Mexico's dancing ambassadors. Ballet Folkl'orico aims to capture the spirit of peoples and their times

For the first time in 10 years, the culture of Mexico will be on full view in the coming months in a handful of United States cities, via one of the best-known institutions from south of the border: Ballet Folkl'orico de M'exico. In tracing Mexico's historical and cultural traditions through music, song, and dance, Ballet Folkl'orico is a veritable explosion of all things Mexican, re-creating the myths and legends of Aztec, Mayan, and other civilizations as well as the daily life of Mexican villagers. Official cultural ambassador

After three days in Los Angeles, the company continues its national tour with stops that include Houston; Albuquerque, N.M.; El Paso, Texas; Boston; New York; Washington; and Chicago.

Founded in 1952 by Amalia Hern'andez, the troupe of 65 dancers and musicians has an impressive repertoire of 30 ballets, composed of 56 dances, all drawn from folklore. Noted for lavish sets, costumes, masks, and music, the ballet is designated as the official cultural representative of the Mexican government. It has just finished a five-month, sold-out tour of Europe.

``I always repeat the famous line from [American choreographer] Martha Graham - that there are only good ballets and bad ones,'' says the founder, director, and choreographer. ``And I try to be a good one.''

Ms. Hern'andez tours her country, recording local music and dances. ``I look at the way people live - their rituals, ceremonies, and festivals,'' she says. ``Then I make a selection of what is most interesting and develop it into a theatrical art.''

Long celebrated for her overriding concern for preserving the country's cultural heritage, she has been criticized recently for distorting those elements to cater to tourists.

``Intended above all, for foreign consumption, the celebrated Ballet Folkl'orico ... has little to say to Mexicans,'' wrote Rosario Manz'anos last month in the weekly news magazine Proceso. This article, and another written by a half-dozen anthropologists and choreographers, asserts that Hern'andez's creations are neither folklore nor ballet but an invention of her own. Capturing essences

``I'm not writing a book of anthropology or ethnology,'' retorted Hern'andez in an interview before the performances here. ``I'm creating art.''

She says her aim is to capture the essences and spirit of a people and their time. ``With all the concentration and meditation and what history I know and study, I start following the same technique that I have done for a long time - concentrate and improvise from essences, styles, plasticity, and concept - and continue until I find out that something is right.''

Hern'andez claims that sold-out performances across Mexico anytime she chooses to tour are proof that the naysayers are wrong. ``There are 15,000 folk ballets registered in the country, and they all copy me,'' she says.

She relates the experience of performing in the east coast city of Veracruz. ``I had used their music and folklore and had tremendous success, and they [local company officials] told me this is what we should have done - develop it to be great instead of just a small little dance.''

The subjects of Hern'andez's works range from the daily work of villagers cutting sugar cane or going to sea, to ancient myths of man's creation and religious ritual. Indigenous and colonial cultures

They explore the influences of indigenous cultures and Spanish and other colonizers, as well as the merging of Christian teachings and Indian beliefs. ``You have to keep going back every year, because it's all constantly changing,'' she says.

Although the word ``ballet'' may conjure up images of pirouettes and great leaps, here it is used in the generic sense of ``dance.'' The dancers' movements evoke folk celebrations more than classical technique, with an abundance of women swirling in dazzling flowered skirts, foot-stomping and hand-clapping promenades, minstrels, and singers.

Props such as fish nets, oversize masks, lariats, and twirling kerchiefs are used.

``The Aztec style is the one truly indigenous influence; everything else has roots elsewhere,'' says Hern'andez.

For her current tour's new ballet, ``La Gran Tenochtitl'an,'' Hern'andez says she read descriptions of Aztec ceremonies written by early Spanish colonists. She studied Aztec hieroglyphics, searching for the visual style they depicted and clues to how clothing and jewelry, such as the rattles she uses on ankles for aural punctuation, were worn.

Hern'andez says she founded her company to fulfill her dream to take Mexico's music and dance to the rest of the world.

Early success was recognized by Mexican President L'opez Mateos, who asked her to create a program for the Pan American Games in Chicago in 1959.

Those performances, and the winning of the Festival of Nations First Prize Award in 1961 in Paris, gave the company its international reputation. Since 1952, the company has performed more than 4,000 times.

Hern'andez and her daughter opened the School of the Ballet Folkl'orico in 1968 to ensure a supply of trained dancers.

They ``must have fast feet and the strength and technique to cover vastly different styles,'' Hern'andez says.

Besides giving students training in folkloric, modern, and classical styles, the school records the folk dances of Mexico on film.

Hern'andez says her next project is to expand her dance company with a full-scale arts academy.

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