Can US Dance Learn From Ballet Folklórico de México?

This kind of work could become prevalent in America. Why isn't it?

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Photo: La Jornada.

I was recently fortunate enough to see Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández — so named for the woman who founded the company in 1952, and introduced folkloric dance to Mexico — at the historic Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. The company performs a twice-weekly program that utilizes live music and dance to trace Mexico’s rich history and culture from the pre-Colombian era to modern day. It was a spectacular and educational experience.

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The show began with a number of drummers — some on display when the curtain rose, some on a stage that gradually ascended from the orchestra pit. There were scores and scores of them. Dancers soon joined and the audience was immersed in a jaw-dropping presentation that not only captured our attention by the sheer number of people on stage, but impressed with their impeccable technique and athleticism. This opening number was an ode to Los Matachines, a dance of the pre-Hispanic peoples of northern Mexico City in honor of the gods.

Los Matachines was the first of the program’s 13 sections. Each delivered a mini-narrative representing a different aspect of Mexico’s history and culture. Each also offered a visual and auditory lesson that, when taken together, demonstrated the expansiveness and the breadth of Mexican culture. Featured was the indigenous music and dance rituals of the Aztecs; an honor to Mexican hero Vicente Guerrero signifying courage; a dedication to La Revolución de 1910 featuring Las Soldaderas — the many women who joined male fighters in the struggle for liberty; Danza del Venado (The Deer Dance), a rite that takes place on the eve of hunting expeditions and culminates in a joyous celebration in the Jalisco state, driven by traditional el mariachi music.

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I was captivated by the performers and the performance, but what set this display of sheer virtuosity apart was how the audience — half tourists, half locals — seems collectively to be moved. It wasn’t just a matter of theatrical bravado that entertained us for two hours, but a reminder of the unique vibrancy and, at times, devastating history of Mexican culture.

Photo: televisa.NEWS.

Ballet Folklórico takes on, for example, the story of the Spanish conquest. The beginning of one scene made this tragically clear. In it, a local gathering is interrupted by a lone Spanish man who displays his dominance by stealing a woman from the arms of the man who was already dancing with her. He takes her, and she obliges temporarily by dancing with him, but later attempts, unsuccessfully, to return to her previous partner. The men, of course, then fight to the death.

Ballet Folklórico puts the audience through such a rollercoaster of excitement and sadness that I was humbled by it — humbled by the reminder of the power of live performance to communicate messages of unity, heartbreak, inequity, hope and beauty on a deeper level than a simple statement. I see dance on a weekly basis but, more often than not, I digest the performance as a dancer; I reconnect with the physical sensation of performing and it’s almost always accompanied by a conscious and subconscious running critique of the piece overall. Ballet Folklórico went beyond habitual theatergoing; through performance, there’s a level of education and inspiration.

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Last month, I had a similar experience watching Rennie Harris’ Lazarus, performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Like Ballet Folklórico, it connects past, present and future:

In the Company’s first two-act ballet, acclaimed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris completes a trilogy of works — including past Ailey audience favorites “Exodus” and “Home” — with this hour-long work inspired by the life and times of Mr. Ailey.

With Lazarus, Harris connects past and present in a powerful work that addresses the racial inequities America faced when Mr. Ailey founded this company in 1958 and still faces today.

These two performances were, of course, wildly different. But both brought the audience face to face with historical truths. Some of these truth were magnificent and beautiful. Others were dark reminders of the sins of the past and their continued role in the inequities of society.

Live performance possesses the unique ability to link ancient and recent, to create space for reflection. I wonder if there is more work being created in this vein to reflect American history. In fact, could this kind of work become prevalent in American dance? If so, where? Who? Which forgotten stories have yet to be expressed through dance? I’d like to know.