Dance Review: Ballet Hispanico at the Apollo Theater

December 4th, 2012

Paula Lobo for The New York Times

Ballet Hispanico in “A Vueltas con los Ochenta,” on Saturday at the Apollo Theater. The dance reflects the mood of Spain in the 1980s, not long after the death of Francisco Franco.

When Ballet Hispanico played the Apollo Theater last December, it was the troupe’s debut there. Its return uptown for a one-night-only event on Saturday felt like a tradition in the making. Three premieres, live music and an enthusiastic audience combined with the theater’s historic vibrations for a sense of special occasion.

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Paula Lobo for The New York Times

Ballet Hispanico: unleashing a 1980s fervor when performing “A Vueltas con los Ochenta,” one of three premieres on its program on Saturday.

As has been the case since Eduardo Vilaro took over as artistic director in 2009, there was also a sense of a company in conflict or transition, trying to fulfill its original mission of glorifying Latino culture while branching off in directions that might complicate that duty. Here Mr. Vilaro balanced bold choices of guest choreographers with a pleasant hedge of his own.

The dancers looked glamorous and elegant in “Tango Vitrola,” a 1987 work by the Argentine choreographer Alejandro Cervera. Cafe chairs and the titular phonograph defined a dance hall, as scratchy recordings of milonga music from the 1920s conjured the past. Mario Ismael Espinoza, shirtless and wonderfully slinky, set the melancholy tone by dancing tango with himself, augmenting the dance’s vocabulary with pirouettes and jumps.

“Tango Vitrola” was ambivalent about the tango. It seemed to question the male aggression in the form, having the women wobble like stuck needles and collapse in the men’s arms. It surrounded near-clichés about the battle between the sexes with full-on dance clichés, affixing a big group pose to the final note of every song. While the dancers might have clarified those internal contradictions, their awkwardness in the ballroom steps and relish of the Broadway flash served instead to exacerbate them.

If “Tango Vitrola” was created in the 1980s, “A Vueltas con los Ochenta,” which had its world premiere on Saturday, was about that time, specifically the hedonistic period in Spain following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco. The dance, by the Spanish choreographers Meritxell Barberá and Inma García, caught the moment by introducing the dancers in headphones, each moving to his or her own private drummer. For the rest of the work they enjoyed the ’80s period music together, in public.

That music was rock, and the cast rocked leather outfits. There was crowd surfing, lip-syncing, posing for photos. One couple faced each other and simply swayed as everyone else circled around them at a nearly imperceptible rate; another couple encapsulated a relationship with the exchange of the man’s jacket. There was violence and sex; the men stuck their forearms between the women’s thighs and raised them forklift style. Someone overdosed.

When the cast advanced to the lip of the stage, stared at the audience and then backed away, it seemed to encapsulate a failure of nerve in the overlong work, and the Ballet Hispanico dancers struggled with the swerves between campy fun and serious undertones. Still, the experiment was worthwhile.

Mr. Vilaro’s “Danzón” was much safer territory. Its treatment of its music — a smart Latin jazz arrangement played live by the Paquito D’Rivera Ensemble — was generic but refreshingly light. Jamal Rashann Callender, solid in a sweet duet with Vanessa Valecillos, exploded in an exchange with the bongo player Paulo Stagnaro. Mr. Espinoza noodled nicely to the onstage extemporizing of Mr. D’Rivera and his clarinet. Easily recognizable musical quotations garnered a big response. Mr. Vilaro has given Ballet Hispanico another crowd pleaser.

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