|photo by Cheryl Mann|
By Susan Kepecs
Last time Ballet Hispanico was here – at Overture’s predecessor, the Civic Center, in 2003 – the venerable old New York company looked worn out. But the country’s most famous Latin dance performance troupe comes back to Madison (to the Union Theater this time) on Saturday, Oct. 2, with a new lease on life. Eduardo Vilaro, a principal dancer with Ballet Hispanico in the ‘90s before he founded Chicago’s lovely Latin company, Luna Negra, in 1999, returned to the Big Apple last year to take the reins from retiring artistic director Tina Ramírez.
Vilaro, who left his native Cuba at the age of 6, a decade after the Cuban Revolution, grew up in New York and has family there. It was time to go home, he says. “I started something new in Chicago, and it was a tough decision, but I left Luna Negra with wings to fly. Ballet Hispanico offered me the opportunity to work with more resources and to have more impact. I decided to go for it while I still have the energy to take on a challenge. Also, my moving back to New York opened the door for another Latino choreographer in Chicago [Spanish dancemaker Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, who has history with both Luna Negra and the Windy City’s best-known contemporary company, Hubbard Street Dance] to develop.”
Vilaro’s vision, he says, isn’t to change Ballet Hispanico, but to strengthen it. He’s turning the organization into a dance resource center with a strong educational component and links to Latin dance outfits across the country “so we can help each other, because Latin culture is all about family.”
And he’s creating the psychological space Latina/o choreographers need to create important new work. A lot of Latin dance performance (with the exception of that by folkloric companies like Ballet Folklórico México) strikes me as either spiffed-up ballroom or contemporary / modern dance without much of a Latin edge. Vilaro himself is a hell of a dancemaker, and one of the few Latin American choreographers in the U.S. ever to create a seamless blend of Latin style and formal dance idioms. It’ll take much more of this for dance performance in the U.S. to look like the national population. Though most of the four repertory works on Saturday night’s program have Latin themes, only one – and it’s not one of Vilaro’s – was made by a Latin choreographer.
Vilaro’s own dances should start showing up in Ballet Hispanico’s repertory soon. “I’m not quite there yet,” he says. “You get into a new place and it takes a year to get yourself set up. I had a lot on my agenda and wanted to impart my vision to the organization first. But it’s coming – I’m finally starting to plan my own creative work in the context of Ballet Hispanico.”
Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to discover how the pieces we’ll see – most have received mixed reviews over the years – fare under Vilaro’s direction. Given his natural enthusiasm, I’m hoping they’ll look fresh.
These dances, as a package, commemorate Ballet Hispanico’s 40th anniversary, and represent distinct stages of its history. As the evening progresses, Vilaro says, the mood goes from raw to dancey to somber to celebratory. In honor of the Mexican bicentennial (despite the fact that Mexico has little to celebrate right now), the first piece is “Tres Cantos,” a 1975 ode to Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors by the late, legendary African-American choreographer Talley Beatty. Vilaro danced in this work himself during his earlier Ballet Hispanico days, but says he chose it for this program mostly because he wanted to bring the sound of Mexican composers – Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas – to the stage.
“Tres Bailes,” set to a tango score, is a contemporary ballet from the late 1990s choreographed by Jean Emile, whose dance resumé includes Alvin Ailey, Nederalands Dans Theater, La Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid and Cirque du Soliel.
“Farewell” was choreographed in 1992 by the late Christopher Gillis, a dancer with the Paul Taylor Company in the 1970s. “It’s a beautiful duet,” Vilaro says, “and one I used to perform.”
The finale, “Club Havana,” from 2000 – the company’s current signature piece – is by Cuba-born choreographer Pedro Ruíz. “It captures the magic of Cuba in the ‘40s,” Vilaro says. “You’ll love it. It’s just beautiful.”