A festive celebration held in the Loggia Room at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara treated guests to an evening filled with glamor, fine cuisine and world-class dance performances at the “Tango on the Riviera” gala honoring Margo Cohen-Feinberg and benefiting the State Street Ballet.
It’s no secret that over the years the State Street Ballet has become synonymous for its thought-provoking and exciting productions that feature fascinating story lines and modern, edgy dance performances that enthrall and delight audiences around the globe, while staying true to classical training, style and traditions.
“State Street Ballet was founded in 1994 by Executive Director Rodney Gustafson, and unlike many troubled arts organizations in these tough times, Rodney has managed with the fabulous performances and reaching out to donors to be in the black for 17 years,” said Roger Thompson, board president for State Street Ballet. “But it’s tough, very tough, because we’re operating with zero staff, so there is nobody to answer the phones and return correspondences as fast as we would like. So we hope to raise a little bit more money so that we can build up a one-person staff to help us correspond better with the wonderful people in our community.”
This year’s highly anticipated fundraiser and tango theme was inspired by Feinberg’s love for tango, a dance that originated in Rio del la Plata in the mid-1800s.
The theme also served as a pleasant teaser for the upcoming world premiere of An American Tango written by Guy Veloz and choreographed by William Soleau, showing this Saturday and Sunday at the Lobero Theatre.
The festivities commenced at cocktail hour with an intimate but lively reception on the veranda shaded by palm trees and greenery near the Loggia Room. Women arrived in elegant attire with stylish dresses made of beaded sequins, lace and silk, and flowing chiffon gowns paired with decorative headbands, feather boas, furs and elegant wraps set off by string pearls and diamonds that graced their limbs. Distinguished gentlemen dressed in tuxedos put the “D” in dashing, and live music by Chris Fossek on Spanish guitar further enhanced the buoyant atmosphere.
Dinner was served on tables decorated with lush rose centerpieces smartly placed inside black stilettos with scented candles. At each table setting lay a single red rose for guests, many of whom were daring enough to place the rose between their teeth while dancing the tango fantasia.
Guests feasted on roasted fig and avocado butter lettuce salad with delectable grilled Argentina steak and pan-seared seabass, while a warm welcome was offered by emcees Jonatha King and Lance Jones of King Communications. Gustafson followed and graciously addressed the crowd, expressing his heartfelt thanks to vital sponsors and donors.
“Thanks to so many of you in our community that have allowed State Street Ballet to become a vibrant voice in dance, both here and as we act as a cultural ambassador for Santa Barbara during our numerous tours,” Gustafson said. “I believe that it takes a special set of circumstances, a collision of passions and inspired voices, to create the perfect storm that enables a company to grow and prosper.”
He went on to thank his colleagues, honored philanthropists and dance sponsors, whom he said have been paramount in fanning the flames of passion.
“Through their energy, philanthropy and inspiration, we have created the foundation for a legacy of dance that can join the ranks of the cultural icons of our community,” Gustafson said.
The house lights dimmed, signaling the lineup of entertainment that featured a special dance performance by the State Street Ballet dancers, choreographed by William Soleau, who told Noozhawk that the number was inspired by a flirty 1910 dance style created by Vernon and Irene Castle, called the Castle Rock.
“The dancers here are very eclectic. They can go from jazz to ballet to modern dance,” Soleau said. “It’s wonderful that they are classically trained, but they can handle a variety of styles. And when you are in a smaller company such as this, you are not just a number, you have to dance many different parts that affords them the opportunity to grow as an artist.”
Later, Margo Cohen-Feinberg, a native of Detroit, Mich.,, who has embodied the passion and spirit of dance for decades, bowed to an adoring audience as hearty cheers and whistles erupted around the room when she took over the floor and proclaimed that this would be her last public performance.
Fully composed under a spotlight and accompanied by four male State Street Ballet dancers, she kicked up her heels and performed a sizzling, hot-blooded tango dance that mesmerized the crowd of onlookers.
