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Beauty to my Mind

The elegance of New York’s City Center theater is a good look for Ballet Hispánico. Artistic director Eduardo Vilaro’s vision to champion the work of Latine choreographers is evident in the four featured artists of this program bill. (“Linea Recta” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was not performed the night I attended.) But truly, the highlight of the company’s second City Center season is the versatility and joie de vivre of the current company dancers, who look terrific in everything.


Ballet Hispánico


City Center, New York, NY, June 2, 2023


Karen Hildebrand

Gabrielle Sprauve (centre) in “Sor Juana” by Michelle Manzanales. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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As a tribute to founder Tina Ramirez, William Forsythe’s “New Sleep (duet)” opens the evening with the pairing of Fatima Andere and Antonio Cangiano, who also shine as one of the dancing couples in Pedro Ruiz’s “Club Havana,” the company staple which closes the show with crowd pleasing rhythms of conga, rhumba, cha cha, and mambo. “New Sleep,” performed in dressed down black leotards and tights to the knees with Andere en pointe, places the two dancers in almost constant contact. They pull against each other until stretched nearly horizontal, and lean into sleek angles and sharp extensions amidst a clanging sound score. The epitome of cool abstract minimalism. Yet, did I only imagine those hints of Latin fire that seemed to flare up—a flexion of Andere’s wrist, the bravado of Cangiano’s upper torso?  

Antonio Cangiano and Fatima Andere in “New Sleep (duet)” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Of the four featured Latine choreographers, two are emerging talents, both have history with Ballet Hispánico as dancers. Director of the company’s school, Michelle Manzanales follows up on the success of her 2017 “Con Brazos Abiertos” with “Sor Juana,” an ambitious work that tells the story of a legendary seventeenth-century Mexican feminist, poet, scholar, and nun. Omar Román de Jesús, a Princess Grace Award winner in choreography and Baryshnikov Arts Center fellow at Kaatsbaan, makes his Ballet Hispánico choreographic debut with “Papagayos,” or parrots. 

“Papagayos” begins before it begins with a little disturbance. Just as intermission is ending, Amanda Del Valle, dressed in a shaggy clown suit of multi-colored mylar strips (is she a parrot?) noisily makes her way down the aisle to the foot of the stage and brays to those seated in the front rows, “Have you seen my hat?” When the curtain goes up, Amir Baldwin is wearing the hat—a bowler—while standing atop one of several folding chairs lined up in a row. The other characters circle around in a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, Baldwin points his fingers to shoot anyone left without a seat. The hat represents power, and the dance shows the characters jockeying for its possession with attention grabbing dance sequences and arresting partnering. Cori Lewis takes on the boneless affect of a ragdoll as Baldwin lifts and tosses her corpse in various ways, eventually picking her up by one leg to lower her onto the ground. Despite the dark theme—a tale of power, influence, and identity in the face of unauthorized control, per program notes—there is a playfulness, and it’s a pleasure to simply watch the dancers move. Dressed to give the impression of gangsters, they move among one another as seamlessly as the matched set of color coordinated suits they wear. 

Amanda del Valle and Ballet Hispánico company dancers in “Papagayos” by Omar
Román de Jesús. Photograph by Erin Baiano

In Manzanales’ “Sor Juana,” the lush costumes designed by Sam Ratelle are enough to upstage the narrative—and yet they also do much to carry the story. We first see the ensemble dressed for royal court in jewel-toned voluminous floor-length skirts (pantaloons for the men), corsets, and blousy tops with billowing sleeves. In the title role, Gabrielle Sprauve’s black and white dress sets her apart while at the same time presaging the moment when the gown is replaced with the black and white habit of a nun. 

Manzanales delivers certain biographical elements with a rather heavy hand. When the poet/scholar is seen writing, for instance, we hear a pen scratching; pages of books rain down from above. Other sections of the work are a more intriguing mix of literal and figurative. When Sor Juana is paired with a woman in a romantic duet danced by Sprauve and Isabel Robles, the two pare down to simple leotards and we can finally see the muscular work that was hidden under the skirts—perhaps a metaphor for the necessity to hide their relationship. The remainder of the cast of ten also loses its elegant clothes. Sans skirts and pants, the transparent shirt tails dangle like ethereal jellyfish tentacles. The piece closes with a cluster of beautiful bodies bared to their undergarments. Are they shielding or smothering the women? “What interest have you, world, in persecuting me? / Wherein do I offend you, when all I want / Is to give beauty to my mind / And not my mind to beautiful things?” –Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Karen Hildebrand

Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.



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