Latino ballet makes grand return to stage

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When Ballet Hispánico performs, it’s not just about dancing in front of an audience. It’s what’s behind the dancing that also matters.

“We’re a movement,” Eduardo Vilaro, chief executive and artistic director of the organization said. “We’re moving.”

Since its formation in 1970, Ballet Hispánico works to showcase “the need for inclusion and diversity” in performance art through its dance company, School of Dance, and its community arts partnerships across New York City and the country — all by giving Latino dancers a chance to flourish.

The dance company brought its swift moves to the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 19 for the first time in more than a decade. In its live performance, Ballet Hispánico brought audiences three dance pieces: “Con Brazos Abiertos,” “Sombrerísimo,” and “Danzón.” And each choreographed number has its own story to tell.

In “Con Brazos Abiertos,” which translates to “With Open Arms,” Michelle Manzaneles explores how it feels to be a first-generation American of Mexican immigrants in a way Vilaro finds to be “funny, poignant, and touching.”

“Her family came here,” he said. “She was born here, but she still deals with certain identity issues. She’s not enough of a Mexican. She’s not enough of an American. So what is it like living in that gray area?”

Meanwhile, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerísimo” takes a different approach to identity. The number focuses on hats and “how a piece of clothing can identify you,” Vilaro said, “and also bring you together in a group.”

While an all-male cast previously performed “Sombrerísimo,” an all-female ensemble took over at Lehman, and according to Vilaro, the piece didn’t change a bit.

“It is still as athletic and I think even a little bit more fabulous because the ladies of Ballet Hispánico are strong, powerful women,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to play with removing gender binary for dance.”

Vilaro also brought his choreography skills to the stage with “Danzón,” a piece he put together in 2001 that takes a new approach to Cuban dance.

“People are always used to a narrative for storytelling, and sometimes narrative is not there,” he said.

“So you will see at Ballet Hispánico, we both use narrative and non-narrative ideas to make the works pop.”

When it comes to prepping for shows like the one at Lehman, it’s all “about risk and trying things out,” Vilaro said, and it can take weeks or months to prepare for a performance, depending on how long a choreographed piece is.

“It’s like painting,” he said. “You look at line, you look at texture and color with movement, and then you use the stage for the floor as your canvas.”

In the days leading up to the show, Vilaro said he was excited to return to the Bronx, where he was born and raised.

“It’s great to be back home and bring the company I run to a few blocks from where I grew up,” he said.

And if there was one thing he’s learned from this experience, it’s that Ballet Hispánico needs to have more of a presence in the Bronx, and he hopes there will be more opportunities to perform at Lehman.

But for now, Vilaro hopes audiences left last weekend’s performance feeling energized to follow the dance organization for more.

“Hopefully they’ll keep coming back and be full of pride for what we have shown,” he said.

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