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Steve Sucato  |  November 14, 2018

Ballet Hispnico's All-Female Choreographers Program Struck All The Right Chords

Ballet Hispnico

Playhouse Square's Ohio Theatre

Cleveland, OH

November 10-11, 2018

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Co-presented by DANCECleveland and Cuyahoga Community College, Ballet Hispnico's triple-bill of works by Hispanic female choreographers struck all the right chords Saturday, November 10 at Playhouse Square's Ohio Theatre.

The New York-based company, last in Cleveland in 2009, showed its versatility and popular appeal beginning with Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Sombrersimo" (2013) performed for the first time by an all-female cast.

Set to a soundscape that included howling winds, creaking doors and dogs barking along with music by Italian folk group Banda Ionica, Ballet Hispnico's sextet of women made the work, usually performed by an all-male cast, their own. In doing so however, they also made it a noticeably different work.

Performed by Ballet Hispnico in nearby Akron at the 2014 Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival with an all-male cast, the women Saturday night essentially danced the same choreography as the men but gone was the machismo and swagger that defined that original version. That was replaced by an alternate beauty and fierceness that the women brought to the piece.

Sporting bowler hats they flipped and tossed about throughout the work, the women were energized and technically clean in performing Ochoa's somewhat acrobatic choreography. Evoking surrealist imagery from Belgian artist Ren Magritte's bowler hat paintings, Ochoa also infused a bit of humor into the work. In one scene, all of the women's hats were piled high onto the head of one of the dancers who comically collapsed under their weight while another struggled mightily to drag her prostrate body off stage.

While "Sombrersimo" felt like a different work than the original, the all-female version proved a gratifying opener to a program that celebrated women as dancers and choreographers.

Next, Michelle Manzanales' "Con Brazos Abiertos" (2017) also used humor but this time to disguise pain. The Mexican-American choreographer created an entertaining and poignant work about multi-cultural acceptance that was inspired in-part by New York poet Maria Billini-Padilla's heartfelt poem Con Brazos Abiertos.

Danced to an eclectic mix of music from Julio Iglesias and a rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" to recorded film dialogue, the work for over a dozen dancers followed a central female figure danced by Melissa Fernandez who, while a part of both Mexican and American cultures, felt like, or was made to feel like an outsider.

Delivered in alternating dance sections that showcased Mexican folkloric themes and contemporary dancing, all was not as it seemed in many of them. For instance, in a festive section with all the dancers donning sombreros, Manzanales had the dancers angle their heads as to appear if the hats were atop headless bodies. This perhaps speaking to a feeling of being anonymous or perhaps playing into the stereotypical insult of members of an ethnic group all looking the same. It was a powerful statement. So too was an audio clip from 1980's Cheech and Chong's Next Movie of Cheech Marin singing "Mexican Americans love education so they go to night school and take Spanish and get a B". A self-deprecating bit of humor many in the audience laughed at, but the reference was also twinged with sadness as was Edward James Olmos recorded dialogue from the 1997 movie Selena saying, "We have to be more Mexican than Mexicans and more American than Americans."

With "Con Brazos Abiertos," Manzanales walked that fine line between audience-pleasing entertainment and social commentary brilliantly, delivering on both counts.

The program closed with Mexican choreographer Tania Prez-Salas' gem "3. Catorce Diecisis" (2017). A reference to "Pi" (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the work, in the program notes, is said to reflect on the "circularity of movement through life."

Set to music by Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, "3. Catorce Diecisis" opened on five men and two women in white dancing stylized contemporary dance movement to harpsichord music. With dark atmospheric lighting and an approach akin to a dance piece one might see by Dutch giants Nederlands Dans Theater, the work had a sophistication and quality to it quite unlike the others on the program.

The visually stunning work also contained more than a few surprises in it like a section where two women in long black dresses (one in front of the other) began a unison dance in which a hidden dancer behind each of them reached around women to instantly tear off their black dresses revealing a red one underneath. The gasp-worthy effect was one highlight in a work chock full of memorable moments including an angelic scene of a trio of women that appeared heaven sent.

Throughout, Prez-Salas' technically rich choreography big on line, had the dancers moving through a variety of turns, jumps and floor work that brought beauty and mystery to the piece that bordered on genius.

Next on DANCECleveland's 63rd season is Beijing Dance Theater, Saturday, February 2 and Sunday, February 3 at Playhouse Square's Ohio Theatre. For information and tickets visit dancecleveland.org.

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