Next year, Ballet Hispanico will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Under the direction of Tina Ramirez, the company grew from a small group emphasizing a folkloric base into an ensemble of dazzlingly accomplished dancers with a variegated repertory that displays its Latin-American identity in ways both familiar (tango dance hall passions) and subtle, such as Andrea Miller’s brand new Nací.
The tiny, vibrant, redoubtable Ramirez retired at the end of last year’s New York season. The new artistic director, Eduardo Vilaro, danced with BH in the 1990s and founded the Chicago company Luna Negra in 1999. Although he only took over BH in August, the two new works and the New York premiere that debuted at the Joyce on Program A were his doing.
In Tríptico, Ron de Jesús, onetime Hubbard Street dancer, has created a sleek, sexy piece for three couples set to music by Oscar Hernandez. Pianist Hector Martignon and percussionists Jimmy Delgado and Tony Rosa build up some good-humored heat, with castanets providing additional crackle. Ryan O’Gara’s row of blue lights on the floor at the back and Anita Yavich’s costumes set up the atmosphere for elegant coupling. Min-Tzu Li, pressed into slow, sultry lifts by Rodney Hamilton, wears a sleeveless black tunic, split up the sides, with a web of black cords etched on her bare back.
The three couples engage in similar encounters that show off the women’s long, articulate legs, the men’s power, and the cool intensity of their relationships. De Jesús doesn’t delineate highly contrasting moods among the pas de deux for Li and Hamilton and those performed by Jessica Batten and Waldemar Quiñones-Villanueva, Marina Fabila and Nicholas Villeneuve. Later, all three men launch their partners into flying lifts and flips. There’s one strange moment early on when Li sort of crawls offstage by herself. I don’t think I’ll remember Tríptico forever, but it shows off the excellent dancers in a way that contrasts effectively to the carnivalesque solos in the restaging of Vicente Nebrada’s 1982 Batucada Fantastico.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Locked Up Laura (choreographed for BJM Danse in Montreal) riffs on a not uncommon ballet motif: the dance with a dead body—in this case, a drowsy body. The terrific Angelica Burgos begins prone on the floor beneath an apricot sky, unresponsive to the plucking of a guitar (taped music by Bart Rijnink), and the intermittent voice of a phantom stage manager counting down to performance time. When Jeffrey Hover—interestingly weird in this—attempts to drag her to her feet, she collapses back down; he flips her over and hauls her up by one leg. Finally balanced on pointe, she wakes up sufficiently to execute several perfect developpés, around the time that the voice is announcing, “Fifteen minutes, please.”
The piece is odd and a bit irrational (the stage manager calls Burgos to the stage when she’s already there), but not without charm. Mostly Burgos is either stiff or floppy, and she rejects the little skirt her patient partner puts on her. Oh, well, back to sleep.
Asking Andrea Miller, the director of her own Gallim Dance, to make a work for BH was, to my mind, Vilaro’s boldest and smartest move. Miller is one of the most interesting young choreographers around, and the BH dancers—up for anything—do her proud in Nací. From the minute the curtain goes up, and you see eight figures silhouetted against the sky, you sense that this dance will not be about glamour or conventional virtuosity. The women’s short dresses are loosely cut, and the men are wearing baggy trousers and shirts with the sleeves rolled up. As Vincent Vigilante’s lighting begins warming up the stage, the dresses are revealed as floral prints; two of the three men (Hamilton, Hover, and Yesid Lopez) wear vests, and everyone is barefoot.
The score that Miller has put together includes the rich, percussive “Foni Tu Argile,” by the group A Hawk and A Hacksaw (it’s based on a Greek wedding song); a recorded interview in Spanish with a man who speaks of Spanish Jews and Jewish scholars; a ladino lullaby; and a song, “Nací en Alamo, by Tony Gatlif and an unnamed gypsy. Miller’s people travel the landscape of the stage in bent-over runs, their hands reaching out low to the ground, as if to glean what they can. Sometimes they walk with little steps, but more often you see them spraddled-legged. They gallop and galumph. Laboring, their bodies twist and jerk.
When Vanessa Valecillos dances by herself, hunched over at times, big shadows menace her from the backdrop. Hamilton watches her closely before joining her; so curious is their duet that she can seem sometimes his guardian, sometimes his slave. Little that happens is predictable except the powerful identity of this community. Hover and Lopez hold Jessica Alejandra Wyatt upside down in a pool of light, while she lip-synchs “Nací en Alamo,” the wail of a rootless wanderer, sung in a woman’s high scratchy voice. When she is released, still “singing,” the other women (Batten, Fabila, and Valecillos) open their mouths in silent screams. Miller rinses away any possible pathos or sentimental indulgences to present a raw poetry about survival.
Coincidentally, New York audiences could see another work by Miller for another group of dancers during Ballet Hispanico’s second week. The group in question consists of 24 first-year students in Juilliard’s Dance Division. Miller’s Uwnrap These Flowers is rife with the images of danger and death you might expect from the opening music: selections from Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber opera, Ainadamar, which tells of the loves and death of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca; the initial sweet interlude is interrupted by crashes and electronically musicalized gunfire. The rest of the music (by Tim Hecker, Black Dice, Benoit Pioulard, and others) hints in other ways at the perils of living, as does Nicole Pearce’s masterful lighting.
Miller skillfully manipulates her very large, very talented cast. You begin to see a world going askew when, during a peaceful dance for several male pairs, one man starts to run, holding his sagging partner under the armpits; the supported man keeps leaping low to the ground. A woman (Gillian Abbott) is thrown into the waiting arms of a cluster of people, then into another cluster, and another. When she finally stands alone, men take turns falling at her feet. Dancers begin to collapse, just after those who could catch them walk away, and you wonder if the catchers will make it back in time. People are dragged. A woman (Lilja Ruriksdottir) is made to walk in air by the two men who’ve lifted her and move her feet. In the end, Abbott stands over a man’s fallen body (Joseph Chaikin), while Ruriksdottir, held up again, looks down on the scene like an impassive angel.
Each of the four premieres that make up the New Dances/Edition 2009 program features an entire Dance Division class, and it’s fascinating to see how the four choreographers handle their large casts. Handed 21 third-year students for his Megalopolis, Larry Keigwin breaks them into squads of varying sizes—twos, threes, fives, tens, etc. The principal music, Steve Reich’s Sextet—Six Marimbas, with its shifting, accumulating, overlapping patterns, engenders a variety of snappy little parades that enter the stage, cross it on various paths and disappear; usually three or more are visible at any time. They’re not doing fancy steps, but every foot pattern has a spunky energy, as well as a seductive edge that hints at fashion runways. The opening—a crisp, side-by-side duet for William Barry and Zachary Tang—also prepares us for an atmosphere of club-kid daring reined in by scrupulous form. In perfect synch, they wiggle their hips, corkscrew their torsos, crank their right arms.
There’s more than a hint of mischief under the precision and the slightly chill atmosphere created by Pearce’s standing white neon tubes that flank the stage and guard the back. Reich’s rippling percussion gives way for a while to excerpts from two pieces by M.I.A. And Fritz Masten’s trim, terrific, subtly diverse costumes look like what you might wear to an extraterrestrial rave. Several performers are in all-silver outfits; others stride and strut in silver-trimmed black. Twice—once at the very end—Barry crosses the stage carrying on wildly with a hand-held neon strip. Every now and then, one of the dancers gives us the eye. “Yes yells someone from the audience, almost before the lights go out. I’d agree.
French choreographer Fabien Prioville manages the large-cast issue by setting out a row of chairs at the rear and sides of the stage, and Aszure Barton makes use of a low, simulated corral fence along the back. In Prioville’s Un Dernier Verre (A Last Drink), dancers not otherwise occupied hang out on the chairs and gossip in undertones. They also sit at the front of the stage and interlock their legs in a human chain to perform a clever sequence of repetitive unison gestures. In Barton’s Happy Little Things (Waiting On a Gruff Cloud of Wanting), her performers initially base themselves on the rail for a kind of cowboy chorus in which everyone has a slightly different series of precise but lusty moves.
Prioville’s piece for second-year students was inspired by Ettore Scola, Le Bal (The Ball), a film without dialogue that took place in a ballroom. Prioville was a member of the late Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal from 1999 to 2006, and Un Dernier Verre can be considered as an homage to her. His tale of a girl who, at her birthday party, feels increasingly isolated, makes use of many Bauschian strategies and images. What sounds like a Bach cantata begins to play, as a white-jacketed hotel employee (alumnus Paul Whitthorne) finishes fastidiously removing and folding the remaining white cloths that cover the ballroom chairs. After a while, Hannah Wright walks in, all dolled up in a fluffy pink dress, to await the guests. Time passes. Various pop selections are heard.
When they arrive, full of jollity, bearing an elaborate birthday cake, they fawn over her, but almost immediately attend to their own business. She speaks about her birthday, what she hoped for, how alone she feels. The attention she finally gets may not be what she had in mind. Whitthorne sits her in a swing, and one by one, the men break off their idle chatter or slow-dancing with their partners and line up to take a lipstick from her limp hand and improve on her makeup. Unlike in a similar scene in a Bausch work, they pretty much stick to the outlines of her mouth.
Bausch also often used an inert woman motif. When all the women are laid out in the floor, Spencer Dickhaus desperately tries to get Wright, and then another woman and another, to remember something they did together. The women remain inert. In the end, partners freeze in various poses, one by one. Meanwhile Wright, whose swing ropes have been twisted by Whitthorne, untwists herself, spinning and spinning. The lights go out.
If Prioville challenged the Juilliard kids in a theatrical style that requires a certain amount of improvisation, Barton churned up some smart, lively dancing for the class graduating in 2010. She set us up for her vision of the West by having a cowboy saunter down the aisle of the theater while a husky voice (Bill Frissell) twined around “Careless Love” and sit to the side throughout the piece. Costumed by Masten in shirts, pants, and vests in shades of brown, the 20 dancers, with smoke initially swirling over their heads, engage in a number of activities (at one point, led by one person holding a flashlight, some of them simulate a train crossing the plains). On all fours in a square, a bunch of them regard a soloist as if they were a peaceful herd contemplating a show-off roper.
The movement Barton devises is bold and quirky; sometimes dancers just shoot up into a jump. And the whole piece has a mysterious sense of yearning. At the end, Norbert De La Cruz performs—wonderfully—a long, robust solo while two cast members watch and the others form a sculptural clump. The music, at this point, is, I believe, by Bella Fleck and Edgar Meyer. Suddenly the lone dancer races to the clump and scales it. Cowboy on a lonesome mountaintop. Then he falls backward into oblivion.
The four well-chosen choreographers show off in diverse ways Juilliard’s cadre of extremely gifted students—their increasingly polished skills and their openness to a variety of styles and viewpoints on dance. Just wait till they graduate!