A single dancer commands the stage, her arms and legs lithely carving the space as the words of Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To Live In The Borderlands Means You,” simultaneously sculpt the air. A ballerina’s nimble fingertips etch lines in the sky as she dances with her partner in an ethereal, heart-wrenching pas de deux. Men in intricately embroidered jackets tap out a percussive and precise zapateado. Women in brightly colored skirts move together with force, muskets in hand. Ballet Nepantla’s “Valentina,” which was presented in an abridged version on July 13 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, is composed of these vignettes, each centering around the stories of the women of Revolutionary Mexico: their pain, their joy, their loves, and their losses.
Though the company wasn’t performing far from their New York City home, July 13th’s show marked Ballet Nepantla’s Pillow debut. This made the work’s prelude, “Nepantla”—a contemporary solo performed by Piper Dye, choreographed by Ballet Nepantla’s founding artistic director Andrea Guajardo and set to Anzaldúa’s poem—a particularly apt introduction to the company, their history, and their mission. As Dye danced, the movement seemed to be coming from her, Guajardo’s, and the company’s collective soul, providing an insight into who Ballet Nepantla is and what their artists stand for.
When Guajardo and Martín Rodríguez co-founded Ballet Nepantla in 2017, they wanted a place where they could—just as “Nepantla” suggests—exist in the intermediary places that make up who they are. The Aztec Nahuatl word nepantla, the company’s namesake, even directly translates to “in-between.” Guajardo, who was born and raised in South Texas, is a graduate of the renowned Ailey/Fordham BFA program and an alum of MOMIX Dance Company. Rodríguez, who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, spent his adolescence traveling across his home country to learn about each state’s traditional dance forms and culture. Their company takes both artist’s backgrounds and melds them into a mix of ballet, contemporary and traditional Mexican folklórico that honors both their shared heritage and their unique backgrounds and perspectives on movement.
“Valentina” is a testament to this, arranging sections of classical ballet pointework alongside separate displays of folklórico finesse—and in some sections of the work, combining the styles with inventive contemporary to form a beautiful tapestry of dance forms. Guajardo and Rodríguez’s own stories, as well as the stories of other choreographers who contributed to “Valentina”—Adolfo Salinas, company members Anthony Bocconi and Guadalupe Garza, in addition to the remainder of the company dancers—shine through in the movement, enhancing the work as the dancers and choreographers each share a piece of themselves.
“Valentina” proves to be distinctive, too, in its portrayal of women, not as ancillary characters, but as the central, moving force of the story.
For its primary inspiration, the ballet draws on the story of las adelitas, a nickname given to the women soldiers who fought in the Mexican Revolution. The story of las adelitas is a true one, and it has been told prior to “Valentina” by other Mexican folklorico companies. But, as Guajardo noted in the post-show talkback following the company’s July 13 Pillow performance, the women have never had a full ballet devoted solely to them, they’ve always been one aspect of a wider story.
In its focus on women, Ballet Nepantla honors las adelitas by never distilling them to one single characterization. Instead, “Valentina” shows the women as unique individuals, honoring their diversity in emotions—they weep, they mourn, they rejoice, they fight—and personalities—they’re doting, formidable, loving, and powerful.
And the women in “Valentina,” though full-bodied, vibrant, and alive, are never meek. Rather, they display a great strength, whether they’re tearfully sending their husbands off to war, thrown to the floor with the grief of losing them, or taking up arms to fight in their place.
The dancer’s movements reflect this. As they don their muskets, the women rise from the ashes, taking on a strength and resolve in stance and posture that they didn’t have before. They channel the transformative nature of grief into their bodies, creating a whirlwind of energy with their sharp and purposeful approach to the choreography. Even in their moments of joy, they’re forces, whirling about the stage like wind, unable to be pinned down.
Ballet Nepantla’s dancers breathe life into these historical figures, and in doing so, make las adelitas extensions of themselves and their own stories. Honoring in-between-ness, placing the spotlight on women, on culture, on uniqueness and personal identity and history, the work not only shares stories from the past, but stories that hold a great deal of weight in our present.