The Latino population in the U.S. has reached 55 million. President Obama will become America’s first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Two candidates of Latino heritage have emerged among the top three contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yet it’s in the performing arts, particularly dance, that the growing Hispanic influence on American culture is most vibrantly visible.
Last fall when New York City’s premiere cultural institution launched its “Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance” series — bringing films of live dance performances to movie screens nationwide — the four companies it presented included two top-tier ballet companies (New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet), the leading African-American troupe (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre), and Ballet Hispanico, which will perform at Johnson County Community College on Saturday night.
“We look at Lincoln Center as the big ivory tower, so for them to reach out and say it’s important to include Ballet Hispanico in the first round of their new dance film series is overwhelming and humbling,” said first-generation Cuban-American Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director and chief executive officer of the New York City-based Ballet Hispanico.
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Founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez — who in 2005 won the nation’s highest cultural honor, the Medal of Arts, for her achievements at the helm of the troupe — Ballet Hispanico now is commonly considered America’s pre-eminent Latino dance institution.
When asked to explain why it holds that distinction, Vilaro began not by boasting that the company has performed for multiple U.S. presidents, nor by touting its trailblazing appearance at a ballet festival in Havana in 2014.
Instead, Vilaro started by proudly describing the company’s educational work.
“What’s really important to us is educating all our audiences, both on the stage and in the studio,” Vilaro said. “We have a long history of educating young people through dance and giving them the tools to find themselves in this art form. That’s why I consider us pre-eminent.”
“At its root, our mission has always been education,” said spokeswoman AnaMaria Correa. “We execute that mission in three ways: through our professional performing company, through partnerships with schools, community centers, senior centers, and detention centers, and through community activities, like at a gym or arts center. But ours is not a top-down approach. We recognize that a community is going to share with and teach us, just as much as we will be teaching them. To us, education is a two-way street.”
What Ballet Hispanico purports to share is what it terms the “dynamic aesthetic” of the Hispanic diaspora.
“What we’re talking about is the diversity within the Latino culture. That’s what makes us dynamic. Latino culture is not just Puerto Rican, not just Colombian. I’ve even moved on from saying the diaspora to saying diasporas,” Vilaro said.
The dance troupe also strives to challenge stereotypes, while simultaneously taking ownership of iconic representations.
“We are pushing boundaries by taking what we have and making a new ‘salsa,’ removing the jalapenos and adding something else. Yet there’s always a part of our culture that comes into the soupy mix — our humor, our passion, our joie de vivre. I try to capture that, but put within a very contemporary platform,” Vilaro said.
Despite the company’s name, Ballet Hispanico’s members are not all Latino, nor is it purely a ballet company. Its repertory would be categorized as contemporary concert dance.
“Just because I’m Latino doesn’t mean I can do a salsa step better than someone else,” said Kassandra Cruz, a Venezuela-born dancer in her second year with the troupe. “I grew up in the United States, but in a very Latino household — my parents didn’t speak English and the foods we ate and the music they listened to were from Venezuela — so it’s nice to work somewhere where you can tap into the roots that were instilled in you.
“ ‘Club Havana,’ one of the pieces we’ll be performing in Kansas, really taps into those roots. Yet it also showcases the beautiful technique of professionally trained dancers. It’s a wonderful fusion of Latin flavor and the ballet aesthetic and the feel of a particular time and place.”
Set in a 1950s Havana nightclub, and choreographed by Cuban Pedro Ruiz to music by the Buena Vista Social Club, the work exudes the elegance, rhythms, and varied characters of what Correa described as “both the glorified Cuba as well as the complicated Cuba.”
The atmospherically diverse triple bill also will include Barcelona-born choreographer Ramon Oller’s “Bury Me Standing,” a moving historical portrait of the persecution and triumphs of the Romany people, set to gypsy, flamenco, and bolero music.
“There are also a lot of Jewish rhythms in it, so when we talk about diverse dynamics within the Latino culture, that’s another one. There are Spanish Jews, so that influence is in our music as well,” Vilaro said.
Completing the program will be Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramierz Sansano’s “Flabbergast,” a very contemporary, tongue-in-cheek piece about immigrating, being in a new place, and how preposterous changes can seem. While set in 1940s Spain, the work conveys universally experienced emotions.
“Regardless of your ethnic background you will relate to the stories told through all three of these dances and to the characters that populate them,” Correa said. “If you love music and can appreciate a story told through movement, then you will find yourself in Ballet Hispanico.”
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Ballet Hispanico performs at 8 p.m. Saturday in Yardley Hall. Tickets are $15-$40 through JCCC.edu.