The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
March 26, 2019
El Viaje, Sombrerisimo, Homebound/Alaala
Ever since Twyla Tharp choreographed Push Comes to Shove for American Ballet Theatre, other dances featuring bowler hats have become, by comparison, second (or third or fourth) best. And ever since . . . forever, dances about leaving home / arriving at a new home / yearning to return home (collectively, “home”) have been commonplace. That essential prop, and that subject, were presented in Ballet Hispánico’s three-dance program for its annual Joyce Theater season. Flying bowler hats are still inevitably remindful of Tharp’s piece, and “home” is still a hackneyed subject, but the program, enlivened by the company’s highly accomplished dancers, proved more interesting, and far more enjoyable, than anticipated.
One of these dances stood out over the others because its treatment of the subject of “home” was so different, and such great fun to watch. Although it was the program’s final offering, I’ll consider it first.
Prior to Tuesday’s performance, Bennyroyce Royon was a name unfamiliar to me. Not any more. His Homebound/Alaala, which celebrated its world premiere at this opening night performance, is a riot of action, color, and community, and it bathes its audience in its exuberant ambiance. Even though its subject – according to the program note, the intersection of Latino and Asian cultures and the quest for home – is nothing new, Royon and the Ballet Hispánico dancers breathe new life into it. Without being overwhelmed by its originality, it’s one of the most original-looking treatments of the subject that I’ve seen.
A Brooklyn-based Filipino-American dancer and choreographer and Juilliard graduate, Royon has pieced together a paean to yearning for the familiar, discovery of the new, and community that is more celebration for what’s happened than nostalgia for what’s been lost. In the process, he’s also changed the focus from the literal to the metaphoric. Large rectangular boxes fill the stage, and sandals (apparently, from my research, particularly significant in Filipino culture) are ubiquitous, and at one point are lined horizontally downstage. The boxes are not only suitcase surrogates; they act also as barriers to cross, mountains to climb, and places to hide (as well as convenient stage dividers). The sandals are symbols of cultural memory. The boxes are moved initially from a starry-skied departure point and then from place to place on stage during the course of the dance, to me symbolic of moving from one “home” to another until the immigrants find some permanent location to hang their hats (or to put on their shoes).
The boxes serve another function as well. Some have words or images on them, and some open to allow an occasional dancer to open them wistfully (and maybe insert or remove cherished sandals). These boxes, some of which are emblazoned with the word “Fragile” (and some with another images that I was unable to discern, possibly Filipino words) – are the repositories of “fragile” memories. [“Alaala” is Tagalog for “memories.] I’ve also been advised by a colleague that boxes similar to those in Homebound/Alaala, called “balikbayan boxes,” are used by Filipinos living outside the Philippines to ship gifts back to people still living “home,” but this does not appear to be the purpose of these boxes.
As all this is happening, Royon’s musical choices, all Filipino songs, provide the more obvious “memories” connection. The music is at once lilting and haunting; gentle and persistent. Island music from a different island. After a (not surprisingly) wistful beginning (to 10-string classical guitarist Perfecto De Castro’s evocative “Hatinggabi – Midnight”), the dance continues on a steady pace (those boxes keep moving) through two Filipino folk songs (“Apat na dahilan,” sung by Pilita Corrales, and “Dandelon,” sung by Nora Aunor), then, in a change of pace, to “Ay, Leng,” by Grace Nono, and finally explodes with energy to “Anti-wana” by Pinikpikan, from a film soundtrack.
As interesting as the metaphors and music are, however, the dance wouldn’t work as well as it does without Royon’s choreography. It’s fluid, but it’s not ballet, and it has a contemporary feel, but it’s not the form of contemporary dance dominated by pervasive and rigorous corkscrew or angular movement. If there’s a connection here to Filipino folk dance (and I suspect there is), I didn’t see it, and it’s done so subtly that even if I’d been able to recognize Filipino folk dance I might not have noticed it. I can’t describe any particular “style,” and don’t know if there is one. What it is, however, is “big” movement. Dancers gulp space moving back and forth across the stage as they push, pull, throw, or tug boxes, and as they celebrate in what might be a local playground (a good natured “South-East Side Story”; dances at a different kind of gathering).
At one point (to “Ay, Leng”), the dance changes focus, presenting two male dancers who, at first tentatively, then exuberantly, discover homosexual inclinations. Shortly thereafter, the pair is “caught” by other community members, but instead of the anticipated scorn, they find acceptance. At first I felt that it was out of place here, particularly as, to my recollection, it’s the only “relationship” depicted in the dance – and even if there’s a reason for its presence that’s personal to the choreographer. But the point is consistent with the thrust of the dance as a whole (the contrast between the “new” culture and the “old,” expressed by the new community’s acceptance of differences), so in that sense, it fits well.
As difficult as cultural assimilation appears to be, and although interrupted from time to time by memories of the culture they left behind, Royon’s piece is fun. I suspect there’s a measure of culture clash depicted here between the Latinos in place and the arriving Filipinos (occasionally one box-laden dancer is chased by another; “fights” break out between one subgroup and other), but that’s not the dance’s point, and it’s all handled deftly so that whatever conflict there may be translates into a comic interaction that passes quickly. And when the community clearly unites and the Filipino music becomes more celebratory, the feeling becomes infectious. Homebound/Alaala confronts a serious subject with such good nature that one find it necessary to pinch oneself to make sure it’s real. And by minimizing any obvious limitation to the Filipino / Latino experience (aside from the Filipino music), the result is a dance with a cosmic consciousness that can appeal to anyone unable or unwilling to let homebound memories evaporate in the context of creating a new, different, vibrant multicultural community.
El Viaje (The Trip) is about emigration / immigration, rather than a meeting of cultures. That’s fine, but the result is more limited as well: apprehension and determination rather than celebration or, alternatively, fear of cultural loss. It’s also significantly different visually from Homebound/Alaala and many other dances that address the subject. A former dancer with New York City Ballet, Edwaard Liang here has crafted a lovely ballet, filled with lush movement quality to match the lush, dreamy score (Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, recorded by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields). The choreography is lyrical – almost lyrical to a fault – befitting the music, and what there is is well crafted. But as good as the choreography is, and as brilliant as the Ballet Hispanico dancers are in executing it, looking lovely isn’t enough to elevate El Viaje into anything distinctive or profound. There’s no real conflict here; no real expression of inner turmoil; no real apprehension; no elaboration on the yearning for the old culture or the temptations of the new. It’s all fairly low key.
Far more concerning is that, other than singing the praises of the Chinese emigration to Cuba, Liang’s purpose isn’t set forth clearly. I don’t know whether the focus is on the emigrant going on a “voyage” to a new life, or on an immigrant’s experience (another kind of “voyage”) trying to be assimilated into that new culture. They’re opposite sides of the same coin, and the emotions involved are similar – but the confusion, at least in my mind, could have been easily cured.
The ballet begins with a highlighted sole dancer, Melissa Verdecia (f/k/a Melissa Fernandez), wearing a red dress, standing downstage center with her back to the audience, and apparently slowly waving at an assemblage of dancers grouped upstage center. The piece closes with a similar picture, except Verdecia’s character is facing downstage right at the assemblage of dancers closer to the downstage right wings, with the area illuminated in sunlight as if all were embarking on a voyage to an unknown future. I saw this initially as the woman in red waving goodbye, at least symbolically, to her past culture and at the same time expressing her yearning for it (that that past culture may have been Chinese is not, to me, in any way apparent), and then being transported to the new one. Seen this way, what happens in between are the pressures to leave or not – with the ultimate decision being to leave for a better life, symbolized by the change of positions, with the dancers now heading into the sunset (or sunrise) on a golden path to a new beginning.
