This piece is a collaboration with Christopher Duggan, a leading dance photographer based in New York City. In addition to his New York City dance clients, Christopher has been the Festival Photographer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 2006, where he has worked with countless dance artists from around the globe. More of his dance and wedding work can be seen at ChristopherDugganBlog.com
Around 11 AM on November 19th, Ballet Hispanico’s artistic director, Eduardo Vilaro, was busy popping in and out of his Upper West Side office to talk with other staff members before heading to the studios for a rehearsal. With the company about one week away from its two-week Joyce season, which opens today, there was not a minute to spare. Yet Vilaro, who seems to always be grinning and in a jovial mood, took some time out of his schedule to chat.
Joining Ballet Hispanico (BH) in August 2009 after Tina Ramirez founded and led the company for forty years, Vilaro is in a unique position to distinguish himself from his predecessor and guide the company in a new direction. Coming to the helm after Ramirez’s long tenure presented a variety of challenges for him. He noted that building relationships with both the dancers and staff were distinct processes. With the staff, he felt an immediate connection as they started working together. But coming from Luna Negra Dance Theater, the company that Vilaro founded and led for more than ten years, he was used to a hands-on, everyone-pitch-in approach, which hasn’t been the case at BH. This became apparent later in the day when dealing with costumes and observing rehearsal, when he eagerly got up from his seat and started to close the curtains over the mirrors, even though there were plenty of other staff members there to deal with that. “See what I mean?” Vilaro said. “I’m very hands-on but really shouldn’t do that.” With the dancers, the adjustment process took longer. He had to familiarize himself with their individual skills and talents, while at the same time allowing them to grow comfortable with his artistic aesthetic. The bonding, he said, often happens on tour – away from the daily grind of classes and rehearsal.
Considering what it means to be Latino in the 21st century and what Ballet Hispanico’s role in addressing this is, Vilaro wonders, “Is it even answerable?” BH started out as a folklore company in 1970, and then became extremely theatrical with larger production values in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, Vilaro strives to blend the company’s past with “abstract work that has a beautiful sensibility” while keeping the dialogue open about what it means to be Latino. Acknowledging the company’s past while performing new work that is relevant for today’s audiences and speaks to their understanding of Latino culture seems to be a critical part of the company’s mission.
Fortunately, Vilaro is eager to nurture Latino choreographers and develop culturally-specific work. He said that the Joyce line-up is “not your usual Ballet Hispanico.” The two programs feature a world premiere by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa called Mad’moiselle, a world premiere by Maray Ramis Gutierrez called Puntos Suspensivos, Andrea Miller’s 2009 work Nací, and Jean Emile’s 2008 work Tres Bailes, along with several BH classics including Vicente Nebrada’s 1983 crowd-pleaser Batucada Fantástica. Lopez Ochoa’s new work, which explores iconic male and female images and gender role playing in Latin American cultures, was rehearsed later in the afternoon, where a group of visiting middle school students watched in awe. Afterward, the dancers happily answered their questions about what it’s like to be a professional dancer.
Throughout the afternoon, Vilaro observed the dancers in rehearsal. Shortly after they started a run-through of Talley Beatty’s 1975 work Tres Cantos, an exhausting marathon of a piece, he clapped his hands, stopped the music, and talked. “It’s about freedom, not anger,” he said. “Catch your breath, and let’s start again. Breathe. It’s Friday!” he exclaimed, smiling. Throughout the rehearsal he offered more feedback, always with excitement in his voice and a sparkle in his eyes. “Yay! Celebration! It’s almost over!” he cheered as the piece neared its end. The dancers breathed heavily after the run-through, awaiting his response. He singled out certain dancers with corrections and questions, and ended by stating, “If we don’t work as a unit, it doesn’t work.” This seemed to stick with the dancers for the rest of the day, as they often reviewed choreography or worked out problems on their own. Even during their breaks, when they could put their feet up and rest, many continued working.
While the dancers rehearsed – and struggled a bit – through parts of Miller’s Nací, Vilaro leaned over and said, “You give the dancers the choreography and teach it to them, but at a certain point, you have to leave it with them and let them make it their own.” He might be hands-on when it comes to costumes and curtains, but he’s also very aware of when it’s time to let the dancers take ownership of the artistry – an exemplary trait for an artistic director with years of experience. He has been in charge of BH for only a little over a year, but it’s obvious that Vilaro has all the right ingredients to lead the company in a new, exciting direction: a clear vision, positive attitude, unique aesthetic, and a group of dedicated, talented dancers.
This is the first in a series of collaborations between Evan Namerow and Christopher Duggan that share the beauty of dance through photographs, and ideas and insights through text. Our visit to Ballet Hispanico and all photos were taken on November 19, 2010.