BALLET FOLKLORICO DE MEXICO
at the Auditorium Theatre, September 22-25
"Viva Mexico!" someone yells from the stage of the Auditorium Theatre as confetti flies over the heads of the audience. People are on their feet, stomping and clapping for more. The mariachi band strikes up another tune.
Onstage, a corps of 34 magnificent dancers whirl about, their heels clicking
almost too fast for the eye to see. It feels as if the whole theater will fly away in the delirium. This is the finale to Ballet Folklorico de Mexico's two-hour concert. And what a concert--exuberant, colorful, playful, and serious, it seems to embody Mexican culture.
Company founder Amalia Hernandez is something of a legend in her homeland. She's also a bit of a maverick. At eight she persuaded her father, a Mexican senator who didn't want his daughter in "a profession that meant public exhibition," to let her study ballet and flamenco. Some of Europe's top dancers came to teach her at a private studio built on the family ranch. But while European movement intrigued her, the music left her cold. Her heart was drawn to the people around her. Their music was spontaneous and lively; their dance was a fast-stepping, passionate combination of Indian, French, Spanish, and African movement. Convinced that this music and dance had artistic merit, Dona Amalia founded her own folklore company in 1952. It was Mexico's first.
Not all folk dances translate well to the stage. (Imagine a stageful of 34 people in cowboy boots doing a line dance to "Achy Breaky Heart.") But Hernandez knows how to put on a show. The colorful, elaborate costumes alone are almost worth the price of admission. The women wear multicolored full skirts and swirl them above their heads. Sometimes they wear bells on their ankles, sometimes painted silk shoes. The men are decked out in lean and dapper suits, in hats ranging from sombreros to panamas, and in boots that make a beautiful sound. Ballet Folklorico creates a frenzy of moving colors that has to capture the attention of even the most jaded audience member.
But most essential to Ballet Folklorico's success are the dancers, who perform with a highly contagious, joyful abandon. Sounds of Michoacan, from the state just west of Mexico City, combines the grace of European ballet with the vitality of folk dance. It's full of fast footwork, yet gracious and warm in its presentation. With its twirling scarves and flirtatious movement, Tarima From Tixtla is a joyous cry of the human spirit.
Not all of the evening is fun and games, however, and not all the dances are as entertaining as these two. Wedding in the Huasteca presents a more serious tale of love and marriage, and the less successful Zacatecas depicts stories from the Mexican revolution. Gods, a dance in which humans communicate with their gods in graceful, slow movement, is the least engaging piece of the evening. Much of the problem stems from the lighting: a number of soloists danced in the dark.
Even swirling skirts and stomping feet can get dull after a while. Ballet Folklorico offered ten dances, each depicting a different slice of Mexican life. To an untrained eye unable to pick out regional differences, much of the movement seems repetitious. Yet each dance has its entertaining moments. And when the company breaks into Jalisco--the final number, containing the jarabe tapatio, known here by the silly name "Mexican hat dance"--it becomes clear that dance is a universal communicator of the soul.