CONVERSACIONES: MICHELLE MANZANALES & Con Brazos Abiertos

The Ballet Hispánico Company is thrilled to make its return to The Joyce Theater for our New York Season, April 18-23! This program of all-female choreographers features the World Premiere of Michelle Manzanales’s Con Brazos Abiertos, an exploration of Michelle’s identity and the iconic cultural symbols which she was reluctant to embrace as a Mexican-American child growing up in Texas.

Before being named Director of the School of Dance in December of 2016, Michelle served as the Rehearsal Director of the BH Company for seven seasons. A choreographer and dance educator from Houston, TX, Michelle has over 25 years of teaching experience serving on the faculties of Lou Conte Dance Studio, the University of Houston, Houston Metropolitan Dance Center, Festival de Danza Cordoba-Youth American Grand Prix, and Luna Negra Dance Theater, where she was a dancer. We sat down with Michelle to pick her brain on the inspiration behind Con Brazos Abiertos and her journey to get there.

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Michelle in rehearsal with the Company (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: Con Brazos Abiertos was originally developed in 2015 during Instituto Coreográfico, Ballet Hispánico’s choreographic lab. Since then, how has the work evolved, if at all?

Michelle Manzanales: After Instituto in 2015, it was kind of up in the air as to what would happen, if anything, with the ideas I had explored during the institute. However, my mind and heart were ignited with ideas of what would ultimately become Con Brazos Abiertos. I began thinking more deeply about the subjects I was touching on, identity and my cultural landscape. Since getting the good news that Con Brazos Abiertos would make its journey to the mainstage, I’ve been doing things like watching documentaries, discovering music, and trying to filter out what it is that I want to say through the work. I also had fun watching comedians like Cristela Alonzo, Gabriel Iglesias, and Cheech Marin and how they express their Latinidad through their art form of comedy.

BH: Tell us more about the kinds of documentaries, works, and other content were you looking at to help inform your work:

Manzanales: Hecho en Mexico is one documentary that has resonated with me. It takes you on a journey through Mexico using music as a vehicle, especially the music of contemporary Mexican music artists. The opening song of Con Brazos Abiertos, “Que Es Ahora?” is an excerpt from a song from this documentary.  There are many other artists used in Hecho en Mexico that have been very inspirational to the work. It was also fun discovering other artists from different art forms expressing their own tellings of this Third Culture Kid experience.

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Michelle and Company dancer Diana Winfree (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: As an artist, had you always thought of exploring your Latino culture and identity choreographically?

Manzanales: No. Growing up in Texas—more importantly, growing up as a Mexican-American that lived in a culture of assimilation—celebrating one’s culture wasn’t something instilled in me. It’s not that my family had suppressed it, but it was something that they hadn’t emphasized. It’s not like what I experience today in contemporary culture where people celebrate their diverse heritage. Growing up for me was completely the opposite. People were celebrating what was mainstream and in the pop culture. That was how I was.

As a child, I knew that I was Mexican (obviously) but I didn’t really identify with being Mexican until much later as an adult. I think back to hanging out with my teenage friends, and how they would say pretty racist comments without pause. I don’t think that these comments were necessarily fully realized by those friends or even by me at the time.  It would have an emotional, even physical effect on me. I didn’t fully process these feelings until much later in life, and it has been quite a journey of trying to sort this out.

“It was important for me to not only honor where my family comes from and my history, but to also honor where I am right now.”

Then as a dancer, dance became my safe space where I could be free as an artist to express myself. When I was leaving Houston to dance in Chicago, Mario Zambrano—a friend and choreographer—was setting a piece on us. He told me about Luna Negra Dance Theater, a company in Chicago. “Luna Negra explores Latino contemporary artists,” he said, “You should connect with them! You might find it interesting.” At the time, it was not what was interesting to me. It kind of felt like the way we’re perceived as Latino sometimes; in that somehow I felt less than something.  Isn’t that terrible? But it’s how I felt.

I went to Luna Negra and started dancing with them and met Eduardo Vilaro, the company’s founder. I never connected with my culture so deeply until I met Eduardo, and it was the first time that I connected my culture with my art. First, it was about being a dancer and exploring that concept through dance. Then, it was about exploring the music and having conversations with my parents. It opened up from there.

I’ve choreographed a couple pieces for  Eduardo, the first one being Sugar in the Raw in 2007. This was  the first time I was pushed in this direction. In 2010, I choreographed an homage to Frida Kahlo in Paloma Querida, where I put ranchera and mariachi music into the piece. Whoever thought I would use ranchera music or mariachi music in a piece?! Michelle? She did that?  Yes, I did! It was fascinating and exciting to see everyone’s reaction, the connections they made, and the conversations that followed. It was a very humbling and exciting moment for me.

