Ballet Hispanico is a force in arts and culture. The company, founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez to give dance training and performing experiences to underprivileged young Latinos, has become a polished group of professionals. In addition to touring, the organization offers workshops for schoolteachers and students of all ages, master classes, salsa classes, and performances aimed at kids. The organization is building a new center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A carefully monitored diversity shapes the repertory. The dancers are adept at ballet and modern dance, but many of the works acknowledge Latino or Spanish culture in some way. Given the variety of choreographers who’ve participated, it strikes me as a little strange that among the current Joyce season’s four programs, Program A offers only works by Ramón Oller, and Program B features a repeat of four of them along with Ramirez’s world premiere, Palladium Suite.
Granted, Oller has contributed more pieces to the rep than any other choreographer and strives to vary his style from piece to piece. Still, Program A’s four duets (all excerpted from longer works) and his world premiere, Corazón Al-Andaluz, reveal his weaknesses as well as his strengths. He has a gift for challenging the dancers’ considerable technical expertise and their expressive powers in order to create vivid stage pictures. No dance ever gets underperformed by these 13 pros. On the debit side, Oller sometimes settles for ballet clichés or movements that seem to come right out of a modern dance class. And he often seems not to have thought things through. After almost every dance on the program, I found myself thinking, “What on earth did that mean?” or “Why did they do that?” or “Do you suppose he intended . . . ?”
The least confusion was generated by an extremely imaginative duet from his 1998 gypsy piece, Bury Me Standing. For almost the entire time, Nicholas Villeneuve lies on his back, supporting Sara Kappraff on the soles of his feet. The mood is dreamily playful, and the two dancers execute the curious maneuvers Oller has designed with fluid ease. Only the ending elicits a query. Villeneuve lugs Kappraff off on his back; turned sideways, arms held stiffly out, she’s suddenly a crucifix. Do I now have to rethink the whole duet?
Natalia Alonso and Iyun Harrison begin the duet from Eyes of the Soul (to music by Joaquín Rodrigo) by walking onstage from opposite sides, each shoving a narrow mattress along with their feet. The two fine dancers wear white garments by Willa Kim that suggest underwear. They make nice athletic designs on these beds, push them together, and make some more attractive designs alone and with each other. Zero eroticism, no confrontation, and nothing apparently going in their heads. Dance done, they simply leave the stage, pushing their mattresses ahead of them.
One of two duets from Bésame features an imposing table and a single chair. Why are these there? Is one of the dancers (Monét McCall and Eric Rivera) planning to dine on the other? The table turns out to be onstage so the two can interrupt their yearning balletic duet to sit on it and do a brief shoulder stand. Rivera can also lounge there or sit on the chair to watch McCall dance. That’s about it, yet at the end, both of them stand on the table and face the back of the stage, as if on a precipice facing the future. Who knew?
The other duet from the same 2001 piece prompts even more questions. Rodney Hamilton strides on, dressed in a white suit, and holding a bouquet of red roses stiffly in front of him. He seems oblivious of James A. Pierce III dancing along behind him, wearing a brief silver costume and a sparkly headdress. Where is the first man going? Who are the roses for? He heads for a sofa and sits down, while the tag-along guy stands on his pointed barefoot and does other clever things. Is it to stop him that Hamilton jams the bouquet into Pierce’s mouth? If so, it doesn’t work; this glittery, androgynous, club-world spirit keeps dancing with a bunch of roses where his face ought to be, until Hamilton pushes him down, stands on him, and snatches the bouquet. The minimal contact between them involves the sofa and a small table and is more virtuosic than intimate. Pierce goes. Hamilton stays.
The program note for Corazón Al-Andaluz tells us only that in Spain from the 8th through the 14th century, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived peacefully side by side (truest in southern regions like Andaluzia). Using music by Rosa Zaragoza, Luis Delgado, and Luis Paniagua, plus sounds of birds, wind, and water, Oller creates a colorful, very formal picture of cultural mingling. There are many striking movement images and space designs. It’s too bad that the work rambles on and on, sometimes suggesting that tensions are about to develop, then dissipating them.
A row of carpets encloses the stage on three sides. Pierce, Harrison, and Hamilton wear Willa Kim’s gorgeous flowing coats of turquoise-blue silk over orange pants; billed as Alhambra’s Men, they represent the Moors. As Corazón’s Men (the Christians), Rivera, Villeneuve, and Waldemar Quiñones are dressed in yellowish, buttoned-up coats over yellowish silk pants, with small hats on their heads. Reico’s Women (Alonso, Kappraff and Jessica Batten) represent the Jewish population. The characters’ affiliations aren’t made clear in the program or in the dance, and I’m not sure which group Mccall belongs to. It’s she who begins the piece, rippling sensuously in her floaty harem attire, while the men retreat to opposite sides of the stage and watch. She flits through the whole piece dancing wonderfully, now with one group, now with another.
Oller’s choreography is meant to show cross-cultural influences. The Christians don’t undulate their torsos as marvelously and ceaselessly as the Muslim men do; but they do on occasion swivel their hips. The Jewish women understand the fluid mechanics of the danse du ventre. The Christians play drums for the Muslims’s dance. The three Jewish women form trios with men from each group.
Hints of subliminal strife crop up enigmatically: a shove, a
gesture that suggests mourning, some ominous prowling. The men almost always stick with their color-coded friends. Near the end, the Christians, now bare-chested, enter with crutch-sized, two-pronged white forks and, with these implements lift Kappraff in innumerable ways. Their actions suggest cruelty, but they remain calm, and she shows no fear. It’s difficult not to imagine that when these men drag the women, seated on the forks like oven ready pizza, to the sidelines, that the Christian persecution of the Jews is on the boil.
There are many more interactions within and between groups than I’ve conveyed here. It would be nice to think that Oller might continue to work on the piece—editing, refining, and clarifying until all that’s fine about it stands out unimpeded.