Reverence for cultural and family history has always propelled Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, founded by Amalia Hernandez in 1952 to preserve the folk dances of her native country and now directed by her grandson, Salvador Lopez.
Still, some say historical accuracy isn’t the company’s strong suit. Though Hernandez did her research, traveling to Mexico’s mountains, deserts and jungles, she also expanded on and glamorized the many traditional dances of its regions and cultures. Like Igor Moiseyev, the ballet-trained Soviet popularizer of Russian folk dance, she presented large, well-rehearsed professional casts in eye-popping, ornately detailed costumes, creating vast kaleidoscopes of color and movement.
Those costumes and steps are faithful in their way, and their very gigantism triggered the Mexico City-based company’s international success, initiated in 1954 by a regular TV gig in Mexico. Performances abroad began in 1958; shortly thereafter in 1959, Ballet Folklorico cemented its appeal abroad by dancing at Soldier Field in the Pan American Games’ opening ceremony, the troupe’s first Chicago appearance.
Fifty-six years later, Ballet Folklorico returns with a two-act program, Saturday and Sunday, in one of its regular visits to the Auditorium Theatre.
Hernandez, who died in 2000, was the child of a Mexico City politician. She received private ballet lessons from age 8, sometimes with Paris Opera Ballet dancers She studied modern dance and flamenco and eventually performed and taught Euro-centric dance. Dissatisfied, she was drawn to Mexico’s native forms, including the danced ceremonies of indigenous peoples, predating the arrival of the Spanish.
While it may seem preposterous to claim any genuine connection to dances preceding 1500, 16th-century Spanish missionaries actually recorded their impressions of the ancient ceremonies, believing that understanding them would aid in Christian conversion. Moreover, many traditions still exist in Mexico’s small towns: A few years ago, while visiting Paracho in the mountains of Michoacan, I saw a deer dance of sorts, a procession that included antler-adorned performers and a dead deer carried high on a platform.
The porous nature of Mexico’s Mesoamerican belief systems allowed iconic images of Jesus, Mary, the saints and the devil to infiltrate the sacred symbols of Mexico’s oldest religions, creating the rich mix of imagery that enlivens all its folk arts, often with a sense of humor.
The Auditorium’s upcoming program of nine works, Lopez tells me, includes one called “Life Like a Game,” in which the devil manipulates the characters — a bride, a groom, her lover, among others — like puppets on strings.
“It’s a ‘parodia’ of life, it’s a joke,” Lopez explains. Calling it “very modern,” he says it “shows the life in Mexico, a fiesta — what you see in a town, a celebration.”
Ballet Folklorico isn’t known for new infusions to its repertoire; the program here seems entirely made up of Chicago favorites. But Lopez says that in recent years he and others have tweaked the choreography to make it “more dynamic, more bright. What you see onstage, it’s Amalia’s ideas. But some dances look younger, fresher.”
Lopez also believes the company’s dancing has grown stronger. Since 1968, Ballet Folklorico has had its own school, which currently enrolls 400 students, some of whom are on a rigorous professional track.
“We have the professional-career dancer from 12 to 13 years old,” Lopez explains. “They dance for four years, in high school. Then we select the best of them for an experimental company, and then we select from this experimental company to the professional company. So it takes about five years.”
At that point, he says, “We choose which ones will work with the company in terms of technique and the way they look: They have good proportions, and the men are tall.”
Lopez began dancing with Ballet Folklorico in 1982 — his specialty was the rope dance — and over the years has served as its jack-of-all-trades. “I’ve been working with the company since 1994, helping my grandmother tour and promote it around the world,” he says. “For a big chunk, I was involved in loading the cargo and what was happening backstage. So I know very deeply the company because I’ve been involved in all its artistic and technical (facets).”
Lopez is particularly excited about the “Christmas in Mexico” show he’s been working on for eight years, adapting the Mexican holiday dances of his grandmother. Though it’s been performed regularly in Mexico City, he’s hoping to bring the program to the States in 2016.
“It’s a huge spectacle with 200 artists — with the symphonic orchestra, about 250 artists onstage,” Lopez says. Like “The Nutcracker,” he notes, it only happens in December. “But ‘Christmas in Mexico’ is a Mexican tradition: We have Mexican culture from the 17th century, Mexican songs from the 16th century. We’re going to talk with the presenters, see if we can bring the huge company (to the U.S.) for two weeks. I think Chicago could be very successful.”
Br: Laura Molzahn