|Línea Recta © Paula Lobo, courtesy Ballet Hispánico|
Ballet Hispánico, that venerable and resilient Big Apple cultural institution, has spent nearly half a century empowering diversity in a country that, despite growing ever more diverse, clings desperately to its dying dominant culture. The company, last seen in Madison in 2010, appears at Overture Hall on Thursday, May 9.
Ballet Hispánico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramírez, the Venezuelan-born, New York-raised daughter of a Mexican bullfighter and a Puerto Rican teacher. When she retired, a decade ago, the artistic directorship was taken over by Eduardo Vilaro, who left his native Havana for New York in 1969, when he was six. Vilaro grew up to become a principal dancer with the company before moving on to found and direct Chicago’s wonderful, and, alas, now defunct, Luna Negra Dance Theater; his return to Ballet Hispánico, in 2010, brought his career full circle.
Ballet Hispánico came to Madison that year with a worn-out repertory of older works by non-Latin male choreographers working – directly or indirectly – with Latin themes, though set, fortunately, on a largely Latinx company. Today, a decade into its rebirth under Vilaro’s direction, the company’s caught up with the challenges of the twenty-first century.
CulturalOyster: When you were still at Luna Negra, you told me once that “When we come to the States we fuse, we change. I’m not 100% Cuban any more. In Cuba they tell me ‘tu no eres cubano.’ I’m like damn, who are we in this country? Can we celebrate who we’re becoming?
That was 2008, so 11 years ago; it was a different company, a different time, and the issues of immigration, cultural fusion, and identity have become much more visible and emotionally charged since then. I think you’re basically still coming from that same place – celebrating fusion – but how has your thinking on identity and dance evolved over the last decade?
Vilaro: You know, yes, I still believe we become something else. We live as a hybrid. This nation is a hybrd nation; it is not, contrary to popular belief, a white nation, although that’s the structure that’s been allowed to play out. So I’m very interested in exploring cultural intersectionality. Some important cultural institutions [like Ballet Hispánico] were born between the ‘50s and ‘70s to say “I’m here, I belong.” And now it feels like we’ve come to another moment, another catalyst to make that claim and update it: “Not only do I belong, but I’m part of the fabric, and I’m a leader in this fabric.”
It’s so important to make works that celebrate our Latinx lives. We are also waking up to the fact that the cultures in our own countries of origin are facing issues of nationalism and supremacy versus diversity and acceptance of race, color, gender. So [directing Ballet Hispánico] is a warm, exciting, difficult, full-of-challenges opportunity and I feel that if I don’t take the bull by the horns we’re going to get further behind.
CulturalOyster: The choreographic idiom of Ballet Hispánico is polyglot, too –how do your dancers train?
Vilaro: It’s funny – this is going to be another hybrid discussion. I have dancers trained classically and I enjoy a classical line or the ability to get as close to classical as we can but our dancers are hybrid themselves in terms of their training. One guy trained in Havana with Ballet Nacional but also grew up as an Afrocuban learning Yoruba dances – and that changes the way you approach the movement quality and how it translates in your body. We have a young man from Tampa with ballet training and a tap and hip-hop background. The ladies all have very classical backgrounds, but some of them come from Juilliard so they bring a deep contemporary mixture, and that’s perfect for our company because we’re showing fusion. The hybridization, for us, is richer, it makes for stronger utilization of the folk forms a choreographer might want to expose. You can’t do that with pure classicism – it looks forced, not real.
CulturalOyster: During your first year as artistic director of Ballet Hispánico the touring program was a celebration of the company’s 40-year history. Only one work by a Latin choreographer – Pedro Ruíz’s (2000) “Club Havana” -- was on the bill. The program looks a lot different this time. From the press kit, it looks like all of the choreographers you’re working with now have direct Latin heritage. How has that changed the company, from the one you inherited to the one you’ve been leading for almost a decade now?
Vilaro: What we’re bringing to Madison is our all Latina program – three works, by three women – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Michelle Manzanales, and Tania Pérez-Salas. It represents the evolution of my curatorial tenure at Ballet Hispánico. When you first come in you have to work with what you have. It’s taken the decade I’ve been artistic director to scope out and develop the right kinds of artists and works for my vision. I think the program you’re seeing is the actualization of that vision in its totality. When I first came in to take over the range from a powerful Latina founder who had a very different immigrant experience than I did, I had to start shaking off some of the things from the past to help the organization walk into exactly this moment. And it’s excellent – it couldn’t have happened more gracefully. We’re now finding and nurturing young Latinx dancers and choreographers. The idiom is clearer. You’ll see work that’s clearly about fusion. López Ochoa’s “Linea Recta” has some derivatives of flamenco, but contemporizes it and brings it forward – there’s partnering, the costuming is deconstructed, and there’s an electricity that shows the original folk form in a new way. It answers the question ‘Who is the fused flamenco artist?’ – and that’s what this company can do.
The Manzanales piece, “Brazos Abiertos,” is a true homage to who we are as immigrants – how we feel doing our identity mambo as we go back and forth. ‘Who am I and how does that affect my identity as a woman?’ As a company we reflect that and make statements of advocacy and invite the audience into the conversation.
Pérez-Salas is still living and working in Mexico City, and she’s saying ‘My culture doesn’t define me.’ Her piece, “Catorce Dieciséis,” is the least culturally accessible – it’s about ‘I am mexicana and that means my piece is mexicana. I wanted to meditate on the mathematical concept of pi and that’s what I did.’
The piece is visually stunning. As artistic director I need to show that we don’t just look a certain way or dance a certain way. I wanted to end the program with this piece because I want Ballet Hispánico to empower the audience to think differently about codifying culture.
CulturalOyster: What about your own work? I’ve always been a fan of your choreography – you did a piece for Luna Negra that the company performed here in 2008 – a piece with deep Cuban sensibilities set to Sephardic music, “Deshár Alhát,” that’s still one of my all time favorites. I hope you’ll bring some of your work next time!
Vilaro: Thank you for that! I just created a new work and I’m trying to bring back my choreography. It’s hard finding time when you’re taking a different kind of leadership role – it impinges on my artistic work, but there aren’t a lot of our voices out there and we all need to step up.
CulturalOyster: Eduardo, is there anything else you want to mention?
Vilaro: I guess I’ll just mention that in January, 2020, we start the celebration of our fiftieth year. It’s a milestone – and it’s interesting that we’re not alone. The other companies that made a stand around the time of the cultural wars of the ‘60s are also celebrating. Dance Theatre of Harlem is also 50, and the Ailey company just celebrated 60 years. But there aren’t a lot of Latinx organizations turning 50 here in the US. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
__________________________ interview by SK