Oct 25, 2021
Ballet Hispánico Celebrates 50th Anniversary with Wharton Center Season Opener
By Kate O’Neill
“We’re really excited about getting back to performing again,” Eduardo Vilaro, Ballet Hispánico’s artistic director, told me in a phone conversation last week.
After being almost completely sidelined by the Covid-19 pandemic for the past 18 months, the New York company is setting off on a three-month, cross-country tour of major performing arts centers. On Tuesday, October 26 they come to Wharton Center with “a celebratory program that reflects the company’s fifty years of creating new works,” says Vilaro.
Wharton audiences, too, will have much to celebrate on Tuesday, for the company’s performance that evening marks the opening of the Center’s 2021-2022 season after the more than 18 months of darkness imposed by the Covid pandemic.
For me, personally, as a life-long dance fan, it’s especially gratifying to see a dance company open the new Wharton season. And that made my opportunity to chat with Vilaro very special.
This autumn tour brings the company back to performing for almost the first time since theaters all over the country went dark in mid-March 2020. After more than a year the company was finally able to perform again in June 2021 at in an outdoor concert in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center.
“We were on a program with five other dance companies. It was a very emotional experience,” commented Vilaro, recalling the dancers’ joy at finally being able to connect with an audience after so many months.
Now the chance to be back in the theater is especially exciting, but “we’re also a bit nervous,” Vilaro admitted. “Anything can happen—our flights might be cancelled!” He paused, not willing to enumerate the list of possible misfortunes that could strike in these uncertain times.
But that gave me a chance to ask him to tell me more about himself, his work with Ballet Hispánico over many years, and, of course, I wanted to hear more about the program the company is bringing to Wharton.
The company was founded by Tina Ramirez, who was born in Venezuela in 1929 to a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother. Ramirez came to the United States with her parents when she was a small child. As a young dance student, she trained with some of the noted professional dancers of the day—ballet with Alexandra Danilova, modern dance with Anna Sokolow, and Spanish dance with Lola Bravo. After performing with a number of ethnic dance companies Ramirez started a school and a company in New York City in 1970 to provide a haven for Black and Brown Latinx youth and families seeking artistic place and cultural sanctuary.
During our phone conversation I told Vilaro how much I had enjoyed meeting Ramirez on a trip to New York in the early ‘90s. Back then, Ballet Hispánico was due to perform at Wharton a month or so later and I was glad to be able to interview her in person for an article about the upcoming show. By the end of our meeting, I felt we were like old friends, as I discovered she had known at least three of the Puerto Rican dance students from the ballet studio where I had studied as a teenager.
Then Vilaro told me of the role Ramirez had played in his life. He was born in Cuba but came to New York with his parents when he was six. He grew up in the Bronx, “a very difficult place to live. Dance saved me. I found myself after I finished a B.F.A. at Adelphi University, and then Tina asked me to join Ballet Hispánico.”
Vilaro danced with the company and taught in its school for eight years. Then, he said Ramirez told him: “You need to be an educator.” He left the company to get a master’s degree in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College in Chicago. Then he went on to found and serve as artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago. Ten years later, in 2009, “Tina phoned me to tell me she was stepping down,” he recalled. And she wanted him to be her successor.
“You are the one,” she told him. You have to have a larger company.”
Since taking charge of Ballet Hispánico, Vilaro has received numerous awards for choreography and for his role as an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts.
All that is reflected in the works by three Hispanic choreographers on the program at Wharton Center on Tuesday. The opening number, “Arabesque,” was choreographed in 1984 by Vicente Nebrada.
“He was one of the few Latino choreographers working in the contemporary world of that time,” says Vilaro. The ballet is a suite of dances set to music of Enrique Granados, with hints of Flamenco influence in the balletic choreography.
The second work on the program was choreographed just two years ago by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Based in the Netherlands, of Dutch and Columbian parentage, Ochoa is “one of the hot choreographers right now,” says Vilaro. Her work addresses the discrimination and stereotypes placed upon Latinx culture.
“We are much more than just a mambo,” comments Vilaro. “We are still dealing with some of these stereotypes.”
The program’s final work, “18 + 1,” by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, moves away from such heavy concerns. It’s a joyous piece, celebrating Sansano’s nineteen years as a choreographer. The work is set to the playful mambo music of Cuban band leader Perez Prado.
Vilaro appears pleased with the range of works on the Wharton program.
“I like to take an audience through a journey,” he says. “It reveals the many nuances of what it is to be Latino.”
Kate O’Neill was the dance and theatre critic for the Lansing State Journal, and was inducted into the Lansing Dance Hall of Fame in 2017.