From playful to political: Ballet Hispánico performs in Beverly Hills

United StatesUnited States Ballet Hispánico, NOCHE DE ORO: Dancers of Ballet Hispánico. Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, 8.10.2022. (JRo)

Ballet Hispanico performs Con Brazos Abiertos © Paula Lobo

Con Brazos Abiertos
Choreography – Michelle Manzanales
Artistic Collaboration with Ray Doñes
Soundscape – Carla Morrison, Cheech & Chong, Julio Iglesias, Edward James Olmos, Gustavo Santaolalla, Michelle Manzanales, Juan Carlos Marin Santa Olalla, Ember Island, Mexican Institute of Sound
Poem – Maria Billini-Padilla
Costumes – Diana Ruettiger
Lighting – Joshua Preston

Choreography – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Music – Pérez Prado, Dizzy Gillespie, The Funky Lowlives
Compositions – James Bigbee Garver
Costumes – Mark Zappone
Lighting – Joshua Paul Weckesser

18 + 1
Choreography – Gustavo Ramírez Sansano
Music – Pérez Prado
Costumes – Ghabriello Fernando
Lighting – Caitlin Brown and Savannah Bell

In a program that ranged from attacks on stereotypical attitudes toward Hispanic culture to a more personalized vision of the artistic process, the New York-based Ballet Hispánico explored the diversity of Latinx culture.

Their vibrant dancers approached the politically infused program with fierce commitment. Of the three dances featured, the last piece on the program transcended the mostly message-driven choreography to achieve a poetic grace. This was 18+1 by Spanish born choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano.

In his whimsical creation, Sansano equated childhood antics with the making of art. He draws on his personal history, and there was a sense that by understanding human nature, the past and present might merge to create a sense of possibility in the future. It was a hopeful ballet, joyous in its use of Pérez Prado’s mambo music.

Under subtle lighting by Caitlin Brown and Savannah Bell and clothed in handsome costumes by Ghabriello Fernando (charcoal gray tunics over cropped pants), the dancers became blank canvases on which Sansano could project his aspirations. Owing to the quirkiness of the choreography, the performers’ individual personalities were allowed to shine through: heads bobbed like chickens, lifted bent legs with pointed feet made stirring motions, dancers tiptoed then dropped down into a crouch. Exaggerated facial expressions – protruding tongues, bulging eyes – evoked childhood.  Ultimately, women were the equal of men, neither sexualized nor made the aggressor.

Ballet Hispanico performs Con Brazos Abiertos © Paula Lobo

Opening the program, Con Brazos Abiertos by Michelle Manzanales was a mixed medley of moods ranging from the humorous to the tragic. Exploring her identity as a Mexican-American, Manzanales used folkloric as well as contemporary idioms to define her experience. In a burst of gaiety, against a blank backdrop of brilliant red light, dancers donned sombreros. The tasseled hats were treated as an affectionate symbol of both folk culture and stereotypical attitudes toward Mexicans.

In the more somber sections, an overuse of undulating torsos and tumbles on the floor felt clichéd rather than original. In general, choreography was basic in its approach, favoring simple steps and movements. The last section, reminiscent of Loie Fuller’s early-twentieth-century Serpentine Dance, featured the company in sheer billowing skirts which they manipulated into shifting patterns of dancing silk.

Tiburones by Annabelle Lopes Ochoa confronted Latinx stereotyping head-on. A film set formed the backdrop for a critique of the media’s treatment of Hispanic culture, and it opened with the voice of Leonard Bernstein discussing tonality in music. The 1961 movie of the stage musical West Side Story, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, was put under a microscope in order to dissect the misrepresentation of Puerto Ricans in film. The narrative arc of Tiburones (Sharks in English and the name of the gang in the musical) followed an imperious director commanding his dancers. At first obliging, the dancers’ growing ambivalence eventually turned into open revolt, leaving the director battered and vanquished on the floor.

Though the points of the story were apparent in the theatrics of the players, the choreography didn’t go far enough to suggest the changing moods of the ‘cast’ from compliant to violently rebellious. In the compliant stage, they appeared to be performing the director’s mandated movements – a parody of snapping fingers and shimmying shoulders. As their antagonism exploded, a more gradual shifting of mood would have added dimension to the piece.

Snippets of Bernstein’s music from West Side Story, a drawing of a shark on the backdrop, a clapperboard and tungsten lights on tripods were all employed to evoke the filming of the musical. For better or worse, there was a claustrophobic feel, partially due to the set design: the stage contained an abundance of props. Beyond that, costumes in busy patterns and crowded groupings of dancers on a darkened stage contributed to the cramped atmosphere.

One section left me puzzled. To the opening chords of ‘Maria’, Tony and Maria’s love duet was performed by male dancers in high heels. Though undoubtedly it was meant to question machismo stereotypes in Hispanic culture, I was at a loss to understand how it related to West Side Story. It seemed like tacked-on commentary and not a part of the through line of the narrative.

Nevertheless, it was a thought-provoking program, performed in admirable style by the dancers of Ballet Hispánico.

Jane Rosenberg

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