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Flash Review 1, 12-12: Ballet HisPedroco
Ruiz and Hispanico Colleagues Heat it Up

Video Clip! Courtesy of Video D Studios. (The video will open in a separate window.)

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2000 Darrah Carr

During its 30th anniversary year, Ballet Hispanico could certainly have chosen to rest on its well-earned laurels. Instead, it's been hard at work, adding to its considerable repertoire by preparing two world premieres and several recent works for its Joyce season. Friday evening's program included "Eyes of the Soul" by Ramon Oller and "Club Havana" by Pedro Ruiz, premieres this season, as well as last year's "Guajira," also by Ruiz.

"Eyes of the Soul" is an intense theatrical piece, based on the life of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, who was blinded by a childhood disease. Ruiz gave a convincing portrayal of Rodrigo's character, while the role of the composer's devoted partner was beautifully danced by Jennifer DePalo. The piece was essentially a series of vignettes, depicting the various emotions felt by the central character as a result of his blindness -- anger, melancholy, love for his partner, hope in his musical vision. At times, these emotions were expressed through a series of touching duets danced by Ruiz and DePalo. At other moments, the corps of eight dancers was used to reflect the composer's emotional state, as he stood motionless on the side, or sat listlessly in a chair.

The use of the corps established an interesting dynamic between the performers and the audience. Taking the leap of faith that Ruiz really was the blind composer, we as the audience sat and watched as he sat and imagined. The corps clearly embodied his musical vision, calling to mind the metaphor of dancers as instruments, as well as the idea that a work of art is essentially a private vision that one desires to share. As the corps danced the music of the composer's mind, I reflected also on the poignant double meaning of the word "vision" in this piece -- as both an artistic pursuit and an anatomical function.

My moments of reflection were interrupted, however, by the incredibly distracting set pieces. The stage was decorated with three reversible folding screens that were covered in lovely patterns, with blues on one side and red hues on the other. At various times throughout the piece, dancers manipulated the screens to create different settings for the vignettes - be it a straight line, a diagonal arrangement, or three folded boxes. A clever concept and a nice design, except for the fact that the screens were on wheels, so we could see the feet of the dancers behind them, which ruined the illusion of mysteriously moving set pieces. I would have rather Oller used the corps to delineate the stage space, as he did during one powerful scene, when eight dancers formed a vertical wall that Ruiz's character desperately tried to break through. In this passage, the audience was called upon to use its imagination to believe the picture, rather than asked to use it to ignore the fact that the screens weren't really moving of their own accord.

In sharp contrast to the emotional content of Oller's premiere was Ruiz's new work, a light, upbeat crowd pleaser entitled "Club Havana." Seeing these two pieces back to back was a like eating sorbet after a rich meal. As the title indicates, the piece was inspired by Latin social dancing, its nightclub context, and complex rhythms including the conga, rhumba, mambo, and cha cha. Given the Joyce's proscenium arch, I felt like I was looking into a diorama of a nightclub, as the dancers, resplendent in fine suits and flashy cocktail dresses, smoked cigars, flirted, and danced under a spinning disco ball.

The dancers were impressive and their upbeat presentation was infectious. The choreography, however, became predictable by the end, as most of the work was done in partners, unison, and triangular formations. One notable exception was a clever trio danced by Arleane Lopez, Eric Rivera, and Curtis Glover. Lopez's femme fatale character oozed sensuality as she enjoyed the attention of two suitors. Ruiz created very inventive partnering with rambunctious playfulness. This love triangle was certainly more interesting than the triangular formations that came before and after.

I was glad that Ruiz's "Guajira" was also on the program, for it showed his range and depth as a choreographer to a greater extent than "Club Havana." Like "Club Havana," "Guajira" is a collection of five pieces of music and dance reflecting Cuban culture, but here the focus is on aspects of women's daily life in the countryside. Ruiz did a beautiful job of blending pedestrian work gestures and social dance steps with conventional ballet partnering and modern dance technique. "Guajira" could be said to exemplify Ballet Hispanico's mission of interpreting Hispanic culture in the United States through a fusion of ballet, modern, and Latin dance forms. Indeed, students in its training program receive comprehensive instruction in each of these forms.

Ballet Hispanico is a unique company, an invaluable part of the dance community, and a performance worth seeing. Its New York season continues through December 17. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site.

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