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.
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.
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!”
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 Abiertos, when 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
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….
Name: Jenna Marie
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.
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.”
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
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.
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: 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!
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: 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?
NICK 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 R. WILSON: My motivation to dance stems from the sheer fact that I know I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else!
IOSU 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: 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?
HANNAH 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:
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.
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.”
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!
Ballet Hispanico is undoubtedly a fan of choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. For its New York season at The Joyce Theater, the Company will be performing three of her works: Locked Up Laura (2008) Mad’moiselle (2010) and Nube Blanco (New York premiere).
Everyone was thrilled to have Annabelle back in the studios recently! Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro had this to say:
“Annabelle is an inspiring artist. I am thrilled that she is back in the studio with the dancers as she has such a positive influence on their artistry. Her process allows the dancers to find themselves within the movement and intention while raising their performance potential. Her work, Nube Blanco, is a perfect blend of humor and contemporary investigation and I feel fortunate to have her be part of the new artistic aesthetic we are building at Ballet Hispanico.”
We recently caught up with Annabelle and asked her a few questions about her vision as a choreographer.
BH: This is Nube Blanco’s NYC premiere and the first time it is being performed by Ballet Hispanico. How, if at all, are you adapting the piece? How do the distinct flavors of the Ballet Hispanico dancers affect your choreography?
Annabelle: More than the Ballet Hispanico dancers, what influences me to change small things in Nube is what I have learned from life and arts in the past three years. This gives me another perspective on the piece.
BH: You originally composed Locked Up Laura in 2008 and Mad’moiselle in 2010. Does your perspective on the pieces change as time passes? Do they mean different things to you now?
Annabelle: I’m very clear on Locked Up Laura and I’ve been working with the dancers on what it originally was about when I created it. Likewise with Nube Blanco; we worked especially on my original intentions. Those are the same to me as they were three years ago. What I mostly tweaked was the rhythm of the piece. Unfortunately, for Mad’moiselle I only get one rehearsal with the dancers!
BH: What are you most looking forward to about working with Ballet Hispanico for the Joyce season?
Annabelle: Well, Nube Blanco is a revival so it’s always exciting to revisit a piece and to present it for the first time to New York City!
BH: Finally, what other exciting projects do you have coming up?
Annabelle: I start next week with my first narrative full-length ballet for Scottish Ballet: A Streetcar Named Desire. Very excited about that, indeed!
Photos: Eduardo Patino, NYC
As the Ballet Hispanico Company tours the nation this spring, Kate Lear, Chair of the Board of Directors, enjoyed the opportunity to travel with them to three cities. Here, she offers us an insider’s look at the innumerable joys of a Ballet Hispanico tour. Enjoy, and be sure to check out photos from BH on the road on our Facebook page!
You don’t need to be away from New York to be part of the fun. Catch the Company up close April 17-29 at The Joyce Theater. For tickets, please visit www.joyce.org.
Thoughts from the Road
This month I had the privilege of traveling with the Ballet Hispanico Company to three tour stops to see what life is like on the road for these wonderful cultural ambassadors. What I found was universal admiration and respect for Eduardo Vilaro and the Company, a warm and supportive camaraderie amongst the dancers, an exceptional crew headed by Gregory Stuart, generous and gracious presenters and their staffs, and audiences that loved the combination of great artistry and cultural connection that puts Ballet Hispanico at the forefront of today’s dance companies.
I was picked up at the airport by Josephine Weil, the mother of one of our dancers, Rodney Hamilton. After a lovely dinner with Josephine and her kind husband, Dick, it was off to the Edison Theatre for the performance. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Who would our audience be? Would they like the program and what we have to offer as a contemporary, culturally-inspired dance company? When I arrived, I saw a mixture of faces and ages milling in the auditorium; there was an excitement in the air. By the end of the performance, my questions were answered – they loved the program. I was particularly moved by a large group of Latino children who had attended one of our Education and Outreach programs that day and had been taught some of the repertory by the dancers. That night their eyes were open wide with excitement as they saw their culture represented on stage – many of them for the first time. They were beaming with pride.
The Company had the pleasure of performing at the Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, a beautiful 19th century gem of a theater. This sophisticated dance audience wholeheartedly embraced the Latino-infused style and themes of our program. Thankfully, they embraced it wholeheartedly. Our dancers basked in the attention of enthusiastic applause and cheering. The backstage crew, led by technical director Joshua Preston, wardrobe supervisor, Diana Ruetigger, rehearsal director, Michelle Manzanales, and stage manager, Gwendolyn Kay, put on a world-class show for our audiences. One additional thing that I couldn’t help but notice – the incredible stamina it takes to tour! Each Ballet Hispanico tour is accompanied by one or more additional activities other than the performances. In the case of Boston, there were company and school auditions, more Education and Outreach in local schools taught by Eduardo and our dancers, and receptions organized by our presenters. I was exhausted and I’m not sure how they all do it city after city!
What a beautiful city! And for Eduardo, a wonderful return visit to his former home where he has strong ties to Columbia College and his former company, Luna Negra. The Company performed at the Dance Center at Columbia College and friends and fans filled the audience. It was old home week for Eduardo as well as some of the cast and crew, and an air of joyous reunion permeated the theatre. Eduardo had the honor of showing his friends and colleagues his newest piece of choreography from the Ballet Hispanico repertory, “Asuka,” and it was wonderfully received. I decided to see much of the show backstage and got a birds-eye view of what it’s like! Watching the dancers warm up, having final costume tweaks by Diana, getting psyched up for their entrances, supporting one another from offstage, noticing Greg’s sharp focus as he was on the lookout in case something was needed – it was all so interesting and exciting!
I loved my time on the road as an honorary member of the Company and plan to go again as soon as possible. The lasting impression it gave me is that audiences everywhere, regardless of their nationality, respond to dance, to music and to great artistry. I am proud to be a part of Ballet Hispanico as we try to fulfill our mission of bringing the joy of Latino art and culture to a broad audience.