Ballet Hispanico At the Annenberg in Philadelphia

Ballet Hispanico, a professional dance company from New York City, presented three pieces in their dance concert at the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on February 5, 2016. Very different in theme, each dance contained hispanic inspired music (Bury Me Standing uses traditional gypsy melodies, which are recognizable today by many in Spanish flamenco)  and also showcased the versatility, artistry and innovation of the company: Sombrerísimo, (choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in 2013), Bury Me Standing (1998 by Ramón Oller) and Flabbergast (2001 by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano).

The first dance, Sombrerísimo, featured male dancers with hats, hence the name, which translated from Spanish, would be something like “extremely hats.” According to the program it was based on the artistic works by Belgian René Magritte, which were of men wearing bowler hats. The style was mostly “modern” with a little bit of latin (as opposed to classical ballet), in which the feet and the rest of the body are able to take on movements outside the ballet vocabulary. The hats were tossed around and became characters as well.

The longest and most serious piece of the evening was Bury Me Standing.  I love the title. It comes from a Romani proverb, referenced in the book by Isabel Fonseca: “Bury me standing, I’ve been on my knees all my life.” This refers to the oppression that the Roma (aka the gypsies or gitanos) have experienced for centuries. Ms. Fonseca’s book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, was published in 1995, based on her own observations drawn from four years of living with the Roma. The choreographer is from Spain, and Spain has a huge Roma, or gitano population in Andalusia. Having spent part of last summer in Granada, I visited Sacromonte (the Roma part of town) and flamenco was all over Granada so  their culture was still fresh in my mind.

Bury Me Standing is a tribute to the Romani, but never replicates the footwork or the intricate handiwork of the flamenco, although there are glimpses of it. The choreographer goes beyond what we usually see as gitano or flamenco dance to invoke a mood and tell the story. Only the men do the hand movements at one point. Everyone is barefoot in the dance so even in a lined up formation, no noise could be made or heard from the stylized footwork that recalls zapateo. The style is contemporary or modern dance, with some flamenco/gypsy inspired movements. The choreographer makes excellent use of the stage–there is no part of it that is not used at some point in the piece. Levels are also varied, with some steps taking place with the dances on the floor, on their knees, or jumping. There is a table too, and two women relate on the table. All of this results in a very multidimensional and multilayered performance.

Through the intense choreography and imaginative staging, they communicated the somewhat foreign context of the Roma. The emphasis on the collective, the group consciousness and unity was evident, as well as a charismatic male leader, who had a few solos. We see some of the conflict that occurs in this group, as the women walk on their knees, gossip and cross themselves repeatedly. Some men also walk on their knees, but the group of women doing it is singled out and very striking. The Roma are more traditional and patriarchal than mainstream Spanish culture today, and this was well depicted through the dance. At the same time, the crawling and walking on the knees, refers back to the Roma proverb, and is a reference to the oppression that the Roma have experienced for so long, no matter what country they live in. The dance ends with all of them running in place, which could have various interpretations–perhaps a more positive one is that they are standing up and empowered. Bury Me Standing is a  moving tribute to the Roma, these “nomadic” people who have spread throughout Europe and even to the United States.

The last dance, Flabbergast, was light and funny, and a good ending to the evening. They broke the fourth wall, sung while they danced: “voy a bailar, ” and talked to each other. In this dance, which the program says ” exposes with humor our stereotypes and preconceived ideas about new and foreign places… telling the story of a newcomer coming to a place for the first time”. somebody is always doing their own thing on stage! Ballet Hispanico ended the concert with a pose and a smile–after a varied and polished program that entertained and encouraged the audience to think, laugh and feel.

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Ballet Hispanico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramírez. The company specializes in Spanish and Latin American inspired dance. In addition to their professional touring company, they also maintain a thriving school to train young and aspiring dancers in Spanish dance, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. The current Artistic Director is Eduardo Vilaro.

