Ballet Hispanico
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

April 11, 2018
Linea Recta, Waiting for Pepe, Espiritus Gemelos, Con Brazos Abiertos

— by Jerry Hochman

Ballet Hispanico returned to the Joyce Theater on Tuesday for a week-long visit. The program was a little uneven, but there was nothing uneven about the company’s dancers, who are an extraordinary group.

The program featured two world premieres, Waiting for Pepe and Espiritus Gemelos, choreographed respectively by Carlos Pons Guerra and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. They’re about as different from each other as dances can be, but they share a common partial inspirational focus: Federico Garcia Lorca, perhaps Spain’s best known poet and playwright. Both dances are well-done, but where the first seems to lose its way and become confusing, the second is a gem.

Born in 1898, Garcia Lorca was known not just for his writing, but for his social activism and rebelliousness against Spanish hierarchical traditions – and also for his sexual orientation. For much of his life he reportedly felt obligated to hide his homosexuality, and his private anguish, behind a public façade that was in greater conformity with the society around him. Garcia Lorca was murdered, allegedly by Nationalist/Fascist “police,” at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and his body was never found.

Program notes for Waiting for Pepe state that when he was growing up, Pons Guerra was mercilessly bullied and rejected for his homosexuality. The program notes also indicate that Garcia Lorca’s 1936 play, The House of Bernarda Alba, changed his life by challenging the oppressive nature of Spanish society, and by giving “a scared young teenager the courage to speak, to love himself, and to find freedom.” I thought that that was where Pons Guerra was going with Waiting for Pepe – exploring his triumph over bullying and shame – but that’s only partly true. Effectively, though they may be related (and I don’t doubt that was the intent), the dance is divided into two parts, and in the process it loses coherence. Try as much as I did (reflected in the discussion below), it just didn’t work.

The dance begins with a very clear choreographic elaboration on being different, being bullied, and being a societal outcast. Essentially, the dancers are arrayed in a triangular pattern that changes position on stage as the dance progresses. The depiction of peer bullying and of the shame of being an oppressed outsider is heartfelt (for example, at one point the dancers parade within this moving triangle, while cowering in apparent fear – or shame – and with each dancer’s hands covering his or her genital area), was powerful, and certainly aroused sympathy. And within this section, the focus shifts from one dancer to another, which seems an admirable effort to make the tyranny of bullying a more universal experience (one woman is seen covering her breasts, although the reason for it is unclear – either she’s being attacked, or she has body image issues), but which also made the images somewhat confusing to visually digest.

After a period of what seemed to be rebellion from this oppression, it appeared to me that the bullied individuals ultimately had overcome their oppressors and their shame, and found their confidence and their voices.

Suddenly, however, the tenor of the dance completely changed. Where the first part appeared purposeful, but ponderous; mesmerizing at times, but overdone; the second part was primarily furious, seemingly out-of-control motion– interrupted only, in my memory, by highly unpleasant interactions. Essentially, the piece seemed to morph from a broad yet individualized examination of bullying and the shame of feeling different into an exploration of themes in the Garcia Lorca play that Pons Guerra had found so enlightening.

The House of Bernarda Alba relates – in highly simplified summary – the lives of five young women who have been perpetually dominated by their tyrannical mother (Bernarda Alba). It takes place during a period in which the daughters have been confined to their home to observe an eight-year period of mourning. That’s part of what exacerbates the already intense feeling of oppression that their mother’s domination (society’s restrictions) created.  Another part, and the play’s catalyst, is one Pepe el Romano – or, maybe more accurately, the idea of Pepe el Romano, since the character doesn’t actually appear in the play. The mother’s eldest daughter, Angustias, is being courted by him, but the youngest daughter, Adela, is having an affair with him – and the other daughters seem to covet him as well.

There are generalized references to the play in the second part of Waiting for Pepe. Women are being oppressed – bullied – and one of them, toward the beginning of this segment of the dance (or at the end of the first segment – there’s no clear delineation) screams in anguish as if she’s just been shattered by some development – which fits the reaction of the character Adela upon hearing that Pepe is to wed Angustias.  And there’s an overall sense of hysteria (evidenced by the non-stop movement) both as response to the repression the daughters face from their mother and from the physical (and emotional) terrors imposed by society (for which the mother is a surrogate). Most significantly, of course, is that the dance’s title comes from the fact that the daughters (and the mother … and the grandmother) in the play are in one way or another waiting for Pepe to show up.

But there’s little clarity to any such connection beyond that. No men appear in the play, but men populate this segment of the dance – and do so as sexual assailants. And although women, to me, are clearly pictured as being assaulted, there’s also some indication that at least some of them don’t mind the aggressive attention. Further, this second part of the dance is primarily located in what appears to be a bar or similar community gathering place, with a multi-color image of a rooster (like a bar sign) hanging overhead, seemingly watching (or somehow encouraging) the events on stage (this rooster starts to become animated – like an “animated” neon sign – as the action beneath it proceeds.

Perhaps the “connection,” assuming there is one, is that Pons Guerra is using the second part of the dance as a metaphor for the play’s underlying theme – one of them – of the generally negative impact that men have on women. But then there’s the matter of the connection between the first part of the dance and the second.  There has to be a connection, but aside from the dancer who may or may not be portraying Adela also being the dancer who protects her breasts in the dance’s first part, and the overall sense of oppression, there doesn’t seem to be any.

