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Buglisi Dance Theatre previews new work at Palladium in St. Petersburg

Martha Graham's choreographic language — based on the contraction and release of muscles — was pioneering, but audiences have seen less and less of it since the mother of modern dance died in 1991. So dance fans are looking forward to this week's performance by Buglisi Dance Theatre at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.

Jacqulyn Buglisi had a 20-year association with the Martha Graham Dance Company as a performer and teacher. Since the legendary choreographer's death, Buglisi has been one of the keepers of her flame, hewing to the Graham style with her own New York-based company.

"I learned a lot from watching Martha's staging,'' Buglisi says. "The theatricality of lighting, costumes, the way we move. There is a very strong physical, visceral technique that Martha used to express man's inner landscape. We delve into the vulnerability, the fragility and the rarefied beauty that exists within man that he is so terrified of.''

Thursday's program features Letters of Love on Ripped Paper, a new dance by Buglisi that is to be premiered by the company in New York on Feb. 15. "So our performance in St. Pete will be a sneak preview,'' says Buglisi, who based the work on love letters ranging from those of a Civil War soldier to the correspondence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The company will also perform Buglisi's ballet to the Faure Requiem.

The Buglisi company's time in the bay area, which also includes classes and a performance Friday for schoolchildren as part of the Class Acts program at Mahaffey Theater, owes much to the organizational and promotional efforts of dancer Helen Hansen, a St. Petersburg native and member of the company since 2001. Unfortunately, she is recovering from knee surgery for a dance injury in October and will be limited in her performance.

"It's bittersweet for the company to be in my hometown and I'm on the sidelines,'' Hansen says. "But life isn't always the way you want it to be.''

Buglisi Dance Theatre performs at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Palladium, 254 Fifth Ave. N. $25, $35. (727) 822-3590; mypalladium.org.

Return to 'Wonderland'

I went to Wonderland again last weekend to see the show one more time at the Straz Center in Tampa before it headed to Broadway. It has been fascinating to follow the Frank Wildhorn musical during various stages of its development over the past two years or so, and to see how much it has changed as the creators struggle to bring some measure of narrative sense to the Lewis Carroll fantasy, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. As the old adage goes, musicals aren't written; they're rewritten. A few observations:

• Ultimately, the show will rise or fall on the performance of Janet Dacal as Alice, and that is not a bad gamble. She is a charismatic, unorthodox Alice who is a marvelous dancer, and her singing was notably stronger this time around in big ballads like Once More I Can See and Finding Wonderland.

• The addition of 11-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar as Chloe, Alice's daughter, improves the show immensely. Now the mother-daughter relationship has real depth, and Sonenclar is a charmer.

• I also like the recasting of Kate Shindle as the Mad Hatter. Physically, Shindle's imposing presence is a sinister counterpoint to the warmth of Dacal's Alice, even though the Hatter continues to be a problematic character. Has anyone else noticed the similarity — in mood at least — of her new second-act number, the hard-driving I Will Prevail, to the chase-scene finale of The Phantom of the Opera?

• I don't know if the book by director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy can be salvaged. The problems simply run too deep, and the latest rewrite has lost some humor from earlier incarnations. In many ways, Wildhorn's score is a series of killer pop songs — Go With the Flow, the salsa number with Dacal and Jose Llana as El Gato; Karen Mason's vaudevillian Queen of Hearts in Off With Their Heads; Darren Ritchie, who plays Jack, Alice's husband, as well as his Wonderland doppelganger, the White Knight, and his four backup singers in the boy-band inspired One Knight; Shindle's entrance number, The Mad Hatter; and more. So I think further revisions should play to this strength and not dwell much on laborious exposition between musical numbers. Coherence is never going to be Wonderland's strong suit.

I'm not sure how much can be changed for the New York production. The flashy, high-tech set and video projection design probably aren't terribly flexible, putting limitations on the shape of the story. Yet I imagine that if, say, Wildhorn comes up with a new song that helps to define Alice's personal journey better, it'll be worked in, and the book will undoubtedly be tweaked right up until the Broadway opening.

Wonderland begins preview performances March 21 at New York's Marquis Theatre and then opens April 17. For more, go to wonderlandonbroadway.com.

The ties that bind

Linda Eder, the ex-wife of Wildhorn, has a song from Wonderland on her forthcoming album, Now. Eder's brassy rendition of The Mad Hatter is terrific, which only makes sense, because she is, in many ways, the stylistic prototype for the character. The Hatter has a similar musical function in the Wonderland score to Lucy, the role in Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde that Eder originated. Wildhorn produced the recording, to be released March 1, for Sony Masterworks.

Eder performs at 7:30 p,m. Saturday at the Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater. $49.50, $70. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerdhall.com

Ageless pianist

My favorite soon-to-be-94-year-old pianist, Gilbert Fischer (his birthday is Jan. 31), is playing a free recital of Rachmaninoff, Mozart and Chopin at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Music Gallery, 5990 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater.

Fischer, a retired university professor, gives annual performances, and is especially looking forward to taking on the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 1, which he considers one of the finest works for piano of the 20th century.

"Can an old dog learn new tricks?'' he wrote to me recently. "We will find out since this will be my first performance of the Rachmaninoff and my first acquaintance with it. The work is both long and complex, so memory is not to be taken for granted, but that is what we will test.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

Buglisi Dance Theatre previews new work at Palladium in St. Petersburg 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 3:30am]

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