Now, it’s ever present and I can’t shake it.  With Con Brazos Abiertos, the process of revealing feels more natural and organic. Sugar was still a little concealed, the veil has slowly come down now. Today, it’s,“Here I am! I’m going to dance with a sombrero today!”

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Diana Winfree in rehearsal for CON BRAZOS ABIERTOS (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: You’ve been working for Eduardo for a while—as a dancer, as an artistic collaborator. How has this working relationship with him helped evolve your artistic career?

Manzanales: When I danced for Luna Negra, Eduardo constantly asked me to think deeper and truly investigate themes within the work. He wants his dancers to understand what they’re dancing, and this is something that I brought to the table as the BH Company’s Rehearsal Director. You don’t just learn the steps, you embody them. You research videos and books as references and make connections to what it is that you’re expressing in a contemporary voice. It’s a responsibility that Eduardo has instilled in me and our dancers. I think that’s why we work well together. He trusts and knows that I’m going to honor and respect the choreographer’s voice because it is important to hear their story. I don’t know if I could set Con Brazos on a company other than Ballet Hispánico because I don’t know that it would be upheld with this same integrity.

“The veil has slowly come down now. Today, it’s,“Here I am! I’m going to dance with a sombrero today!”

BH: What do you hope people take away from this Con Brazos Abiertoswhen it premieres in a couple weeks?

Con Brazos is a piece about exploring  identity. It was important for me to not only honor where my family comes from and my history, but to also honor where I am right now. Most everyone in the US is an immigrant, and there are these splintered cultural backgrounds everywhere. And so now, everyone is having this experience of figuring out, “Who am I?” This conversation is so important, especially in today’s climate, where so many Americans are being attacked for who they are. The awareness, the celebration, and discovery of knowing yourself–I’m constantly asking questions about who I am. As a kid, heritage and culture seems like something you’re born into and that you don’t think is very impressive or amazing, but it really is.

Catch the World Premiere of Con Brazos Abiertos during the Company’s New York Season at the Joyce Theater, April 18-23. Tickets and details: http://bit.ly/2mmLwNd

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Meet the Dancer: Jenna Marie

We took a moment to catch up with one of our newest Ballet Hispánico Company dancers for the 16-17 season: Jenna Marie! Get to know more about her below, and what her reaction was when she found it she was joining Ballet Hispánico….

Jenna Marie

Jenna Marie (c) Mario Ismael Espinoza

 

Name: Jenna Marie

Age: 24

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

How long you’ve been living in NYC: 5 years

What’s your favorite food? pasta, rice and beans, mochi

When you’re not dancing, you are… Traveling! I love to travel and explore new places!

Your reaction when you heard you got into the company?

I was in shock and I just remember crying and feeling a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I finally found a home.

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Jenna Marie in FLABBERGAST (c) Paula Lobo

In one word, what does ‘dance’ mean to you? Limitless

Ballet Hispánico has a unique cultural lens as an artistic organization–tell us more about why that appeals to you:

As a professional dancer of Puerto Rican descent it is appealing to be able to grow and learn more about all Latino influences.  Growing up with a multicultural background, I wasn’t always able to explore my Latino culture. Ballet Hispánico has given me the opportunity to get back to my roots and learn what it means to be a Latina in today’s world.

What company repertory piece have you always wanted to learn/are you looking forward to learning? 

I am a huge fan of Pedro Ruiz’s work and choreography. It has always been a pleasure watching Club Havana. It’s quite the classic and when we got to learn a snippet during the audition I was so excited.  His work just always feels good!

“Growing up with a multicultural background, I wasn’t always able to explore my Latino culture. Ballet Hispánico has given me the opportunity to get back to my roots and learn what it means to be a Latina in today’s world.”

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Jenna Marie in DANZÓN (c) Paula Lobo

Now that you’ve all spent a lot of time with the Company dancers–how would you describe their dynamic both on and off the stage?

Ballet Hispánico is by far the most welcoming group of talented and beautiful artists I have had the pleasure to come across. Not only are they gorgeous on stage but they are all humble, willing and so generous off the marley. It has truly been so inspiring to be accepted into this organization with open and loving arms. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to grow with!