Ultimately, struggling so much to find a connection between the first part of the dance and the second, and the dance as a whole and the play, became a fruitless exercise. And that’s particularly annoying to me, because – as should be clear by my spending so much space here trying to analyze what Pons Guerra was attempting to do – I think there was a cosmic intent here that simply wasn’t well-communicated.

Maybe the lack of clarity would have been overcome by superb choreography, but although it was certainly complex, Pons Guerra’s choreography never reached that level.

What did reach that level, and what makes the dance more memorable than it would otherwise be, were the dancers. The cast was listed as “the company,” and the performing weight seemed relatively evenly distributed. But standing out among all of them, to me, was Eila Valls, who danced the role that may or may not have been Adela.  In a role that lacks clear definition, and with choreography that at times comes across as wild and crazy and uncontrolled, Valls was extraordinarily wild and crazy and … controlled. And she’s got a hauntingly anguished scream.

Espiritus Gemelos (loosely, “twin spirits”), is a dance that outlines the relationship between Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali. The program notes indicate an intense relationship between the two that may or may not have been sexual, but that certainly was a form of passionate friendship. Based on my research, that’s a reasonably historically accurate summary. The dance is intended to illuminate this “friendship,” with the viewer being able to feel the intensity of their relationship as was expressed in correspondence between them.

That it does. Brilliantly.

It seems to me that Ramirez Sansano here errs on the side of there having been a sexual relationship between Garcia Lorca and Dali. But as explicitly amorous and passionate as the relationship depicted in Espiritus Gemelos is, it may indeed “simply” be an expression of profound but non-sexual love. I don’t’ know – but here it doesn’t matter. What Ramirez Sansano has choreographed, and what the two dancers – Chris Bloom as Garcia Lorca and Omar Ramon De Jesus as Dali – have communicated, is a developing, all consuming, and perhaps terminal relationship (Dali did reportedly cut it off – whatever it was) that is as simply and clearly stated as it is emotionally complex.

The dance opens with the two men, each carrying a suitcase, separately and sequentially walking down the theater aisle, lifting themselves up to the stage, and, hesitantly, crossing a bare, doorless threshold. There’s no room on the other side – it’s a metaphor.

Immediately thereafter, Bloom is seen upstage left adjacent to what looks like his bed, preoccupied with something he has written (a play, poetry, or the letters to Dali –it’s not clear to me, and not really significant). He’s pensive and somber and mutedly impatient. The stage darkens, and the scene then shifts to Dali’s studio, downstage right, where De Jesus is painting on a canvas (with his arms and hands). Bloom enters, and slowly, very deliberately, a relationship ensues. In the varying scenes that follow (with the sense of differing locations and time passing), the relationship grows deeper, more intense – with passionate embraces and hugs, and the hint (well, more than a hint) of something more. And then there’s a brief argument, and one of them departs (I think it was Bloom, but I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter).

What does matter is the deceptive simplicity of Ramiro Sansano’s choreography. Not much happens – but an entire relationship happens before our eyes.

It all seems a little stiff sometimes. To me that’s the style Ramirez Sansano uses to reflect the hesitancy of the two artists and the necessity that the relationship, whatever it was, be kept secret, but it also serves to make the moments of fluidity even more meaningful. Everything works because everything – except the emotions – is kept simple, from the basic white costumes (by Amanda Giadu), to the minimal set (by Luis Crespo), to the music (by Manuel de Falla and Jacinto Guerrero – both of whom were contemporaries of, and likely collaborators with, Garcia Lorca and Dali). And seeing the muted intensity of Bloom and De Jesus as their defenses fade and they yield to their emotions is the theatrical equivalent watching egg shells crack under the gradually increasing weight of passion – simple, quiet, but irreversible and visually indelible.

Both Linea Recta and Con Brazos Abiertos, which respectively opened and closed the program, were reviewed last year and I won’t spend much time on them here.

Choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Linea Recta is an elaboration on flamenco that claims to explore flamenco’s absence of physical contact in the presence of such overwhelming passion. I’m not so sure about that – there’s much more physical contact here than in most examples of flamenco that I’ve seen. More significant is that in Linea Recta the women are in charge. And the fire-engine red costumes add vibrancy to a dance that already has vibrancy to spare.

Maybe the company has simply grown more comfortable with the choreography, or maybe I was more open to it, but I enjoyed it even more this year than last. Melissa Fernandez dances everything (not just the Carmen-like dance with which Linea Recta begins) with a remarkable burning intensity. It’s more than those eyes – it’s also the intensity of her execution. And Valls danced her role here with both greater abandon and greater precision than I recalled. Shelby Colona, Diana Winfree, Mark Gieringer, Lyvan Verecia, Jared Bogart, and Bloom completed the superb cast.

Michelle Manzanales’s Con Brazos Abiertos is now performed (at least at this engagement) without the introductory reference to Marty Robbins’s song, El Paso, played through the theater’s speakers before the curtain opens. [There may have been other modifications as well, but I’m not certain.]

To me, the dance, which I saw last year as an extraordinary and universal commentary on the competing lures of being caught between two cultures, loses that universality without the Robbins song as an introduction. Its clear focus now is the difficulty faced by a young Mexican girl in a Texas border town trying to cope with maintaining her heritage – the images that haunt her – and adapting to a different one. It’s very fine for what it is, but with the narrower focus (not that that’s inappropriate – it is, after all, what the dance is “about”), something significant has been lost.

Regardless, Ballet Hispanico doesn’t need any particular dance to be appreciated for the universality of its impact. When the choreography is great, so much the better. But the company’s dancers make any Ballet Hispanico performance a worthwhile destination.