One of the leading Latinx cultural organisations in the USA, Ballet Hispánico makes its English debut at Let’s Dance International Frontiers 2022. David Mead talks to Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro about the company and the work Leicester audiences can look forward to.
While New York-based Ballet Hispánico was founded by Venezuelan-born dancer and choreographer, Tina Ramirez, to give voice to the Hispanic experience and break through stereotypes, Eduardo Vilaro stresses that it is not a political advocacy. “We are a cultural advocate. What we do is to try to peel the onion to get to the different hearts that there is in Latin America; in the Spanish diaspora. Within that there is so much intersection with other diasporas. There’s African, Asian, Middle-Eastern. It’s so deep.”
Vilaro, also a former dancer with the company, explains how Ballet Hispánico came out of the cultural wars of the 1960s and the need for representation for people of colour and race. It was a time of radical change in society.
“In the early 70s in particular, we had what was called ‘white flight’ to the suburbs. The city was a hole. Parts of the Bronx, where I grew up, were just left to rot. Buildings were just hollow shells. Streets were gang-ridden. It was a very difficult time.” But as he notes, it was also a time when artists like Ramirez, Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell seeded their communities with art, establishing organisations, in particular in dance, to serve their people and create work that reflected them and their experience. Now a major company, Ballet Hispánico continues to put cultural identity, social equity, access and quality arts education at the forefront of everything it does as it.
Latin dance at the time was very much hidden. It wasn’t shown and didn’t get in the press because a lot of Latinx dance, like many folk forms, were thought inferior to classical European forms, explains Vilaro. “The first time you really saw a feel of Puerto Rican dance was West Side Story; and that left cultural scars, very difficult scars.”.
It’s an issue that has not entirely gone away. It really depends on who is writing, and whether they feel company and its work is as important as that of others of not. In a way, they are minor transgressions, but they are difficult to deal with, he adds.
Then there is the fact that Latin communities deal with the arts differently, he says. “We see it as part of who we are. We dance at every celebration. It does not have the same place as an art form in the Western world. It comes out. It’s what we all share. So, I need to talk to my community and show them what the art form can do for the world.”
For others, it’s a case of continuously educating people to the fact that Ballet Hispánico and Latinx artists are not just folkloric, he continues. “We’re artists who take the form, rip it up, deconstruct it, reconstruct it, because we are just that. We are ourselves reconstructed beings through our experience of being in the United States. I am not the same Cuban that left Cuba. I am Cuban-American. And how beautiful it is that we can have art and artists that can speak like that.”
Some people do still have an expectation of what Ballet Hispánico should be, however, rather than what it is, admits Vilaro. “I’ve had so many interesting conversations with audience members. They come up and tell me my dancers should be Spanish. But what does that mean? Latin America is so diverse. Spanish means so many different things. It’s part to do with stereotypes, part how the dominant culture sees other cultures. It’s something we still have to deal with. It’s all about educating. I like to invite people to learn more about the culture. I don’t want to exclude. I want to include. I want people to go, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that’. Let’s look at that form, the culture, in a different light. That’s what I am very interested in.”
Essentially, it’s all about building bridges, both to and from the Latin community, he agrees. “It’s about exploring the diversity and the Latin American experience. It’s about giving access to everyone, to be able to immerse and learn about this culture, develop ways to learn about this community… and to include us in that dialogue. The interesting thing is that, even though the Spanish would be seen as oppressors to some of us in Latin America, their language is still our mother tongue. And we rely on it, and we rely on our culture that is based on that Spanish culture.”
In selecting the works to bring to Let’s Dance International Frontiers, Vilaro was keen for audiences to see and experience some of the things that Latinx people are having to deal with in the United States. Con Brazos Abiertos (With Open Arms) by Michelle Manzanales very much makes a statement. He describes it as, “About being a Mexican caught in the middle. You’re not Mexican enough, you’re not American enough. That’s something that happens in America a lot.
The ideas for Con Brazos Abiertos were first developed at the company’s Instituto Coreográfico, which gives emerging Latinx artists studio space, time with company dancers and mentoring as they create culturally specific works in a safe but critical environment.
“Alongside that, we have the joy of 18+1 by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano that celebrates Cuban rhythms and Pérez Prado’s music. It’s brilliant contemporary movement, which in itself speaks to the contemporaneity of who we are as Latinos today. 18+1 is just a good time,” continues Vilaro.
Completing the line-up is Tiburones by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. “A very clever, cheeky work, right from West Side Story. ‘Tiburones’ means sharks.” Vilaro explains that Ochoa asks who gets to choose what is said about a community, considers the power the media has in discrimination and portraying stereotypes, and how that can diminish the voices of Latinx artists. “She uses some sarcasm, some very deep moments.”
Ochoa has now created six works for Ballet Hispánico, the long and productive relationship starting Nube Blanco in 2009. “What I love about Annabelle is seeing the progression of her trajectory; seeing her really coming into her own as a Latina. She had really pushed that to the side. The other thing is that I love her vocabulary and her theatricality. That’s important because it’s part of who we are; and I mean that in a loving way, a very loving way.”
Returning to the company’s history, Vilaro explains that Ballet Hispánico has been through several iterations over its five decades. “We were a very modern company when I started. We did a lot of modern choreography, in particular by black choreographers such as Tally Beatty. We even had a work by Ailey. Then we started getting very neoclassical. We worked with Vincente Nebrada.” In other works, Latin fused with classicism in such as Tito on Timbales by William Whitener, a piece that drew heavily on the company’s heritage while showing their ballet training. At one point it got extremely theatrical, almost Broadway, says Vilaro, who recalls an all-tango Graciela Daniele work. “We did a couple of others. It became very in your face. Latin, tango, passionate, misogynistic. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s not what we do as Latinos’.”
While he loves theatricality, as director, Vilaro wanted to focus on Ballet Hispánico being on a more contemporary looking, more rigorously athletic company. He promises Leicester some fabulous dancers. “I look for those artists who can break through the proscenium arch and reach all the way to the rafters. I know that sounds very clichéd but that is the truth. They can do it all. They are highly technical dancers who can throw on some stilettos, which you will see, and be barefoot and be in ballet slippers.”
Looking ahead, Vilaro says he is focused on “making the company a beautiful organisation that can do everything for the dancers.” But he insists that Ballet Hispánico should also be a resource for anyone interested in learning about Latinx cultures through the vehicle of dance. As part of that, he says its extensive records and documents are presently being archived by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York City Public Library at Lincoln Center. “There is so much information that we have. Hitting the visibility beyond the stage through thought, leadership, documentation and information pieces like forums and panels. I think that’s where we can take a major role.”
Ballet Hispánico are at the Curve, Leicester, on May 6 & 7, 2022. Visit www.curveonline.co.uk for details and tickets.
For the full Let’s Dance International Frontiers programme, visit www.serendipity-uk.com.
For SeeingDance’s preview of LDIF 2022, click here.