Catch Jenna and the rest of the Company on stage during our NY Season at the Joyce Theater, April 18-23! Tickets and details: http://bit.ly/2mmLwNd

 


Ballet Hispánico en Familia: BHdos, the second company

Did you know? In addition to receiving specialized dance training, the talented young dancers of second company BHdos have opportunities to perform on the mainstage for our wider audiences. After a successful run at the Apollo Theater this past fall, they’re sharing the stage with the main company again for the En Familia program of the company’s 45th Anniversary Season at the Joyce Theater.

BHdos dancers with Ballet Hispanico's Artistic Director, Eduardo Vilaro, at the Joyce Theater!

BHdos dancers with Ballet Hispanico’s Artistic Director, Eduardo Vilaro, at the Joyce Theater!

We decided to catch up with some of our second company dancers to get more insight into their experiences performing as part of BHdos:

You get to perform company works for our youngest fans year-round, which can be a very different experience from performing for adult audiences. What’s one thing that surprised you about dancing for younger fans?

Stefanie Roper Headshot - websiteSTEFANIE ROPER: The commentary they make throughout the dance–we can hear little comments on stage when we’re performing. It is so fun to hear their simple remarks from what they see, and their screams and applause are always THE BEST. They make you feel like you’re a celebrity!

 

 

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NICOLE NERUP: I was pleasantly surprised and overjoyed to discover how enthusiastic the younger fans are about dance! I swear I have felt the closest I will ever feel to being Taylor Swift or the “Queen of Salsa” herself, Celia Cruz, at our performances for young people.

 

 

 

Ashley Anduiza - websiteASHLEY ANDUIZA: I am constantly surprised by how much detail our younger fans observe. Their curiosity and questions excite me and open another perspective that I enjoy exploring and that are just as valid as any others.

 

 

 

 

What motivates you to dance?

image1NICK FEARON: The thrill of being on stage is what keeps me going, and so is my mom. She has worked so hard for me to be where I am today that all I want to do is be the best dancer I can be for myself and also for her.

 

 

 

Christopher Wilson HeadshotCHRISTOPHER R. WILSON: My motivation to dance stems from the sheer fact that I know I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else!

 

 

 

 

Iosu_Headshot - websiteIOSU BASCARAN: Getting to learn new choreography and also getting to work with an incredibly talented and motivated group of dancers!

 

 

 

 

What’s it like sharing the stage with the main company dancers?

Criss Rodriguez - websiteCRISS RODRIGUEZ: Just having them around is inspiring and a boost of confidence and joy. To have their help is great. Makes me feel like a part of the family, always trying to find ways to improve. It’s a great feeling of energy. They are always looking out for each other, which is amazing.

 

 

ASHLEY: Being able to see, hear and even work together through certain steps with company members that have performed the same roles in the past gives us such valuable information that enhances our experience and delivery.

STEFANIE: I can feel their energy and support in dancing as a group! I know that we all support each other and want all of us to succeed–that is rare. The main company dancers are so approachable and they always have great tips and tricks how to accent or fulfill certain movement that you are struggling with.

 

What’s the best question you’ve heard during a Q&A?

IOSU: How do you change costumes so fast?

STEFANIE: Why are you all so pretty?

NICK: The best question I’ve heard would have to be when a kid asked me about my hair and who cuts it. It was a great plug for my hairdresser Richard.

 

Any pre-show rituals or lucky charms?

HannahHeadshot02 - websiteHANNAH JEW: I like to do my four minute plank series and eat a banana and drink a bottle of Gatorade. I also have some cards with encouraging words from my mentor that I keep in my makeup box.

 

 

 

NICK: While I’m waiting in the wings I have to shake out my whole body and pop my toe knuckles.

NICOLE: Before every show I always do the same pre-class warm up that I have been doing every day for the past 4 years. Sometimes I shorten or vary it, but the elements are the same. This ritual not only prepares my body but also centers me–reminding of my younger self, how much I have grown, and why I love what I do.

CHRISTOPHER: I listen to a playlist I created called “Let’s Werk.”

 

If you weren’t a dancer, you would be a:

HANNAH: Gifted education specialist in a school system.

STEFANIE: School teacher or a full-time mom.

CHRISTOPHER: Finance/marketing advisor of an arts organization.

IOSU: I’m currently studying finance and mathematics, so possibly something having to do with that.

NICOLE: Writer, choreographer, or lawyer.

CRISS: Veterinarian, or marine biologist.

NICK: Wildlife veterinarian.

ASHLEY: Veterinarian! My career has never come close to going down this path but I believe that my passion for nurturing animals runs at the same level as my passion for dance.

 

Merde to our dancers on their Joyce Theater debut! Get a taste of the Ballet Hispanico En Familia experience in this video below:

 

 


Catching up with the Company: Eila Valls

Eila Valls (c) Mario Ismael Espinoza

Name: Eila Valls

Age: 24

Hometown: Gandia (Valencia), Spain

What are you most looking forward to about this Joyce season?

This will be my first season both at the Joyce  and with Ballet Hispanico and it’s a special moment for me. I’m really looking forward to sharing my art with everyone whose support and love for dance have helped me be where I am now.

What motivates you to dance?

The immense feeling of freedom I experience every time I get to reinvent myself to become a new character in a piece. That, and the strong connections we share everyday in rehearsals and even more in performances.

BURY ME STANDING by Ramón Oller (c) Bicking Photography

If you could describe BURY ME STANDING in one word, what would it be and why?

Passion. This piece is a portrait of the gypsies. It opens a window to their intense traditions, feelings, and culture.

“I always make sure I hug my partners for a little while before going on stage. It’s an exchange of energy, like a way of saying I trust you, we’re together in this.”

Do you have any pre or post-performance rituals? Lucky charms?

I always make sure I hug my partners for a little while before going on stage. It’s an exchange of energy, like a way of saying I trust you, we’re together in this. The whole company also makes a circle of energy on stage, and finishes by  kissing the stage floor a few minutes before the show starts.

Think back to your first day (ever) with the Ballet Hispanico company. How’d you feel? How do you feel now?

I felt so grateful, inspired and welcome, it was a dream come true. The great thing is that I still feel the same excitement of the first day, every time I go to rehearsal, but without the uncontrollable nerves…

If you weren’t a dancer, you would be a: 

Psychologist.

Eila in rehearsal (c) Madeline Campisano

Catch Eila on stage at the Joyce Theater during our 45th Anniversary Season April 5-10! More info here: bit.ly/1kG2Kfu


Catching up With the Company: Melissa Fernandez

Photo (c) Paula Lobo

Melissa Fernandez (c) Paula Lobo

 

Name: Melissa Fernandez

Age: 26

Hometown: Miami, Florida

What are you most looking forward to about this Joyce season?

I’m looking forward to managing the various roles and characters that I have to portray. This season, the pieces being presented are incredibly diverse in both theme and genre and that challenge excites me as an artist. Developing and cultivating a character in rehearsal and then onstage is a magical experience.

Who’s your biggest dance fan?

Hands down: my mother. She has been beside from the very first moment and I appreciate her constructive criticism even though by no means is she a ” dance mom.”

Melissa in rehearsal for Pedro Ruiz’s CLUB HAVANA © Jackeline Montalvo

Melissa in rehearsal for Pedro Ruiz’s CLUB HAVANA © Jackeline Montalvo

If you could describe CLUB HAVANA in one word, what would it be and why?

Seduction. Partially because of the character I play but also because as a Cuban American, all that has to do with our culture is purely seductive. Whether it’s the Cuban rhythms or sensuous moves–they all lure you in and seduce you in a very elegant yet sensual way.

“Developing and cultivating a character in rehearsal and then onstage is a magical experience.”

Do you have any pre or post-performance rituals? Lucky charms?

Aside from the typical warm up exercises and the energy filled company group circle, I like to pray in private for my fellow artists so that we may have an incredible performance.

Think back to your first day (ever) with the Ballet Hispanico company. How’d you feel? How do you feel now?

Wow, day one! That was 4 years ago and I remember being terrified and thrilled all at once. It was my very first professional job as a dancer right out of college and I was the youngest dancer as an apprentice. Nowadays I’m one of the oldest and I feel a great pride for this organization–a kind of respect and pride that takes maturity and years of lessons and moments of hardship and success. Ballet Hispanico has been and I believe will be one of the most brilliant and fulfilling parts of my professional and personal life.

If you weren’t a dancer, you would be a: 

A doctor, a journalist or a dolphin trainer.

Melissa in CLUB HAVANA. We’re pretty glad she didn’t pick dolphin training! © Paula Lobo

Melissa in CLUB HAVANA. We’re pretty glad she didn’t pick dolphin training! © Paula Lobo

Catch Melissa on stage at the Joyce Theater during our 45th Anniversary Season April 5-10! More info here: bit.ly/1kG2Kfu

 


Joyce 2014: For Vanessa, With Love from BH!

