The Bodies Rise: Ballet Hispánico Celebrates Latinx Voices in Dance

Ballet Hispánico recently opened its New York Season at New York City Center with its Gala Performance, a mixed bill curated by Artistic Director and CEO Eduardo Vilaro.

Maybe it was the line in the program notes about Ballet Hispánico being the “cultural heart” of Latine dance in the United States or maybe it was the comfortable thrill of being in an auditorium packed full of strangers that got me thinking about bodies. Not just human bodies, but also the body of the performance. I wondered: which piece would reveal itself as the show’s brain? Its soul? Its guts? I couldn’t wait to find out.

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Ballet dancers on stage
‘Línea Recta,’ choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ballet Hispanico, New York City Center. Photo: Erin Baiano

Along with a world premiere, the evening of dance at New York City Center would feature the return of two Company favorites and a new addition to the repertory honoring Company founder Tina Ramirez (1929-2022).

Ramirez, born in Venezuela and of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, moved to the United States at a young age and studied with Spanish dance legend Lola Bravo, prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova and modern dancer Anna Sokolow. After dancing professionally for many years on stage, screen and Broadway, Ramirez founded Ballet Hispánico in 1970 to champion and amplify Hispanic voices and experiences. The Company is now the largest Latinx/Latine/Hispanic cultural organization in the country and one of America’s Cultural Treasures.

The evenings Gala Performance opened with a slideshow tribute to Ramirez and a moving welcome speech from Vilaro.

The first piece was an excerpt from American choreographer William Forsythe’s New Sleep (1987). Ramirez had always wanted the Company to present one of Forsythe’s postmodern ballets, so this duet (staged by Noah Gelber) was performed in honor of her. Forsythe, who was long thought to be “the natural heir to Balanchine” but was in practice far more experimental, almost single-handedly carried ballet into the 21st century. His style can be cerebral and abstract, even deconstructivist, and this duet, though playful, is no exception.

Fatima Andere and Antonio Cangiano, partnering nearly continuously throughout, repeatedly pull each other off center to the point of counterbalance. The movements are showy and extreme. Lines are intentionally broken, and limbs stretch in seemingly impossible ways, but there is something cold about it all. A purposeful emotional disconnect. Overall, the duet has the tone of an endless wink, both for the audience’s benefit and despite them. The electronic score, composed by Forsythe’s long-time Dutch collaborator Thom Willems, is similar in style: flawlessly executed but sterile. New Sleep was, without a doubt, the brilliant brain of the show.

Ballet dancers on stage
‘New Sleep,’ choreography by William Forsythe, Ballet Hispanico, New York City Center, Thursday, June 1, 2023. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano Photo: Erin Baiano

Next up was an excerpt from Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s  Linea Recta (2016). The piece explores the absence of physical touch in flamenco by inserting elements of contemporary dance, most notably its partnering, into the traditional Spanish style. While New Sleep pointedly lacks passion, Linea Recta is all passion—all bright beating heart. Where Forsythe’s stark lighting design and black costumes are almost utilitarian, Michael Mazzola’s lighting is warm, and Danielle Truss’s rose-red costumes glow on the stage. The long, ruffled train of Amanda del Valle’s dress steals the show as she spins circles around her four men. Note: They are, without question, hers. If the sound of Eric Vaarzon Morel’s flamenco guitar was a color, it too would be red.

And then came the world premiere of Michelle ManzanalesSor Juana, the show’s unequivocal soul. The Mexican American choreographer is no stranger to Ballet Hispánico. After dancing with Eduardo Vilaro’s Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago, she followed Vilaro to NYC when he became Ballet Hispánico’s new Artistic Director. For seven seasons she served as the Company’s Rehearsal Director & Artistic Associate, before becaming the Director of its School of Dance in 2016.

The new piece, Manzanales’s second for the Company, explores the life and legacy of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican poet, scholar, composer and nun—considered by many to be the first feminist of the Americas. “Sor Juana just seems right for this moment,” Manzanales tells Observer, pointing out the unfortunate similarities between the iconic feminist’s life in 17th-century colonial Mexico and today’s political and social climate. We face the same censorship, attacks on women’s rights and potential dangers of living an authentic life.

The piece opens with a stunning image: dropped lights aimed at the audience, an atmospheric haze, a woman (Gabrielle Sprauve) standing above a mass of bodies. It is a conjuring, though it’s unclear what is being conjured. The bodies rise, whispering, circling themselves, flinging their arms into poses of rapture. Sor Juana’s strength lies in its ability to immediately drag us somewhere else, to create a whole other place and time.

We see glimpses of Sor Juana’s life throughout the piece, but also of the dancers’ lives, and maybe even Manzanales’s, in the more contemporary scenes. Manzanales’s choreographic process is collaborative, inviting the dancers to share their personal stories and discuss readings to “deepen the connective tissue into the material.” She describes herself as a stream-of-consciousness choreographer, preferring to work in vignettes that jump around instead of following a linear narrative. Her movement vocabulary is a familiar mix of ballet, modern and contemporary dance. She tells me she admires the styles of José Limón and Ohad Naharin, and you can see traces of them in this work: the flung-open, yearning sternums; the fierce group work.

A duo of ballet dancers
‘Club Havana,’ choreography by Pedro Ruiz, Ballet Hispanico, New York City Center, Thursday, June 1, 2023. Photo: Erin Baiano

The soundscape spans centuries and musical styles from the recording of one of Sor Juana’s choral compositions and poems to a cellist (Rafael Krux) improvising in the Baroque style to a contemporary Spanish singer (María José Llergo), as well as the sounds of scribbling graphite and morning birds. The costumes, designed by Sam Ratelle (stylist to Billy Porter), take on the challenge of drastically different periods with exquisite layers that are eventually stripped off one by one.

“I’m always trying to create a sensory world with what you’re hearing but also with what you’re seeing,” says Manzanales. “It’s exciting for me to transport people into this real place we create on the stage.” While the choreography was uneven at times, Sor Juana’s conjured world is unforgettable.

The night ended with one of the Company’s beloved signature works—Pedro Ruiz’s Club Havana (2000). Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan” began playing before the lights came up, and those in the audience who knew what they were in for cheered. A spotlight lit Omar Rivéra coolly smoking a cigarette; another lit Gabrielle Sprauve slowly rolling her hips. Then there were more cigarettes and more hips, and the party got started.

The Bessie Award-winning choreographer was born in Cuba and served as a principal dancer with the Company for 21 years. The piece is a joyful homage to his homeland with its fusion of Cuban dance styles (some conga, rumba, mambo,and a little cha-cha-cha) and traditional music. It’s obvious Club Havana was the show’s self-assured, sultry hips. What a perfect way to end the evening.

Not on the bill at the Gala Performance was Omar Román De Jesús’s Papagayos, which premiered days later and will no doubt be the powerful guts of the line-up. A recent winner of a Princess Grace Award in Choreography, De Jesús is a queer Puertorriqueño who danced with Ballet Hispánico from 2016-2017 and is now an in-demand choreographer as well as the Director of the NYC-based dance company Boca Tuya. This is his first work for the Company, and the program note reads: “Papagayos follows a mischievous character who puppeteers humanity while simultaneously scoffing at the peoples’ plight.” That’s enough intrigue to make me come back for more.

Before we end our chat, Manzanales says, “I feel art allows us into conversations that maybe we wouldn’t have had, through what is being talked about or said in the work.” This is true, and many interesting conversations were being had all around me as the audience exited the theater. And some of us couldn’t help just happily swishing our hips up the aisle because that’s another thing art can do.

The Bodies Rise: Ballet Hispánico Celebrates Latinx Voices in Dance