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Memphis Flyer Latin Lovers

The cultural reach of Ballet Hispanico.

By Ashley Fantz

APRIL 3, 2000:  The men in white shirts sweat. After hours under a Cuban sun, pulling and cutting weeds, their thick, calloused fingers have begun to bleed. One uses the back of his cramped hand to wipe his burnt forehead; another pauses to grip his lower back that's as taut as a piano cord. Their scythes swing back and forth keeping time, whacking tobacco leaves.

Beside the men, their wives carry water. With one more quick slice -- all the workers together with one whoosh! -- the wives fall over their husbands' arms. Another slice, and the women lower themselves spiral-like to the ground as if to become part of the earth.

It's a lovely moment from Ballet Hispanico, a 30-year-old dance company known for combining the loose and sensual aspect of Spanish and Latino movement with traditional modern and jazz technique. The company performs Juajira, choreographed by 14-year Ballet Hispanico member Pedro Ruiz. It's the story of Ruiz, originally from Cuba, working in tobacco fields with his grandfather. He considers the piece a tribute to the women who worked beside the men, fantastically represented by female dancers working themselves into a poly-rhythmic mambo frenzy.

"This is his first ballet, but it's pretty amazing," says founder and director Tina Ramirez, who's commissioned choreography for Ballet Hispanico from such legends as Bob Fosse protege Ann Reinking and George Faison.

Juajira features a powerful transitional duet, representing the folding of the work day into a nighttime fiesta. Bury Me Standing, a colorful number about gypsy life, follows as another example of the company's preference for narrative dance. Using Albanian, Spanish, and Romanian music, the company's dancers are cloaked in a swash of pinks, reds, browns, and blues, as they go from city to city to find their homeland. Ramirez employs poles, covered in cloth with strings attached to change the scenery's landscape.

The March 30th production at Germantown Performing Arts Centre will closely replicate their performances in larger New York City theaters.

"There are some tours that change what they do from venue to venue," Ramirez says. "I'm never going to do that because it's like cheating an audience out of seeing the real thing."

Over the past year, Ballet Hispanico has toured the world and danced before its largest audiences yet. It would be unfair to chalk that up to the recent popularity of Latino music, especially since on the surface that means the pop appeal of Ricky Martin's bubblegum dance songs and Jennifer Lopez's -- well, Jennifer Lopez's everything. The media went on to add to the triteness by dubbing 1999 The Year of the Latino.

"Every 30 years there's a surge of Latin music. It happened with Gershwin and Copeland, then went away," says Ramirez, laughing. "It's our time again to be really hot, but if you ask me, we've always been hot."

When Ramirez, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, moved to New York in the late '50s, Latin dance wasn't enjoying a fraction of its popularity, and it took her a while to convince her parents that dance was more than a hobby -- even though she thinks she may have gotten her sense of rhythm from her former bull-fighting father.

"I would go out with my father and run alongside him," she says. "I remember him clapping and stomping with a fury. I loved watching him move. I would go home and raise up on my tippy-toes barefoot and just walk around like that. I could do that without toe-shoes until I was 16."

Ramirez eventually persuaded her parents to let her take dance lessons. She quickly rose to train with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Anna Pavlova's partner.

But most of her time was spent in an apartment building teaching the classes a retiring instructor left her. Within months, the number of students attending her ballet, ethnic, and modern classes doubled, and the landlord told her to move out.

"Because it was an apartment building, there were just too many people going in and out -- you know, these are Latin people so they are bringing their brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles," says Ramirez.

Ballet Hispanico has grown since then and moved two more times, now occupying a whole building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And the company constantly receives favorable reviews from the most cantankerous critics.

"We showed people something they really hadn't seen before," Ramirez explains. "I wanted diversity, not just Latinos. But it was very important that I be able to see a dancer and say, 'Yes, she knows how to move like us.'"

The company is presently made up of dancers from South Africa, Korea, Russia, Italy, America, Puerto Rico, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela.

"Dance is our culture so I thought, 'If these people want to, why should they not be professionals?'" she says. "We are not Flamenco dancers or caricatures of what people might think a Latino dance company is. Hispanic is not a type, not a way to describe something. Hispanic, black, white is not an identity. Stories that we happen to tell through dance are."


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