“Flabbergast,” a 2001 work by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, is set to music credited to Juan Garcia Esquivel, although some of the songs used (e.g. “Lazy Bones”) were not composed by Mr. Esquivel. As the dancers, in fading street wear (designed by Mr. Sansano), stood spread across the stage in individual spotlights, a voice intoned (in Spanish) a slightly chiding criticism of 1920’s social mores with vague threats of an apocalypse to come. They began to poke and bend and otherwise come to life leading to much wandering around the stage, carrying suitcases. In a series of sections that focused on duets and smaller groupings, some sense of quiet angst emerged, only to be submerged back into the meanderings of the group, again all carrying suitcases, going nowhere. The movement scheme involved lots of flung arms, sudden bends, angular jolting moves of the legs, all under dark expressions. As they resumed their opening, spotlighted positions, the word “the end” flashed on the back wall. The lighting by Jared Moore gave a period look to the proceedings.
“Bury Me Standing” (1998) by Ramón Oller used traditional gypsy melodies and flamenco music by Lole y Manuel. A bit too reminiscent of the lush, highly detailed choreographic style of Nacho Duato, the work certainly did create a sense of community and even involved some babbling by the cast costumed (by Aviad Arik Herman) in pale layered dresses for the women and loose pants beneath open translucent vests for the male contingent. A long, sensuous solo performed by the charismatic Johan Rivera Mendez opened “Bury.” He became the de facto leader, his solo segueing into a series of group dances, first men, then women, whose movements began in the hips and went right out to tendril-like finger tips.
Mr. Oller’s responded well to the score which bounced between beseeching flamenco songs and Klezmer-sounding band music. The women skittered in on their knees, soon joined by the men, as they chirped and chattered. Torsos twisted; women were lifted in angular, cross-like positions hinting at some Christian subtext; couples thrashed about sexually on the floor hinting at—well—sex; and the ensemble kept reorganizing as a tight, impenetrable little community. Joshua Preston’s lighting provided a smoky, moody atmosphere.
“Club Havana” (2000), choreographed by Pedro Ruiz to dance music by a list of composers, tried to evoke the feel of Havana in the 1950’s but too often resembled Jerome Robbins’ “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story, without the underlying sizzling subtext. (This purposeful lack of meaningful subtext—and the emphasis on bright, happy surfaces—seems to be the hallmark of this troupe, sometimes to the detriment of making serious observations about its specific community and the world in general.)
“Club Havana” was a pleasant pastime when it should have illuminated the passionate lifestyle of a colorful period. “Club Havana” was certainly joyous and sexy, helped by the very detailed 1950’s, elegant dresses and colorful men’s outfits by Ghabriello Fernando and a cast of energetic, gung-ho dancers.
This is one work that would have benefited from a live, on-stage band, but that, obviously, is wishful thinking from an economic standpoint. Nevertheless, Mr. Ruiz managed to capture the very different styles of these Latino dance forms, from the wild, hip-swinging Mambo to the joyous romp of the Conga line. The cast threw themselves into the party with exuberance, style and grace. Donald Holder’s lighting, which included a disco ball, stylishly evoked a long ago era.
The Ballet Hispanico wants to be meaningful while at the same time entertaining. It is a difficult course to chart—just look at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—and, so far, the entertainment element seems to have taken charge. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please an audience, but, let’s face it, others do it better. Mr. Vilaro has kept the technical level of the dancers and the productions at a very high level and shouldn’t be afraid to shock, move and confound his audiences—along with making them happy.
Ballet Hispanico (April 5-10, 2016)
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit http://www.Joyce.org
For more information, visit http://www.BalletHispanico.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission