New York City Center
New York, New York
June 3, 2023, evening
New Sleep, Papagayos (world premiere), Sor Juanna (world premiere), Club Havana
Ballet Hispánico returned to New York City Center last week for a three day/ four-performance run. I attended Saturday evening’s program, which included two dances that premiered a day or two earlier in this run.
Cutting to the chase, one of the new pieces, Michelle Manzanales’s Sor Juana, is masterful, and very different from her first piece for Ballet Hispánico (“BH”), Con Brazos Abiertos, which I included in my list of Tops in New York for 2017. If I compile one for 2023, Sor Juana will be on it.
I’ll consider Sor Juana first, then the other premiere, Omar Roman de Jesus’s Papagayos, followed by the remaining two dances on the program.
One of the unanticipated benefits of attending dance on a reasonably regular basis is the opportunity to learn something that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Sor Juana is a learning opportunity. The piece is based on the life and legacy of 17th Century Mexican writer, philosopher, composer, poet, and Hieronymite nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who also happens to have been a prototype feminist. Before Sor Juana, I never knew she existed.
Sor Juana (“sor” translates to “sister,” which in her life as well as in Manzanales’s piece has a dual meaning) was born Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in 1648, and died in 1695. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish military officer who reportedly was absent throughout her life and a wealthy woman of Spanish descent (a criolla: that is, a woman of full Spanish descent born in Spain’s viceroyalties — e.g., New Spain, most of which later became Mexico). Reportedly she lived comfortably as a child in her maternal grandfather’s hacienda outside Mexico City, and was self-educated until she was 21, secretly reading books from the hacienda’s library. A brief summary of her accomplishments as a child (quoted from a footnoted Wikipedia entry) is so extraordinary as to be almost beyond belief: “By the age of three, she had learned how to read and write Latin. By the age of five, she reportedly could do accounts. At age eight, she composed a poem on the Eucharist. By adolescence, Inés had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. She also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl and wrote some short poems in that language.”
In 1669, she became a nun, reportedly so she could study without being tethered to an occupation. She remained there until her death of the plague after ministering to other nuns suffering from it. In the interim, and in large part because of the connections she’d established with people of influence, she studied, wrote, and collected a large library. But her writings in support of what is now considered within the ambit of “basic women’s rights” (to an education, to write and publish, to serve as intellectual authorities, to teach other women), and her direct and indirect challenges to church patriarchy and hierarchical authority created difficulties: during the roughly five years before her death she was compelled to stop writing, and her library and instruments (musical and scientific) were either confiscated or sold.
At her death, it’s been reported that she had over 100 unpublished works, only a fraction of which have survived. Nevertheless, what has survived is quite extraordinary for her time, or for any time. An analysis more detailed than this is not possible here, but it’s worth exploring.
With Sor Juana, Manzanales has laid the groundwork for such an exploration, and she does it without being in the least pedantic. Her dance biography is interesting, intriguing, and intelligent because her subject is, but it’s also a hypnotic and somewhat haunting small-scale epic because Manzanales and her colleagues created it that way. That it’s frequently quite beautiful in a stripped-down mystical way is a bonus.
Sor Juana is vaguely linear in presentation, but it’s not a narrative; it’s far more imaginative than that. Manzanales presents Sor Juana’s life as a series of seamless episodes creatively enhanced. Events are summarized in large visual gulps, enhanced by imagination but consistent with developments in her subject’s life.
Incidents, including one that’s central to the piece (a simmering relationship of sorts with another woman) may have been invented. I’ve read no reference to it, but then, even if it occurred it wouldn’t necessarily have been documented. Be that as it may, nothing explicit is indicated, and the episode works beyond what it appears to be as a metaphor for the impact Sor Juana had, intellectually, on young women of her time and of a future time after her writings were “rediscovered.” Regardless, as presented it enhances the drama, and the impact, of the dance. [A related aside: Among Sor Juana’s writings were love poems, one or more of which was addressed to the object of her passion, a person with a man’s name — Alcino. That could have been an invented name for anyone, or, since the meaning of that name is “mighty mind,” may have referred to her known relationship – it’s not clear whether the relationship was platonic or romantic – with another of that era’s noted criollo intellectuals.]
But although it’s central, that’s only one small part of the piece. From beginning to end, Sor Juana is simply stunning in its translation of a life into a work of dance art. Every moment is filled with imagery that describes Sor Juana’s impact in auspicious abstract cinematic episodes.
