Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ballet Hispanico—Casting a Wide Net

Rodney Hamilton, Vanessa Valecillos, Mario Ismael Espinoza in Espiritu Vivo. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Ballet Hispanico is a work in constant process—less about defining what comprises Hispanic dance than stretching its definition and possibilities. The company of 16 is made up of seemingly ever fewer dancers of latino descent (standouts are Min-Tzu Li and new member Jamal Rashann Callender), but one or more major elements in the works in repertory relate to artists of Spanish-speaking countries. Performances continue at the Joyce through April 29.

Brooklynite Ronald K. Brown choreographed one of the season's premieres, and the hook seems to be that he uses music by Susana Baca, the dusky-voiced Peruvian singer (who I sadly missed performing live the first week). Brown's movement for Espiritu Vivo significantly tempers the propulsive, gravity-bound African vocabulary he so skillfully deploys on his own company. He has adapted some of the motifs—the pulled-back elbows, spearing leaps, and floating attitude turns—but they're softened and somewhat drained of the feverish energy so contagious in his dances. It's pleasant enough, but it came off as among the most basic of the choreographer's compositions. Still, give Ballet Hispanico credit for pursuing a highly successful contemporary dancemaker outside the geographical/linguistic parameters, even if the connection is but filament-thin.

I reviewed Mad'moiselle (by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa) two years ago, and this year I wasn't as distracted by some of the production elements (like the pink trannie wigs) and could appreciate more the snappy pace of the varied and numerous scenes and musical selections, the shapely and muscular movement, and the high level of skill by the dancers. Again, Li danced the lead role, engrossing in her convincing state of detachment and with her refined, bold lines.

In contrast, the program led off with Pedro Ruiz's Guajira (1999). With its traditional feel and narrative tracing the lives of peasants, it evoked an earlier era in the repertory, concentrating more on folkloric-oriented dances rather than following the more recent free-form conceptual connection to being Hispanic (under Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro).

What Ballet Hispanico is doing is not easy or safe, but in a way, having a loose, yet defined, premise has allowed the company to expand in many ways while (without getting too literal) retaining a constant voice. This admittedly wooly identity isn't a bad thing amid a world-wide klatch of like-sized ballet companies.

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