Ballet Hispánico’s Eduardo Vilaro On ‘Buscando a Juan’ at the Met

Ballet Hispánico makes its Met debut on July 13 with a work choreographed by Artistic Director and CEO Eduardo Vilaro in response to the exhibit "Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter."

Buscando a Juan—the title of a new MetLiveArts commission—translates to “looking for Juan,” but choreographer Eduardo Vilaro hasn’t offered a definitive, solid answer to who painter Juan de Pareja is. The performance, as the name suggests, is a search in which clues are offered and more questions elicited, but the “sancocho,” or mixed soup, of Latinx cultures and diasporas allows for audience interpretation.

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A man posing for a photograph
Ballet Hispánico’s Eduardo Vilaro. Courtesy Eduardo Vilaro

Vilaro tells me, “We’d been talking to the MetLiveArts’ [General Manager] Limor Tomor since before the pandemic. Then this exhibit of Juan de Pareja happened, and she said ‘I think you’d be interested in this.’ So, I met with the curators, and I was blown away by the ideas and the concept, and I said ‘I have to do this’.”

Buscando a Juan both tempts and tantalizes audiences, adopting sensual and exaggerated gestures with fluidity. In the Western world, which has long exoticized colored artists and dancers, and in an institution that inherently speaks to the Western fascination for history—and colonial history—the onus is on Vilaro to be daring and powerful in challenging audiences while also entertaining them and inviting them to engage intellectually and emotionally with the choreography.

There will be just seven performances of the 25-minute work, which opens on July 13 and closes on July 15. The performance space is unique, Vilaro explains, and to a degree, it shaped the choreography.

“In the middle of the space, the floor is marble so there are no jumps at all in the work,” Vilaro explains. “There’s a beautiful fountain in the center, too, so I’ll be using that. I’m bringing in a wooden table and chairs because there’s a section where I really reflect on ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ in which Pareja places himself in his own self-portrait.”

More importantly, most viewers will watch the performance from above. Visitors to the Juan de Pareja exhibition on the octagonally-shaped first floor can gaze down at the dancers—a group that includes Fatima Andere, Leonardo Brito, Antonio Cangiano, Amanda del Valle, Dylan Dias McIntyre, Omar Rivéra and Gabrielle Sprauve—on the lower level.

Dancers in rehearsal
Company Dancers Gabrielle Sprauve and Leonardo Brito in rehearsals with Artistic Director and CEO, Eduardo Vilaro. Photo by Paula Lobo

Who was Juan de Pareja?

As a Black artist in Spain, Pareja struggled to carve out his own artistic career. For more than 20 years, he was enslaved in Diego Velazquez’s studio, becoming the subject of a Velazquez portrait in 1654. Even after Velazquez signed a contract that released Pareja from bondage, Pareja was required to remain enslaved for a further four years.

“The Met’s purchase of Velázquez’s painting in 1971 made headlines at the time, but scholars and the press said practically nothing about the man depicted,” David Pullins, exhibition co-curator and Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of European Paintings, said of the portrait. “Not only does this exhibition shed more light on Pareja’s life, but it also places emphasis on his agency as a creative force through his long overlooked paintings.”

Centuries after Pareja’s death, Eduardo Vilaro refuses to let his’s legacy be forgotten when there is still racism inherent in our systems of politics, education, culture and society.

“I was very much aware of Juan de Pareja’s work because he means so much,” Vilaro tells me. “As an Afro-Hispanic being painted by Diego Velazquez, it spoke to my interest in the intersectionality of cultures because of the transatlantic slave trade and colonization. I’m a colonized body. I’m Cuban, I’m an immigrant and I have a legacy of colonization.”

Pareja and Velazquez intrigued Vilaro not only as individuals but also as two men who spent decades traveling and working together in the intimate act of creating. Yet despite this close proximity and their shared aptitudes, their unequal social and professional footings inevitably created division between them.

Vilaro has “always” questioned colonization and the marginalization of Latina, Latino and Latinx individuals and communities in his work. On a personal level, he wanted Buscando a Juan to explore one man’s life in approximation to another’s.

“I was riveted by the question: ‘Who is this man?’” he says.

He began to research Pareja and the experience of the Black, Morisco (Spanish Muslims forced to convert to Catholicism) populations in 17th-century Spain with the help of Vanessa K. Valdés, Associate Provost for Community Engagement and Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York.

“I knew I’d do something where I’d try to discover this man through the work as I was creating it,” muses Vilaro. “There was a lot of mystery about him. As an enslaved person, Pareja was making the pigments and laying the canvases, and that developed his own talent.”

There are many historical inaccuracies in the retelling of Velasquez and Pareja’s lives, work and relationship, Vilaro accedes. This is the toxic nature of Westernized history and the inevitability of racism and classism coloring the narratives of history—or sapping the color from it, more accurately. These conflicting stories and the implicit puzzle of Pareja’s identity shaped the process of making the work.

“Like many immigrants, people of color who are mestizo [‘mixed’], he learned on the job because we are not given the tools and must learn as we go,” he says. “Diego Velasquez made sure to let everyone know, as they traveled, that Pareja was not treated as a servant. How fascinating is that?”

Vilaro’s evident enthusiasm for the enigmatic Pareja is contagious. Here were two men sharing an artistic practice with so little known of how they related to one another. Even as Vilaro and I are in conversation, that fascination to know the truth of this man, these men and their lives is inescapable.  But the question remains: how does this play out physically and creatively?

“There’s a duet in the work, which is both tense and loving,” reveals Vilaro. “It resulted from the question ‘What is this relationship about?’”

For all that we don’t know, what we do know is that while we see Pareja’s work as a masterpiece now, his voice was silenced for all these years.

“What I am questioning is who gets to be seen, how they’re seen, and who is not seen?” says Vilaro. “Today, people are still not being witnessed correctly, nor given the voice they need to be given. In America, the Latino, Latina and Latinx community and their artwork need to be witnessed and uplifted.”

Vilaro recognized the religious context in Pareja’s paintings, so he and his dancers, “talked about exultation and piety” and they worked with movement and improvisations. He incorporated Afro-Caribbean movements, melding the dancers’ movements with his own. The decision to draw his dancers into the process rather than taking a dictatorial approach was intentional and planned.

“They too have voices,” he tells me. “These are Black and brown dancers, mixed dancers also, and they can understand the marginalization of artists and some of the layers of issues that perhaps Juan de Pareja was going through.”

It is easy to see why the Met approached Vilaro to create this work. His own story of discovering dance as a child likely attuned him to nuances of power, culture and creativity.

“I was a six-year-old kid from Cuba in the U.S., trying to learn English in a small school in the Bronx during a difficult time in the 1970s,” he shares. “In my last year, eighth grade, a teacher directed a musical and taught us what it was like to audition and be an artist. I got the role of Linus in ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ When it came time for my dance, the teacher asked me to improvise, so I did, and it was fantastic. The response of the audience gave me this sense that I could belong.”

Vilaro takes his lead from Ballet Hispánico founder Tina Ramirez in focusing entirely on his creative and human obligation to strengthen and unite community. To that end, Buscando a Juan is not only a reckoning with the past but a prayer for the present: that we allow all voices to tell their own stories, and to express their own truths in their own ways.

Ballet Hispánico’s Eduardo Vilaro On ‘Buscando a Juan’ at the Met