, and featuring the first five minutes of George Balanchine's iconic Serenade choreography (the first ballet to be choreographed on American soil), danced by the members of Patricia Dickinson Wells' Festival Ballet Albuquerque.

Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird" comprised the second half of the program, based on the Russian folk tale about a prince who is captivated by the magical creature, only to release her with her promise symbolized in the red feather she leaves behind to keep. Dancing the lead role, Natalee Maxwell brought her technical proficiency to the character while continually developing the mystic character's story line. Breath taking in her extensions and lines, the fluidity of her port de bras juxtaposed by the angular positions of her hands, as well as Maxwell's choice to give the Firebird quirky, bird-like movements, clearly set her apart from all of the humans onstage during this tale.

Featuring the choreography of Patricia Dickinson Wells, the purity of the original choreography by Fokine was honored in many of her choices, not the least of which is to keep the traditional pantomime sections in. Although antiquated audiences "read" these moves with ease, modern audience members such as myself still look for these classic moments, which I was happy to see included. However, shades of Balanchine's 1945 version of "The Firebird" could also be discerned by the balletomanes, making Dickinson's vision both classic and modern, yet uniquely an expression of her own.

As the prince Ivan, Dominic Guerra has the duty of partnering both the Firebird as well as the Princess, danced by Ludmila Malakhov, who is the Prince's object of love and desire. Though physically demanding, the work to create these moments of sustained airiness in each of the pas de deuxs never showed as the soloists aptly held up to the demands of the technique, allowing the storytelling to shine through. Guerra's smooth transitions and moments of discovery betray the artistic approach he takes to his dancing, allowing his mastery of technique to sustain him throughout. Malakhov's ability to bring the innocence, and yet the passion to fight and defend the prince and her subjects from the evil in their land, comes through in the choices she gave to her character. An artist as well, she tells tales in her smaller, subtler movements as easily as the large ones.

Juxtaposed against Dickinson Wells' classical ballet moments such as the pas de deuxs are the awkward shapes and angular movements of the gargoyles' dance, the minions of the evil King Katschei who keeps the Princesses under his spell until the Firebird intervenes. Louis Giannini gave himself fully to the villain's role, playing his character part with enthusiastic wickedness.

Coming up next for Festival Ballet Albuquerque is their "Nutcracker In the Land of Enchantment," also playing at the National Hispanic Cultural Center from December 20-22, and for those who wish to partake in the dynamic duo of FBA and the Figueroa Project, don't miss their next collaboration, a gala event titled, "New Year's Eve in Vienna," taking place on December 31 (naturally), also at the same venue. For more information about their company, visit their website at to buy tickets or learn more about their company and classes.

Additional information about Guillermo Figueroa and the Figueroa Music & Arts Project can be found at