Ballet Hispanico: A Personal Portrait of Pan-America

Ballet Hispanico3_web


If you’ve ever eaten at an Asian fusion restaurant, you might think of Ballet Hispanico as the Asian fusion of ballet – except instead of cuisines from across Asia, it’s dance styles pulled from the cultures and countries of Central America.


Ballet Hispanico has been delivering Latin American flavors through their top-notch choreography since 1970, and since then have established a repertory of countless full-length dance pieces combining elements of ballet, flamenco, salsa, and more. Through their innovative dance program based in New York City and their numerous appearances at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, Ballet Hispanico have established themselves as one of the leading forces in the modern ballet and Latin dance scene. Their appearance at the Zeiterion showcased the variety of their current repertory through three pieces, each one distinctive in its direction and yet similar at their cores – while the aesthetics and inspirations behind each of the pieces are very different, all of them are built around the same central idea of mixing traditional ballet techniques with modern Latin American steps to create a completely new experience.


The first piece showcased at the Zeiterion, the flamenco-infused Linea Recta (2016), translates to “Straight Line” in English. It’s a complex piece that can be looked at in layers – on the surface, you’ve got the performers themselves, clad in warm, colorful outfits from costume designer Danielle Truss that look as if they’ve been snipped straight from the rays of the Central American sun. Beneath that and completing the outfits are the dark fedoras worn by each of the piece’s seven performers, which are much more than just an accessory – the hats are tossed back and forth throughout the piece, switching heads so often that it’s easy to lose track of who was wearing which one originally. Complementing the choreography itself, the lighting arrangement allows the dancers’ silhouettes to be seen on the rear wall, creating a dynamic environment of shadowy limbs that undulate and intersect each other even when no physical contact occurs in the choreography itself.


Con Brazos Abiertos (2017), which translates to “With Open Arms”, is a piece that openly explores the concepts of duality and acceptance – more specifically, it’s an expression of choreographer Michelle Manzanales’ childhood in Texas, growing up as a Mexican-American citizen learning to embrace both sides of the cultural coin. In a similar vein to Linea Recta, Con Brazos Abiertos relies on its use of headwear not simply as a choice of dress, but as a prop to help explore the space and subject. The sombreros used in the piece are representative of Mexican culture, but can also be seen as a somewhat-common stereotype of Mexicans in the United States. There are other elements of the piece that are seemingly trapped between the two universes – there are soundbites of Cheech & Chong sketches at various points, and the soundtrack includes songs from Camilo Lara’s Mexican Institute of Sound music project, combining elements of traditional Mexican folk with American electronic music. At the piece’s conclusion, the two worlds collide as the choreography and soundtrack melt into each other, finally allowing the piece to embrace both cultures together, con brazos abiertos – with open arms.


The third and final piece showcased seems to take things in a different direction altogether. With a deep, almost tangible atmosphere, 3. Catorce Dieciseis (2002) translates to “Three Point Fourteen Sixteen” in English, which some may recognize as being a shorthand version of the irrational constant pi. The piece is an abrupt change from the previous two, incorporating a much more traditional ballet style and a soundtrack featuring classical pieces from composers such as Antonio Vivaldi. While Linea Recta and Con Brazos Abiertos both focus on subjects that are relevant to Ballet Hispanico’s cultural origins, 3. Catorce Dieciseis is a piece that focuses solely on one idea – the concept of pi as it pertains to art, and especially dance. The quickness of the steps at certain points almost seem to match certain sections of the never-ending sequence of digits, creating more of a rigid and calculated feel, but simultaneously allowing the dancers to move their upper bodies freely, the hips and shoulders flowing softly, imitating the roundness of the circle that pi represents. In a certain sense, 3. Catorce Dieciseis is quite similar to Con Brazos Abiertos in the way that it can take two separate worlds (in this case mathematics and dance) and twist them together to create an entirely separate, new, beautiful vision.


Ballet Hispanico’s main themes seem to stem from this idea of unification – reaching the unreachable, bringing opposing forces together. Could this be, perhaps, why Ballet Hispanico has such a deep dedication to its local dance program while still fully focusing on its primary repertory? Ballet Hispanico’s main demographic is, of course, the Latino and Mexican community, and their dedication to these communities is obvious. Ballet Hispanico’s dance programs are just another example of the themes of togetherness presented in pieces like Con Brazos Abiertos and 3. Catorce Dieciseis. The company is able to take a concept like ballet, and present it to Latino communities in a way that appeals to them through the art’s already-existing relationships with Latin American dance styles, connecting them to ballet through the bridge that is the performing arts.


Can Ballet Hispanico truly unite the world’s cultures through dance? It’s tough to say for now, but from what’s I’ve seen so far, I’d welcome the idea – con brazos abiertos.

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