Danzon 4 (c) Christopher Duggan - Copy

Vanessa Valecillos and Jamal Rashann Callender in DANZON. (c) Christopher Duggan

In addition to an exciting line-up that includes one World Premiere and live music, our upcoming New York Season at the Joyce Theater is especially noteworthy as we pay tribute to our beloved company dancer Vanessa Valecillos, who will be retiring later this year. Vanessa has played a huge role with the company since Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro came on board at Ballet Hispanico, but her journey with Eduardo started long ago in Chicago when the two first met. Eduardo himself offered this thoughtful reflection on this very special dancer:

I met Vanessa Valecillos in 1997 on a Fourth of July weekend by the waters of Lake Michigan. We were meant to meet. We began to work together as I found that her amazing technique and dramatic instincts were rare to me. No other dancer I had worked with previously could drum up the very soul of Latin passion while subtly fusing it with classical line and modern sensibilities. We made duets together, we danced together, she discovered my choreographic idiosyncrasies and molded them for me to catalog in my mind. In essence, she became my muse. Yet there was more to her than just artistic inspiration, with an uncanny ability to bring others into the folds of a vision–she began to collect people for our work. Audience members, supporters, friends and donors all gave in to her magic. Seventeen years later, we continue the work.

This Joyce season we will pay tribute to my first muse with a devoted performance that demonstrates her talent and abilities to inspire. Please join us on Sunday, April 27th, as we honor Vanessa’s lifetime work as an artist. An unforgettable evening for such a remarkable woman.

– Eduardo Vilaro, Artistic Director

“No other dancer I had worked with previously could drum up the very soul of Latin passion…”

Program D of the Joyce Season, which takes the stage on April 27th at 2 pm, has been specially programmed to celebrate Vanessa’s departure and features Edwaard Liang’s moving duet, A Verme. Vanessa and fellow dancer Jamal Rashann Callender debuted this work at the Fire Island Dance Festival in 2012 and are looking forward to performing the work again in light of this special, personal moment for the pair. Vanessa and Jamal gave their thoughts on A Verme here:

A VERME at the 2012 Fire Island Dance Festival. (c) Rosalie O’Connor

A Verme is a rare and special treat for me because I have the opportunity to perform with Vanessa. As it will be performed in program D of the Joyce season, I am delighted to have our moment together on stage. It’s a perfect piece to perform because like our friendship and partnership, our connection will never go away. The duets speaks exactly to that matter. Two beings who always find one another in different life times. Though she is moving on, we will always find each other and dance together. This is for you Vanessa. Thank you for everything you have taught me. It has been an honor and extreme privilege.

-Love, Jamal

A Verme. I am very grateful to perform this beautiful work by Edwaard Liang. The music and movement speak for itself. For me, it is about souls- those souls that I have touched and the ones that have touched me, wherever they may be. I am very excited to perform it with a very special person from the last 3 years of my career, Jamal Callender.

The work reminds me of a quote from one of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Pero hacia donde vaya llevare tu mirada, y hacia donde camines llevaras mi dolor.”

-Vanessa Valecillos

Thank you, Vanessa, for all that you have done for Ballet Hispanico! We have loved watching every moment of you lighting up the stage. Mil gracias!


Tango Vitrola

For most, the idea of tango conjures up images of steamy Buenos Aires nightclubs full of men, with roses gripped between their teeth, leading ladies across the floor. While Alejandro Cervera’s Tango Vitrola (1987) does feature the key elements of a stereotypical tango milonga (strong men, beautiful women and sensual music), it also challenges an audience’s preconceptions and offers a rich and beautiful exploration of the dance form.

The choreographer, Alejandro Cervera, hails from Buenos Aires, where his first exposure to dance was in the home where his parents would tango with friends and family during parties. “Growing up in Argentina,” he said, “it’s hard not to have a lot of contact with tango and tango music, especially in the big cities.” Tango has been inextricably linked to Argentinean culture, in both beautiful and problematic ways.

Through the creation of Tango Vitrola, Mr. Cervera aimed to challenge the gender stereotypes associated with tango. He explained that in the 1980s, Argentinean society became “much more balanced, more egalitarian” and he sought to reflect these changes in his work. His Tango Vitrola is more democratic and less black and white than the traditional dance form.

The relationship between the partners are complex and certainly not straightforward. His choreography blurs lines of tradition. Tango Vitrola presents the tango as a dance between two people, not as a dance defined by their gender. The result is a work of strength, beauty and subtlety.

Ballet Hispanico performed Alejandro Cervera’s sleek and sexy Tango Vitrola (1987) during our sold-out show at The Apollo last December. If you missed it then, fear not! Tango Vitrola will be performed for the remainder of our 25th New York Season at The Joyce, now through April 28th. For ticket and performance information, please visit our website HERE.

Tango Vitrola (c) Paula Lobo

Vanessa Valecillo and Jamal Rashann Callender in Tango Vitrola © Paula Lobo