by Susan Kepecs
Tuesday night’s performance by the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández at Overture Hall was a shining example of culturally relevant programming. It’s been two years since the last time we heard Mariachi los Camperos (in Overture’s Capitol Theater, in 2010), and I was itching for a big dose of mexicanidad.
Obviously, I wasn’t alone – la comunidad turned out big for this event. One reason for the recent waves of in-migration from Mexico, of course, is the ominous shadow cast over that country by the drug cartels that have run amok over the last five years. Watching the show, I kept thinking about a piece I read recently in the Mexico City news magazine Proceso, aptly titled “Mexico is the most violent, happiest country.” The Ballet Folklórico, which regularly plays both the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico’s Distrito Federal, approaches dance performance as historical anthropology – and the current of violencia and alegría that runs endlessly through the country’s social fabric was evident in the choreography, in multiple ways.
The famous Yaqui Deer Dance, a staple in Ballet Folklórico’s repertory, is, as the program notes state, an example of imitative magic – but it’s also at least tangentially linked to the ancient, transcendental nature of death in Mexican art. The mature dancer who wore the deer headdress Tuesday night imbued his performance with convincing animal wisdom. His stag leaps, second position split jumps and agonized tremors expertly evoked the ungulate’s experience of fear and death.
In “Revolution,” gaily waltzing couples decked out in lavish costumes from the 1890s – the period during which the country was ruled by the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who built a new Mexican bourgeoisie on a base of world capitalism – were interrupted by the rifle-bearing soldados and soldaderas (Adelitas) of the Revolution, marching fiercely across the stage with bandoleirs like Pancho Villa’s strapped across their chests.
There was sheer alegría in the mariachis and soneros jarochos who provided musical live accompaniment for about half the works on the program, and, of course, in those dances. Two works in particular stood out – one from coastal Veracruz, the other from Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Both places are under seige by the drug cartels, but there as elsewhere in Mexico, the festivals these dances are based on continue to occur like clockwork.
The Veracruz piece, “Tlacotalpan Festivity,” showcased that town’s annual, carnaval-linked fiesta in honor of the Virgin of Candelaria. The dance featured the full company in bright white traditional Veracruz dress, zapateando – the word means “rhythmic footwork,” rather than “tap dancing” in the Savion Glover sense – with abandon to familiar jarocho tunes like La Bamba. Some dancers wore giant puppet costumes – demons, clowns and rumberos reflecting the influence of Cuban culture in Veracruz – to scare off evil spirits.
“Jalisco,” another Ballet Folklórico staple, is an ode to mariachi anthems. The dance, a sparkling study in color, rhythm and pattern, wraps every show. At the end, the dancers sail colored mylar strips that glow like fireworks into the theater.
“Jalisco” in particular is brilliant. That said, I’ve seen this company many times, both in Mexico City and in Madison, and last night’s performance wasn’t peak. The dance quality was uneven, though some of the men stood out for their flashy footwork. I can’t single them out for praise, unfortunately, since they weren’t named in the program.
And, in fact, the program and the performance didn’t entirely match, leaving anyone in the audience unfamiliar with Mexican folklore without a guidepost. The first post-intermission piece was a theatrical reproduction of the Totonac Quetzal dance from Veracruz and Puebla, done by eight men wearing the classic headdress that symbolizes the plumage of a tropical bird sacred in Mesoamerica throughout the prehispanic epoch. Yet the Totonac dance wasn’t anywhere listed or described.
According to the program, the first piece in the show's second half was “Wedding in the Huasteca.” The work that followed the Totonac dance might be construed as a wedding dance, but the opening tune was a Cuban-influenced, Veracruz-stye danzón, not huapango music from the huasteca. Even more confusing, the dancers – the full company of men and women – were precisely outfitted for a Yucatecan vaquería, which is the dance that kicks off the festivals for the patron saints of the towns in that state, a thousand miles southeast of the huasteca. In a final disjunction, the “huasteca” work wrapped up with a typical Yucatecan jarana in 6/8 time. How a dance company that’s usually so anthropologically correct wound up with an odd pastiche like this is beyond me.
But in the end it didn’t matter. I left the theater happy, and grateful to be surrounded by the culture of a country I love despite its fatal flaws. I know I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.