DANCE | Ballet Hispanico earns every accolade

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When Tina Ramirez founded Ballet Hispanico back in 1970, she intended simply to give inner-city Hispanics a “voice in dance.” The company has since grown to more than a voice—it’s a shout that’s been heard loud and clear across the world. Ramirez’s company, based in New York City, is now regarded as one of the premier production companies for Latin dance. On the eve of her imminent retirement—after nearly 40 years—Ramirez brought the dance troupe’s incandescent performance to St. Paul’s Ordway Center on Sunday night.

Ballet Hispanico’s version of ballet is more like a giant dance party than Swan Lake. It fuses elements of salsa, rumba, flamenco, jazz, and a whole host of other dance styles with classical ballet. The result is a combination of sizzling hot hip-shaking, lithe grace, and all the theatricality of the tango. No one is better suited to pull this off than Ramirez’s über-talented crew of professional dancers.

The first piece in the program was “Palladium Suite,” a dance choreographed by “Mr. Afinque” Willie Rosario. It was a theatrical performance in 12 different parts, but there were no spoken lines. Instead, each dancer acted out his or her role through movement: there was a Casanova, a seductress, and an awkward nerd, among others. Each of the 12 scenes had its own music—from Chico O’Farril’s Afro-Cuban rhythms to the mambo of Tito Puente. “Palladium” is actually a performance within a performance. It takes place at the legendary New York City club, with the dancers playing the roles of both observers and performers. While the maneuvers were relatively traditional, Rosario’s choreography also introduced some fresh and inspired new tricks.

The highlight of the show came in the second piece, “Ritmo & Ruido” (Rhythm & Noise), choreographed by Broadway legend Ann Reinking. The arrangement combined modern with traditional styles, incorporating some funk and hip-hop rhythms into the mix, as well as vocal scatting that recalled Bobby McFerrin. “Ritmo” was a fabulous journey that explored the limits of the human bodies’ strength and agility—it was filled with a variety of lifts, acrobatics, and nonstop movement. Masterful lighting design by Jeff Segal provided a great deal of ambiance for the Ordway’s empty stage, incorporating colored strobes and stylish silhouetting.

I was expecting to be impressed by Ballet Hispanico, so the quality of the performance did not come as a huge surprise. The company has such a reputation of excellence that, honestly, I would have been disappointed were the show to have been anything less than perfect. Indeed, the troupe members gave a performance that merited every accolade they’ve received. I continue to be astounded at the sheer diversity and talent on the dance scene, and this show was no exception.

Jon Behm (jonbehm@gmail.com) is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis.

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