The dance begins with a woman, obviously Sor Juana, wearing a period dress that reflects the wealth around her, staring pensively out into the world while others, similarly dressed, are spread on the floor behind her: the well-bred doing nothing. In short order, Sor Juana is seen stepping over them as if she were carefully circumnavigating barriers and at the same time elevating herself to a level above her contemporaries.
The others rise, walk toward her, and pose or circle her as if she were someone to avoid. This segues into another scene in which Sor Juana is escorted upstage and undressed down to a white leotard by the women in the group, and then re-dressed by the men ceremonially, layer by layer, into what became her nun’s habit. It’s mind-boggling how many different concepts and events Manzanales crams into this one series of movement episodes, in the process cutting choreographic surplusage to the bone while maintaining every event of significance and the circumstances that led to it.
But that’s only the first of many such episodes. I’ll spare the reader my summaries of the remainder, except one that reflects the intelligence that went into this dance.
The score for Sor Juana is a curated set of music from multiple sources (including, somewhat miraculously, one created by her dance’s subject), which unfortunately are not identified or specifically delineated in the piece. They’re weaved together so smoothly, and so skillfully match and enhance the flow of the piece, that the score is not the least bit problematic. But at one point, while in the process or shortly after the costume-change referenced above, I heard some scratchy sounds amid the music. I couldn’t figure out why the sounds were there. The scratchy sounds were repeated, with the length of time seemingly increasing with each repetition, together with the intensity, the pressure, applied to make the scratchy sound louder. Then what the scratchiness sounded like hit like a brick: it sounded like writing with a quill (or similar ink conveyance) by hand, and represented the writing that Sor Juana was able to do after becoming a nun. Sure enough, a subsequent scene shows her writing and making scratchy sounds in the process while, as I recall, sprawled on the stage floor.
Later, as the dance ended, paper – representing Sor Juana’s writings – showered down from the rafters like confetti. Dance theater magic coupled with dance theater genius.
The dancers’ performances and the work of her artistic associates did justice to Manzanales’s concept. Overall, the cast of ten was somewhat like a moving Criolla Chorus from which a pair or two might briefly be separated out. Gabrielle Sprauve’s Sor Juana and Isabel Robles as the woman/ acolyte with whom she has the stage relationship, whatever that relationship was, were the dance’s centerpieces. Sprauve is something of a dance chameleon, looking different in every dance in which she appeared. Here, although she doesn’t look like representations I’ve seen of Sor Juana, she nevertheless assumes a remarkable physical resemblance based on the shape of her face and her consistent intentionally stolid demeanor throughout that created a continuing aura of intellectual majesty – abetted by the muted, cathedral-like lighting (designed by Jojo A. Frangione) and by the costumes for her (designed by Sam Ratelle), including specifically the nun’s habit, that intriguingly replicate or creatively enhance designs of the period recorded in portraits of her and her contemporaries. And Robles, in everything she danced in the program but particularly here, manages to look concurrently innocent and sensual, and has an innate intensity that comes across as luminosity.
In case it’s not sufficiently clear, Sor Juana is a must see.
The engagement’s other premiere, de Jesus’s Papagayos, isn’t in the same league – but considering that this was de Jesus’s first choreographic effort for the company, that shouldn’t have been expected.
The program note states that Papagayos “follows a mischievous character who puppeteers humanity while simultaneously scoffing at the peoples’ plight.” That’s fine (and it invents a new verb), and is adequately reflected in the dance. But the program note goes on to say that “This is a shapeshifting story – a tale of power, influence, and identity in the face of unauthorized control.” Shapeshifting? Identity? What the dance does is illustrate a successful revolt and a reversal of power. If more than that was here (and it is presented somewhat strangely, so there might well have been more), it went over my head.
The dance’s narrative is simple, though it requires a brief detour into meaning.
Papagayos is the plural of papagayo, which has two very different meanings. One is the name given to strong winds that blow north of the Gulf of Papagayo. [Papagayo also has several specific geographic references, which I’ll assume are not relevant.] The other meaning is “parrot.” Although a lot of meaningless talk happens during the piece (hot air), I’m going with “parrot” for two reasons: the character who obviously plays papagayo is costumed in parrot-like colors and lots of ersatz feathers; and because there’s a secondary meaning – chatterbox – and this papagayo can’t stop chattering (that hot air).