But it may also have been that the woman in red is at first greeting, and being greeted by, the “new culture” residents, and then being encouraged by the new culture’s representatives (the other dancers) to join them – with the accent being how wonderful these Cubans were to welcome this stranger (and by extension, the Chinese emigrants as a group) into their community. In hindsight, I suspect that this was Liang’s intent. In any event, the distinction isn’t really critical here. The central character is different (obviously by her red dress), and recognizes she must leave, or is different, and tries to blend in. In between, the memories of her “previous” culture, and the possibilities of her “new” culture, push and pull in various directions.
But although it’s admirably simple and straightforward visually, what there is raises questions beyond whether the woman in red is waving goodbye to her old culture or hello to her new one. Why is she in a red dress, while the other dancers are attired in more simple, relatively dull costumes? If the intent was just to single her out as the new arrival, couldn’t it have been done in a way that didn’t make her look not just different from the others, but more elegant? And if the thrust of the dance is how she’s being welcomed by the native Cubans, what does this say about Liang’s vision of the Chinese culture from which the woman in red came and the Cuban culture which, presumably, is welcoming her with open arms? Is this what Liang intended – to picture the Chinese culture as sophisticated and the Cuban culture as more earthy and common?
All this being said, the absence of clarity here isn’t fatal to the dance. Much more significant is the movement quality. El Viaje may not be a memorable ballet, but it’s a lovely piece of work to watch: silken smooth, with some indelible images – e.g., the woman in red hurtling herself onto the outstretched arms of the “community” (representing either the cultural foundations that she’s leaving or the welcoming buoyancy that she’s receiving) – and, not surprisingly given Liang’s background, with a pervasive fluidity. Gentle even in conflict (one male dancer from the group, Lyvan Verdecia, is singled out to convince the woman in red to stay, or leave, or to accept him (or by extension, his culture), and their pas de deux is a dance highlight. Melissa Verdecia has been a standard bearer for Ballet Hispanico at least since 2016, when I first saw the company. In addition to her technical ability, she infuses her performances with an aura of drama that would make her the center of attention even if she weren’t already, as she is here as the woman in red. And in terms of passion, Lyvan Verdecia is her equal.
In between these two comments on the immigrant experience and cultural assimilation, the company presented Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Sombrerisimo. Originally choreographed in 2013 for an all-male cast, what made this incarnation different was the execution by an all-female cast.
Inspired by the surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte and intended, according to the program note, to reference “the iconic sombreros (hats) found throughout the world to help represent culture,” to me the piece has no connection to Magritte’s paintings beyond featuring bowler hats, and the use of bowler hats in a dance titled Sombrerisimo is emblematic of cultural clash rather than being representative of cultures around the world. Bowler hats evoke a stiff upper lip and the kind of insouciance personified by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Tharp’s dance; “sombrero,” even if it technically is translatable as “hat,” is not generic, and evokes images that are a lot more … macho. And if a “hat” is representative of cultures around the world, why only use a bowler? That tossing bowler hats into the air has been done before (see Tharp, above) doesn’t help.
But approaching Lopez Ochoa’s dance intellectually misses the point. Sombrerisimo isn’t a cerebral dance – it’s fun, a little outrageous, a lot audacious, and absolutely pointless beyond that. In its original incarnation, I suppose it was greeted by audience as a beefcake dance, albeit fully clothed, designed to highlight macho manliness and male virility (which I suspect, to some, is redundant). I never saw that version, but having now seen it danced by women, I suspect that the impact is similar. If some members of the audience may have swooned at the sight of men preening and posing and tossing their hats in the air in its original Fall for Dance presentation, I don’t doubt that many in the audience for this performance felt similarly about women preening and posing and tossing their hats in the air. These women (Shelby Colona, Jenna Marie, Eila Valls, Gabrielle Sprauve, Dandara Veiga, and M. Verdecia) all looked like they were having a blast doing what the big boys did, without the testosterone factor – and, consequently, probably a lot more sensually. And if nothing else, it fit with the rest of the program, since anyplace one hangs, or hurls, one’s hat is home.