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Rhythm and swirls, a la Panama

August 18, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Foreign and domestic government representatives, international beauty queens and members of local cultural support organizations all headed for the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Friday to celebrate Panama's centennial. Honorary scrolls were distributed, lineups of honchos photographed and plans for annual Panama festivities announced.

However, the prevalent party atmosphere couldn't have existed without the charm and skill of the Ballet Folklorico Panameno de Elisa de Cespedes, a 34-year-old company that did everything possible to please the public except dig another canal.

Back home, the company's performances reportedly feature more live music than the 19-part Friday program offered -- a pity, since nothing made the audience happier than the six-member band's performance of "Al Tambor de la Alegria," not even a taped Panamanian version of the lilting "Banana Boat Song."

Among the dances, the favorite seemed to be "Diablitos Sucios," in which eight presumably male performers in fearsome, horned devil-masks (each different) and gorgeous red-and-black striped uniforms defined percussive rhythms with foot-stomps and castanets, interacting with a corps of women in white. Heaven and hell, female elegance and male vigor, white lace and red satin all intersected here, accompanied by mellow Panamanian guitars.

But whatever a Panamanian or Panamanian American might have thought of the program, this outsider found its organization problematical. Act 1 presented only the briefest glimpses of exciting, little-known African Panamanian traditions and the dances of Native American populations. Act 2, however, provided little more than an overextended display of skirt swirling, with the women dressed in elaborate, tiered gowns.

A single choreographic showpiece or suite exploring the different styles of skirt-swirling on view throughout Panama might have highlighted the differences in rhythm and attack that Cespedes spent an hour doggedly exploring in one number after another. Even when varied by the men's rapid shuffle-steps, this nonstop parade of frilly drapery hurled side-to-side or back-to-front soon became a blur if not a bore.

The program also lacked any evocation of contemporary Panama, except, perhaps, in the glitzy Carnival finale. The dancers, however, proved unfailingly versatile and spirited. Moreover, 12 dancers from the Viva Panama organization (hosts of the event) added their own take on national traditions at the end of each act.

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