Tosca Café more than just coffee

Play examines important role of San Francisco shop

Rex Harrington’s voice is thick with sleep as he recalls how he — one of the most recognizable ballet dancers in Canada an officer of the Order of Canada who has his own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame — ended up here in Calgary starring in Tosca Café .

When he received an e-mail from Theatre Calgary inviting him to appear in the season opener he jumped at the opportunity to work with co-creator Val Caniparoli and dance captain Sabina Alleman — and watching the DVD didn’t hurt.

“I saw it and I loved it and I wanted to be a part of it” he says.

Like so many successful people Harrington’s plate is overflowing. He squeezed in time to appear in Tosca Café alongside his main gig as artist-in-residence with the National Ballet of Canada and his frequent stints as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance Canada . In fact he’s flying back to Toronto for the television show’s finale in-between a slate of interviews and Tosca’s opening.

Theatre Calgary calls the show a “theatre dance music fusion” in which the central character is not really a person but a place: the Tosca Café.

“What’s fascinating for me is that the Tosca Café is a real café in San Francisco founded by Italian immigrants” Harrington says. “The show is a slice of life in this café; it’s a very eclectic group of people that went there. It went through Prohibition and all those sorts of things and it’s still here today.”

The production — which is essentially without dialogue or text — debuted in San Francisco as The Tosca Project . San Francisco’s mayor even gave the café its own day. History has swirled in and around the café — from the Depression through the Second World War and the Beat Generation to the hippie-era and the Vietnam War and right to the Wi-Fi world of today. Luminaries including Francis Ford Coppola Hunter S. Thompson Sam Shepard and Bono of U2 have all spent time there.

Surprisingly however few “famous” characters dance their way through this Tosca Café except for Russian ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova.

Fittingly Harrington portrays Nureyev in the production a dancer who was an inspiration for Harrington early in his own career. In fact Harrington’s sister gave him a “big thick book” about Nureyev when he was a young dancer.

“I pored over it because I wanted to be like him” Harrington says.

Later Harrington got to meet and dance with the Russian legend during a National Ballet production.

“He would always sit in the front wing and watch. We would chat with him in the halls and I remember he would sometimes have a group hug before going onstage” recalls Harrington. “He had this sort of sexuality that appealed to men to women; he just was like an animal onstage.”

Other than one scene in Tosca in which “Nureyev” dances Harrington says he actually does very little ballet during the show and he portrays a bunch of other characters besides Nureyev including a Vietnam vet a delivery man a drunk and a sailor. Tosca Café offers a lot of contemporary dancing and movement with nods to period dance styles like the Charleston and disco.

Harrington says music plays a crucial role in the show marking history’s timeline.

“Every time someone enters the bar the music changes. The jukebox goes on and there’s another song that is evocative of a particular era. There’s Puccini (who wrote the opera Tosca ) there’s Hendrix there’s every different style of music.”

Perhaps surprisingly Harrington credits such shows as So You Think You Can Dance Canada with teaching him about other forms of dance. And rather than look down his professional nose at such quasi-reality and talent shows Harrington has nothing but admiration for the participants.

“I look at shows like Dancing With the Stars and wonder if even I could do it” he says. “I take my hat off to them. I think shows like that expose dance much more and get a lot more people realizing what hard work it is. I think they have done a tremendous amount for dance.”