 

 

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ESCUELA: Too much lecturing, not enough drama

At the end of the play, the guerrillas stood in a circle, each one with pistol in hand. It was New Year’s Eve, or at least that was their cover. Real shots rang out from the guns announcing the new year and the end of the lessons, and the performance. Unfortunately, for some in the audience, that was a relief…

ESCUELA, (SCHOOL), a play by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón,  produced by FRINGE ARTS in Philadelphia, offers the audience lessons in how to fight back against an unjust government.  At the same time it is a tribute to Chileans who suffered through the Pinochet dictatorship–those who endured it, those who fought it as well as to those who were tortured and murdered. According to the playbill, it is supposed to take place in 1988 when the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, put forth a referendum to govern for 8 more years. Some Chileans were excited to vote on it but others saw through this ploy–Pinochet remained as commander in chief of the army until 1998, even though the dictatorship officially ended on March 11, 1990.

The structure of the performance oscillates between different lessons about what one needs to understand about the regime, guerrilla consciousness, and shooting practice. At first this set-up seems promising, but in the end there was no dramatic arc to the play–it was essentially didactic and static, and after an hour, it became somewhat tedious since the audience knew what to expect.

Nevertheless, on Saturday January 30,  the cast and director (Guillermo Calderón) deserve accolades for the seamless and well rehearsed production. The delivery of the lines was exceptional and crisp. There were English subtitles for the non-Spanish speakers and they did have to stop for a few minutes to fix it due to a glitch, but otherwise it worked well. The acting was natural within the context of the dramatic structure, of a training cell.

The set was simple, composed of a table, some chairs and a chalkboard. The subtitles were projected above the chalkboard, and images related to the lessons and the revolutionary cause were projected onto it. The play opened with protest songs. The singing was well done. I didn’t know anything about the play, other than that it was about Chile  and guerrilla tactics, and with mistaken delight I thought that it was going to be a musical when they started singing.

In addition to how to fire a weapon, other topics covered in  ESCUELA, included: “What is Exploitation;” the military, conspiracy, change of the government, psychological warfare and handling bombs. The characters all wore scarves to cover their faces. This makes sense, because it is quite likely that they would do that in real life if they were guerrillas in training. However, this tactic does not help to endear characters to the audience or establish some kind of connection with their struggle. We don’t know anything about these people until near the end, when we find out that one had fought in Libya and another was dressed up in a sequined outfit and heels because she was told the “cover” was a New Year’s Eve party. There is also a photo from 1987 projected onto the screen that references the playwright–and it is explained what those 4 revolutionaries, including Guillermo Calderón, went on to do in their lives later.

Although I understood the device used, of recreating the “school” or lessons that the guerrillas would have been taught in training, and I thought it creative, it did not go far enough to engage the audience. I am not an expert at all in Chile or Chilean politics, but I am a Latin Americanist, familiar with the continent.  I believe that a non-Spanish speaker, who came off the street to see this play, would understand very little (even with the subtitles). There is too much history and backstory. ESCUELA is very specific and requires a good deal of knowledge about Chile to appreciate it.  The history and politics are accentuated, yet it comes off as impersonal.  It uses the “school/la escuela” format, but this does not encourage us to identify with the struggle or support the characters’ motivations.  We do not see their faces, we do not know their individual stories. We do not know what is in their hearts. We can only guess by their clothing and voices who they might be.  This is enough to keep the audience paying attention for about an hour, and then it becomes routine.  Was the playwright attempting to say that all these guerrillas or protestors were essentially the same? That it didn’t matter who they were, that they didn’t matter against the regime?

ESCUELA, superbly performed for what it was, depicts and explains a guerrilla training process. Depending on the audience member’s knowledge, the play may feel like a solemn tribute to Chile or an animated how-to-conspire manual. At any rate, FRINGEARTS in Philadelphia should be commended for featuring and supporting theatre from Latin America–we don’t see enough of it!