“I was brought up with dance,” Feinberg said. “My mother being a dancer enrolled me into dance classes when I was 3 years old. Eventually, after I married and became a nurse, I decided dance was my first love.”
At age 29, Feinberg auditioned for The Festival Dancers, a modern dance company in Detroit where she remained for 40 years and served as an assistant director. After she retired from her post at age 60, she joined the Detroit Opera House, where she worked tirelessly to bring classical ballet and modern dance productions to the theater before relocating to Santa Barbara and uniting with the State Street Ballet, which she proudly calls her “new family.”
In 2009, Feinberg was elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the State Street Ballet, and she continues to support the advancement of the professional grade performance company as a main performance sponsor, including An American Tango.
Feinberg’s efforts and dedication to the arts have reached beyond her contributions to the State Street Ballet. Over the years, she helped generate funds and sponsored the restoration of The Granada Theatre and the Music Academy of the West. She also assisted in bringing professional dance companies to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, and every season without fail allots scholarships to Santa Barbara Dance Alliance students.
“My love for dance has a long history,” Feinberg said. “Dance had been a part of my life and has added to the person that I am today. The need to give back and support the world of dance has always been, and will always be, my passion.”
Veloz, the writer of An American Tango, is the only remaining son of the famous ballroom dance couple Frank Veloz and Yolanda in which the true-life love story is based.
“The ballet begins in the late ‘20s, on the mean streets of Hells Kitchen on the Westside of Manhattan during the era of Prohibition, gang wars and gangsters touting Tommy guns,” Veloz said.
The Jazz Age, which played a significant part in the social, cultural and economic changes that occurred in urban cities in America during the era of the roaring 20s, serves as an historic backdrop for the rags to riches story narrated by a stage actor, “Augusto Genuardi Tuccio.” Frank Veloz’s best friend, “Auggie,” recounts the couple’s turbulent and passionate love affair on their quest to become the most famous ballroom dancers in the world, with performances in hotels and clubs from Havana to Miami, Beverly Hills and Hollywood movies — plus, recounting the cover of Life Magazine in 1939 and onto Broadway where Aggie introduces the cast of colorful characters, including Dutch Schultz, Walter Winchell, the Shubert Brothers and Florenz Ziegfeld.
While other dance companies rejected the narrative aspect of the ballet, Gustafson, known as an innovator for change by fusing classical dance with special effects and digital technology, stepped up to the challenge and embraced the opportunity to promote this multifaceted ballet.
“We just lucked out in that Rodney would listen to us, whereas everyone else said that there is no talking in ballet,” Volez said. “But, ballet these days is looking for a way to innovate and become more available to the general public.”
Over dessert and coffee, auctioneer Andrew Firestone rallied the crowd into friendly bidding wars over a private sightseeing flight over Santa Barbara with Tom Frisina and dinner for 10 by Seasons Catering, or a private performance featuring State Street Ballet dancers, which pulled impressive numbers. Signature ballet ponite shoes for the company dancers were also on the evening agenda. Firestone explained that it costs $2,500 per season to cover ballet slippers that are valued at $100 a pair, and one pair has a lifespan of only one week.
Leila Drake, a seven-year veteran with the State Street Ballet who will play the lead character Yolanda Velos in the show, said she is proud to be a dancer for such a unique dance company.
“State Street Ballet is such a wonderful place to grow as an artist,” she said. “It’s a small enough company where we get to dance a lot, but it’s big enough that we can put on full-length productions and tour them. We have a really good reputation on tour as well as in town. It’s a company of soloists where we all have are own unique style that we’re encouraged to explore. Our director, Rodney, has always encouraged us to have our own style and be your own distinct dancer and to be the best artist that we can be.”
As a tasteful blend of classical, jazz and rhythm and blues by Bent Myggen flowed over the room, guests and the State Street Ballet dancers filled the dance floor for the remainder of the evening. From the smiles on everyone’s faces swirling around in graceful movements, the future and legacy of the State Street Ballet looks very bright indeed.
— Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.