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


Meet the Dancer: Nathaniel Hunt

Another new addition to the Company’s 16-17 season has been Company dancer Nathaniel Hunt! Get to know more about Nate below, including his journey of being accepted into the Ballet Hispánico familia, and even how he likes his eggs:

Nathaniel Hunt

Nathaniel Hunt (c) Mario Ismael Espinoza

Name: Nathaniel Hunt

Age: 25

Hometown: Glen Burnie, MD

How long you’ve been living in NYC: 7 years

What’s your favorite food?  

I love breakfast food. That is my favorite meal of the day for sure. My breakfast is always loaded! I love my eggs with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, chicken sausage, cheddar cheese, and toast!

When you’re not dancing, you are…

When I am not dancing, I either do a lot or nothing at all. I either fill my days up or leave them completely open. I love going to the gym or doing yoga. It’s my me time where I can zone out the world and connect with my body. On the other hand, I love having home days of rejuvenating, aka doing nothing! That would consist of sleeping in, eating breakfast in my PJs, playing video games, or watching movies. So I love the balance of both extremes.

Your reaction when you heard you got into the Company?

I think I said, “Umm..what?” I was not prepared for that AT ALL!! I missed the first day of the audition because I was on tour with Ailey II but I was fortunate to be allowed to come to the call back. I just wanted to dance and show Ballet Hispánico how much I love dancing and that I have something special and different to offer. No expectations, just sharing. I was completely surprised that they wanted me to join them and then felt an immense amount of gratitude.

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

Moment you knew you wanted to be a professional dancer?

I don’t know if there was an exact moment –I remember having the feeling that dance gave me, this all-encompassing connection. When I dance, I connect with my spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental self. Once I was mature enough to fully understand and feel that, that was the moment that I knew that dance was something that I could not live without. It is the one thing that I have found to fully express my whole being.

“The Company is a family. They look out for everyone both on and off stage.”

What Company repertory piece are you looking forward to learning? 

I am looking forward to learning and performing El Beso. Gustavo’s choreography is full and luscious but also fast and precise. For being a tall dancer, it is a challenge to move my body swiftly through space. So I’m anxious but excited to learn El Beso because I know it will be a great challenge for me. There will be a much more satisfying joy after I have performed it because of the intensity, vigor, and athleticism of the piece.

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Nathaniel Hunt and Zui Gomez with a young fan after an En Familia performance (c) The United Palace

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

The Company is a family. They look out for everyone both on and off stage. They really do care about the growth of your dancing both artistically and technically. Everyone is learning from everyone, whether that is a piece of material from a rep or a combination in class. It is a supportive, honest, and open group of loving artists all trying to lift one another up.

Catch Nate 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


Meet the Dancer: Ashley Anduiza

The Ballet Hispánico Company welcomed Ashley Anduiza onboard for the 16-17 season with open arms. BH fans might recognize Ashley as a previous member of second company BHdos, where she wowed school and community audiences throughout the city as part of our educational programming. It’s been a thrill to watch Ashley grow to the mainstage–get to know more about her below!

Ashley Anduiza

Ashley Anduiza (c) Mario Ismael Espinoza

Name: Ashley Marie Anduiza

Age: 24

Hometown: Miami, FL

How long you’ve been living in NYC: 1 year

What’s your favorite food? Mexican cuisine

When you’re not dancing, you are…

Reading, cooking, and spending time with my family. I love being home!

Your reaction when you heard you got into the company?

I kind of just sat there with a smile smacked onto my face and absolutely no thoughts circulating in my head. It took a second to hit me but when it did, all of my thanks and praise went to God. I have never felt more rewarded.

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

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Ashley Anduiza in DANZÓN (c) Paula Lobo

Ballet Hispánico has a unique cultural lens as an artistic organization–why did that appeal to you as a dancer?

My father is Cuban and I grew up in Miami in a household that practiced multiple Cuban traditions. Whether we were dancing salsa in the living room, cooking arroz con frijoles, or driving to the beach singing along to Spanish radio stations, this environment provided for me a strong sense of family, unity, pride, and comfort. Not only did I feel this same atmosphere during my time with BHdos, but I have witnessed and experienced that Ballet Hispánico, as an organization, approaches its mission with all of these qualities, making a truly authentic representation of Latino culture through dance today.

Moment you knew you wanted to be a professional dancer?

When I was at New World School of the Arts, I performed a neoclassical ballet by Gerard Ebitz. Up till then, it was probably one of the more daring pieces of choreography I had done. There was a moment onstage when I was briefly dancing alone and I felt myself become different from the inside out. The best way I can explain it is that I felt immersed and involved in every part of the environment; the movement, the music, the audience, the dancers around me, the lights, the stage, and the character. It made sense to me and I knew that this wholesome feeling would drive me through the hardest times I would encounter in my career, but fulfill me in inexplicable ways.

“From the first day of my first season with BHdos where I was warmly introduced to and welcomed by the members of Ballet Hispánico, I knew that the environment of this company and organization was different.”

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

I can’t wait to learn El Beso by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano! I love the athleticism of the movement coupled with the theatrical quirks.

You’ve spent a little time with the company dancers already–how would you describe their dynamic both on and off the stage?

From the first day of my first season with BHdos where I was warmly introduced to and welcomed by the members of Ballet Hispánico, I knew that the environment of this company and organization was different. Working in the studio and sharing the stage with them was ALWAYS positive and encouraging. Ballet Hispánico was where I truly started to believe in myself–the Company members are responsible for a huge part of that for me.

Thanks for the love Ashley–and right back at you! Catch Ashley 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


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