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Looking for Juan

The crowd of museum goers gathers around from multiple vantage points above and around the tiled, skylit courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum’s Robert Lehman Wing to view the dance performance. Perhaps they have just visited the exhibition Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter in the gallery above and are curious to continue digging into the story of this black artist, enslaved for over two decades in the studio of Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Maybe they have just learned that seventeeth-century southern Spain had a large enslaved Muslim population forcibly brought from Africa and associated with many of the artists’ workshops and households. And people of color (enslaved and free) accounted for a large percentage of the population and were quite visible in real and rendered everyday life. Juan de Pareja (ca. 1608–1670) eventually negotiated his freedom and went on to become an artistic force in his own right.

Performance

Ballet Hispánico: “Buscando a Juan”

Place

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, July 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

Ballet Hispánico in “Buscando a Juan.” Photograph by Paula Lobo

The exhibition builds its story by first presenting the works of Velázquez and his contemporaries showcasing a landmark portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez. It goes on to gather for the first time Pareja’s own works, which are notable for their scale and liveliness. The curators’ notes lament the many unanswered questions surrounding Pareja: his ethnic origins, his religious heritage, and even his skin tone─things that might give clues about how he came into the service of Velázquez and his social standing. 

Enter MetLiveArts with a compelling live performance to elaborate the connections between art, life, and history. Limor Tomer, general manager for MetLive Arts, shares that she had been in conversation with Eduardo Vilaro, Ballet Hispánico’s artistic director, for a decade looking for an opportunity to have the company perform in one of the Met’s spaces. When the Juan de Pareja exhibition was being planned, she mentioned it to Vilaro. He met with two of the exhibition’s curators and was completely drawn into the complex story of Pareja, a gifted Black man in a White world, with its layers of cultural intersectionality. Vilaro generated a concept for a dance work that (as the program notes explain) “explores the ‘sancocho’—literally, mixed soup—of cultures and diasporas” threaded through the artist’s story. Tomer recounts being thrilled with the idea saying, “Our job at MetLiveArts is to complicate the exhibition.”

For 25 minutes, seven dancers from Ballet Hispánico fill the sunlit courtyard with a living, breathing, and stirring visualization of Pareja’s life and milieu in “Buscando a Juan,” which translates as "looking for Juan." Choreographed by Vilaro, the piece pulls images directly from the paintings on the gallery walls to enflesh the drama and complexity of what may have been the artists’ struggles, passions, and triumphs in relationship with Velázquez and with the surrounding multiracial society in seventeenth century Spain.

Ballet Hispánico in “Buscando a Juan.” Photograph by Paula Lobo

Leonardo Brito performs the role of Pareja with expressive depth and nuance. Entering the courtyard, he surveys the light before sitting down on top of a rustic, dark wood table. Then taking the three-quarter pose from the iconic portrait of Juan de Pareja (in the upstairs gallery), he commences the story with Pareja’s servitude to the renowned painter Velázquez. 

From the opposite side of the octagonal-shaped courtyard, an ensemble of six dancers appears. They wear tight dark pants and slightly flared, short tunics in muted shades of purple, teal, wine, and black designed by Diana Ruettiger that noticeably replicate the palette of the paintings in the exhibition. With bodies connected and interwoven, they enact a series of reaching, lunging, bowing, and praising postures. Impelled by sounds of African drumming and choral singing, the ensemble spreads out into the space and surrounds the central, marble, goblet-shaped fountain. The dancers momentarily pulse with African dance torso undulations before they circle the fountain in a communal swirl of exultation. Incorporating movements of supplication and offering sourced from various dance styles and influences, the scene alludes to the syncretic flavor of the Catholic faith practiced at that time and place among the converted communities─both enslaved and freed.

Dancing the role of Velázquez is Antonio Cangiano, who distinguishes himself from the ensemble by taking a pose atop one of the straight-backed chairs at the table. Strains of Spanish guitar play as he steps down and approaches Brito, brusquely repositioning his head and then his arms─until he achieves the desired pose. The ensemble repeats a similar treatment of the artist’s model and then dramatically rips off his paint-splattered shirt leaving him shirtless through the rest of the dance. 

Ballet Hispánico in “Buscando a Juan.” Photograph by Paula Lobo

Cangiano moves a chair elsewhere planting it percussively on the floor as if to command his servant to follow. Brito sits in the chair and the molding and manipulation of his body begin again─this time, however, it develops into an intimate, sensual duet filled with layers of emotional and relational complexity. Initially Brito lifts, supports, carries, and shadows the movements of Cangiano. Then gradually their roles reverse. The music’s combination of edgy strings and somber guitar perfectly frames the play of tension and tenderness. 

Cangiano asserts his authority in a Flamenco-derived solo replete with angular severity and bravado. The ensemble beats percussive rhythms on the wooden table and moves around it with staccato precision heightening the tension evolving in the artists’ duet around issues of conflict, envy, and control.

Spiking the flavor of this “sancocho” is the music of Argentina-born composer Osvaldo Golijov. Vilaro’s inspired selection of excerpts from Golijov’s “La Pasión segun San Marcos”─with its own mix of cultural influences from indigenous peoples, African slaves, and European colonizers─sweeps the danced action along with sonic perfection. 

This story would not be complete without the intercession of the Catholic church, which acted as both redeemer and oppressor of the enslaved, most of whom were Muslims from Africa. Conversion provided the gateway to liberation─both in the secular as well as the spiritual realms. So Pareja fills his own canvases with Christian themes thereby showing himself to be a free man. 

Ballet Hispánico in “Buscando a Juan.” Photograph by Paula Lobo

Thus, Vilaro personifies the Church as an angelic savioress danced with assured grace by Gabrielle Sprauve. She enters to the sound of church bells and a female chorus and rides Brito’s bare back as he crawls along the floor. Holding her aloft in multiple poses of ascension, Brito looks upward at her with adoration while the vocals soar. Sprauve’s spare, sky blue skirt hints at the diaphanous robes and veils of the many angels and saints floating through the skies in the canvases of Pareja and his contemporaries. In a poignant sequence, she holds Brito’s arms outstretched, referencing the Crucifixion, as he leaps in place in slow motion. He descends to the floor─prone─in complete submission, and she steps on his back. With brute strength, he comes to his hands and knees and raises her upward. Sprauve gestures as if to release him and she eventually leads him to the ensemble of dancers. (The metaphors abound.)

The group receives Brito with solicitous embraces like devoted disciples in a pietà. Emerging with newfound exuberance, he commands the ensemble with a wave of his hand. They take their places at the table watching and waiting for his command. Brito walks to the end of the table, touches the back of the chair, and the dancers take their poses exactly as rendered in Pareja’s most famous painting “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” I lift my gaze to the gallery above and notice that all along I had that very work in my view. But now, I can see it.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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