Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary admission to write an open and honest review of Ballet Hispánico’s The Power of the Latina Voice performance.
The (second) ‘Year of the Woman’ may have come and passed in 2018, but the New York City-based Ballet Hispánico continues to value and promote work by female artists. Their latest The Power of the Latina Voice bill showcases the work of three female choreographers at the Apollo Theater. Ballet Hispánico’s Artistic Director, Eduardo Vilaro, writes to the audience: “The program’s focus on female choreographers is a direct manifestation of the mission begun by [company] founder, Tina Ramirez, as well as response to the need within our field – and our world – to amplify the voices of women and our historically under-recognized Latinx community.”
Sandra Parks, founder of the Women in Dance Leadership Conference, is another dance professional that seeks to empower female artists.
Founded by Tina Ramirez in 1970, Ballet Hispánico is a cultural New York institution and is often considered America’s leading Latino dance organization. The dance company speaks to the Hispanic experience and provides access to arts education across the country, occasionally performing in schools or at free festivals, such as NYC’s SummerStage. Current Artistic Director, Cuban-born Eduardo Vilaro assumed the position of Artistic Director in 2009, drawing upon his experience as a former Ballet Hispánico dancer and founder of Luna Negra Dance Theatre in Chicago.
“Latina choreographers lead the way at Ballet Hispánico.”– LA Times
The Power of the Latina Voice Review
Triple bill, The Power of the Latina Voice, features three unique perspectives on Latinx cultural identity. Although all of the pieces are at least partially autobiographical in nature, they still resonate with anyone who has an understanding of Latino culture – or anyone has been marginalized, stereotyped and grew up on the peripheries of more than one culture.
Eduardo Vilaro took to the stage to introduce the show, noting that he was proud to bring Ballet Hispánico to Harlem. He said we could read all about the pieces in the program. But Vilaro emphasized, “The experience is where it’s at.”
Con Brazos Abiertos (2017): Michelle Manzanales
Michelle Manzaneles’ Con Brazos Abiertos plays out like a vivid dreamscape, mixing Mexican culture, Americanized stereotypes of this culture and introspective scenes as the main female character navigates her own identity.
Dancers gallop onto the stage, crowned with bright red sombreros that obscure their faces. We can’t distinguish individual characteristics as the one-dimensional chorus flourishes their accessories with Broadway-style fanfare. Another scene sees the dancers twirling in long white skirts, embellished with colorful floral embroidery at the waist, that fan out and fill the stage.
However, the flashy Mexican references are sobered by a woman, who (like the famous singer Selena) feels the need to be simultaneously more American than Americans and more Mexican than Mexicans. In a solo, she struggles to balance a sombrero on her body, managing to hold it aloft on her foot as she completes a backwards roll.
We feel her frustration as the piece comes to a close with a duet to a Frou Frou-like version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Desperate to be accepted, she beats her arms against the torso of the man in front of her. And although the piece draws to an end, the struggle continues.
Nací (2009): Andrea Miller
Gallim Dance founder, Andrea Miller, draws upon her multifaceted cultural background in Nací. As soon as the piece opened with a man carrying a tree on his back, my friend instinctively whispered, “It’s about immigration.”
A small group of dancers, clad in the colors typical of Spanish and Portuguese Azulejos, dance to music with a driving beat and a lilting Moorish feel.
But the music really takes center stage when a female dancer, lip-syncs, while she’s held upside down. She is joined by three other women, who sit with her, forlorn. Their torsos heaving with emotion as they silently scream along with the song.
Nací brings back the tree strapped upon a man’s back and demonstrates that people are carried from place to place, too. Woman stand atop the shoulders of men as they slowly merengue march forward and set them down. The piece reminds us that when you’re uprooted, the place you land doesn’t always feel like home.
Tiburones (2019): Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tiburones inspects how pervasive stereotypes against Latinx culture drown out the true experiences and voices Latinx people. Her ‘Sharks’ piece references the Puerto Rican Sharks gang from West Side Story – whose second iteration, directed by Steven Spielberg, is due to play in cinemas during late 2020.
A sole director clicks a clapperboard in the direction of specific dancers, non-verbally ordering them to freeze, so he can quickly rearrange them to his taste. He rolls a giant light around the stage, following the dancers, as if recording their every move – and momentarily blinds the audience as he swings it around.
In between the invasive episodes, the performers find their own groove with salsa-based steps and a short interlude of men owning both their masculine and feminine sides in killer heels. The Latinx performers find their true power when they huddle together and eventually shut down the director.
And finally, they can tell their own stories, their own way.
The compelling show uses dance vehicle to discuss complex issues of identity, power dynamics and belonging – and it really hits home.
Have you ever seen Ballet Hispánico perform? If so, did you go to the theatre or did you catch them at a free community festival? Let us know in the comments section below!