The parrot first enters the house before the dance begins, sounding like an unruly member of the audience screeching from the far right side of the orchestra. From my position, I thought a fight had broken out. Eventually it moves to the front of the audience (at which point it was clear that he/she was part of the dance) in full feathered array, still chattering away about nothing in particular and acting like a jester or house clown. The parrot then hops onto the stage apron, only to continue the one-way conversation.
After the curtain rises, the parrot transfers her annoying chatter (which sounds somewhat funny though meaningless) to the other ten members of the cast, who mostly just sit on a double row of chairs positioned upstage audience right. For the next 15 or so minutes, the parrot pulls their strings (not literally), and they comply, moving to different positions around the table like automatons playing musical chairs. At some point the parrot gains access to a hat, which becomes another means of control, and the control grows less funny as certain people sitting in the chairs do her bidding. Through most of this, one male character stands on one of the chairs seeming to have some level of significance that I was unable to discern (maybe a quisling silently parroting the parrot’s orders) (sorry). Eventually the parrot’s hat gets removed (at which time it becomes clear that it’s a female parrot), after which her power is gone, her goose is cooked, and the humans circle around her as if preparing for the kill, at which point the dance ends.
Ok. So the dance has a peripatetic parrot that somehow has control over people, and the people revolt and become the ones with power. I still don’t see shapeshifting, or an identity issue (beyond who in the cast is playing Big Bird, since the dancer portraying that character isn’t identified in the program).
Nevertheless, the audience seemed to eat this up, so maybe Papagayos and the story it relates has a particularly ethnic meaning that I’ve been unable to discover. I’ll grant that Papagayos is often funny, but for all its humor it’s either idiotic or as dense as a fire fog over New York. I don’t believe it’s idiotic – I think there’s something more serious going on here; maybe some statement about all people inherently being puppeteers/ controllers of other people.
But maybe there’s something else afoot, or aclaw, in Papagayos that de Jesus is trying to say but doesn’t communicate it with sufficient clarity. Maybe this is a take on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” or a political commentary relating to a certain former President. End of overthinking rant.
The parrot played her role with extraordinary skill, and was the dance’s engine. Based on the photos included above, she was played a by a dancer firecracker named Amanda del Valle, who was a spirited and a convincingly annoying parrot who seemed perfectly comfortable talking at the audience. The other dancers didn’t have much to work with beyond looking either stoic or mean or both. And I’m still stumped as to who the man who most of the time stood on top of a chair and seemed to be the human group’s leader was supposed to represent (he was played by Amir Baldwin).
The evening opened with a duet choreographed by William Forsythe. Called New Sleep, it was included in the program because the late Tina Ramirez, who founded Ballet Hispanico, reportedly held Forsythe’s work in “highest esteem” (per an introductory comment in the Program by the company’s current Artistic Director and CEO, Eduardo Vilaro). The duet premiered with the San Francisco Ballet in 1987, and is one of Forsythe’s more tame and accessible dances (except for the score, composed by Forsythe’s frequent collaborator, Thom Williams, which almost killed it – although I suppose it’s loud and annoying enough to require a listener to find a new way to sleep), and was very well executed by Fatima Andere and Cangiano. And although the program’s other pieces often featured ballet-like lyricism, this was the evening’s only real ballet.
The program’s closing piece was Club Havana, a rousing tribute to pre-Castro Havana as captured in five different night-club dances. I’ve reviewed it previously. Choreographed by Pedro Ruiz in 2000, it’s filled with zest, sensuality, and Latin pride, brilliantly executed by the company, and features Cangiano, Sprauve, and Rivéra in the opening segment; Cori Lewis and Baldwin, Robles and Dylan Dias McIntyre, del Valle and Paolo Hernandez-Farella in the Caballo segment; and Andere, Cangiano, and Rivera led the Cha Cha Cha. The balance of the company, all of whom appeared here (and some in earlier program dances), were Ana Estrada, Isabella Vergara, Leonardo Brito, and Hugo Pizano Orozco.
Since I last saw them, the company has lost many of the dancers who excelled and were idiosyncratic in their qualities and appeal. But they’ve been replaced by another new batch of exceptionally able dancers of at least equal quality. A bevy of exceptional dances have been created under Vilaro’s leadership. I look forward to seeing these new dancers again, and another exceptional dance or two, when Ballet Hispánico returns.