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Ballet Folklorico Celebrates Mexico's History With Glitz

Heritage is more than nationality or race. It's the music you feel in your heart, the way a waving flag sends tingles down your spine and swells your chest so it almost bursts, the food your grandmother makes, the dances you learned the day after you took your first steps.

While the United States only pays tribute to Hispanic heritage once a year, some people have dedicated a lifetime to it. Then there is Amalia Hernandez, the 82-year-old matriarch of the original Ballet Folklorico de Mexico who in the last several decades has shaped Mexican heritage into a wildly popular art form.

Over the years, her company has performed in more than 80 countries on some of the world's most famous stages, from the foot of the Sphinx in Egypt to Radio City Music Hall. Every year, the ballet woos audiences to its road shows and sends tourists racing for Mexico. It has spawned hundreds of imitation troops. This year, the 47th-anniversary U.S. tour of Amalia Hernandez's BalletFolklorico de Mexico--the largest touring company to perform in the United States in 25 years--includes 75 dancers, musicians, and chorus members. Combined with its sister resident company based in Mexico City, Hernandez's Ballet Folklorico is today made up of some 300 performers.

From the opening dance, which portrays the Aztec creation myth, to Tlacotalpan's Festival, a sequence that highlights African influences in Mexican culture, the dances are all about Mexico. To those who associate a chubby little sombrero-wearing man sleeping under a cactus or a talking Chihuahua with Mexico, the lavishly costumed multicultural performances can seem overwhelming or even confusing. But as El Paso ethnomusicologist Rosa Guerrero points out, "being Mexican is being a hybrid."

Hernandez's musical journey includes flamenco, tango, classical ballet, polka, African rhythms, and pre-Hispanic religious rites, just to name a few influences. Audiences love the intricate, vibrant costumes, and larger-than-life props, although some have criticized the glitz as being inauthentic. Hernandez doesn't deny that she has added flash and glitter to the show--people wouldn't buy tickets to a village performance on stage, she says--but she insists that those changes have not diluted the tradition of it.

"I do careful research," she recently told the San Antonio Express News. "It is basically authentic, but we have to make it interesting enough for the public to come. We are, after all, professional performers."

Says Guerrero: "Amalia Hernandez was the first one to really ignite what folklorico is--that is, the lives of the people. She highlights the roots, history, and pride."

From the time she was eight, Hernandez says, she knew dancing was her destiny.

Though her father--a prominent Mexican military figure and rancher--did not want his daughter to pursue a profession that involved public exhibition, he built a private dance studio for her on their property. Such dancing greats as Madame Dambre of the Paris Opera, Waldeen, the American modern dancer, and La Argentinia of Spain frequented the ranch to teach Hernandez.

But she soon found that it was the indigenous, traditional music and raw dances of the peasants that moved her soul and grabbed her interest. In Mexico, she says, celebrating life through dance is a tradition. "Through time, dance has proven to be the language of the people." So she began studying Mexican song and dance formally under Mexico's first folklorist, Felipe Obregon.

Eventually, she became a dancer, dance instructor and choreographer at Mexico's Institute of Fine Arts--despite a promise she made to her father that she would never perform in public. In 1952, she left the Institute to form her own company, which soon began performing on Televisa, Emilio Azcarraga's Mexican television network.

Two years later, Hernandez's troupe was given a big boost by the country's Department of Tourism, which declared Hernandez's company the official cultural ambassador of Mexico. Then in 1959, President Adolfo Lopez Mateos backed the fledgling company with government money and resources, helping to further establish its reputation as a premier ballet company. In 1961, the company garnered international recognition by winning the first prize at the 1960 Festival of Nations in Paris.

The following year, director Sol Hurok and Hernandez, who was then the ballet's prima ballerina, took the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico on its first North American tour, a practice that has continued regularly to this day with one notable and long exception: In the late seventies, after Hurok died, the ballet stopped touring the U.S. and did not do so again until the dynamic-duo production team of Adam Friedson and Julio Solorzano took over the company in the late 1980s.

The numbers tell Hernandez's success story: Each performer in the production wears a costume that has been authentically handmade in Mexican workshops. Five designers work on every costume, and there are about eleven costume changes per show. With 30 yards of fabric per skirt, the company wears approximately eight tons of fabric every performance, totaling $1 million in costumes. It uses nine backdrops and 250 pairs of shoes on stage in every performance. No one has calculated how many pounds of makeup the dancers use in a year, but it takes them 45 minutes to apply it before every show.

It's easy to see why a critic can be overtaken by the ballet's sheer size and conclude that art and culture are being diluted in the name of commercialism. But part of what drives Hernandez is her desire to educate and instill pride, she says. "I have been accused [of not digging] deep enough into native dances," she said in an interview with Datebook. "But they are wrong. I [try to understand] why people dance [and] for whom they are dancing."

Case in point: the show's authentic depiction of the Pascola, also known as the Danza del Venado, or Deer Dance. In it, a highly skilled dancer, clad in an antlered headdress and primitive leather garments, revives the ancient religious dance of the Sonora Indians. Guerrero explains that this ritual, which depicts a hunted deer, was meant to give thanks for the gift of the deer, which provided food, clothing, shelter, weapons, and tools for the indigenous people. It also illustrates the respectful relationship between humans and nature that ruled tribal life in ancient Mexico.

In all, Hernandez has choreographed more than 40 different ballets from more than 60 regions of Mexico during her career. And not only do the costumes and footwork in her shows recall Mexican traditions, but the themes Hernandez presents also address different periods in Mexican history. For example, the Revolution suite portrays the class struggle between aristocrats, who dance a light-footed polka, and the solemn rifle-toting soldaderas, who slash across the stage. Chiapas, set to the rhythm of marimbas, is a sort of commentary on the unrest in the southern region.

This year's 47th-anniversary tour included two United States premieres, Aztecs and Tarascos. The first interprets the creation myth of Quetzalcoatl, the god of all gods to whom the people offered sacrifices because he sacrificed himself to create man. In creating Aztecs, Hernandez studied ruins, ceramics, archaeological objects, and codices. Aztec records are more accessible than records of other pre-Columbian civilizations because that civilization was at its peak when Spanish conquistadors arrived.

In Tarascos, the second premiere, Hernandez portrays the cycle of life--from birth to adolescence, old age and death--through a series of daily activities. Because the Tarascos, who live near Lake Patzcuara in Michoacan, are primarily fishermen who actively preserve their pre-Columbian traditions, Hernandez focused on their customs when forming this dance.

Hernandez has not danced with the ballet in years, but her daughters carry her torch. Norma, the older daughter, acts as artistic director and administrator, and her younger daughter Viviana dances, leads, and instructs. Salvador Lopez, Hernandez's grandson, schedules tours and performs with the rope.

In the process, Hernandez's ballet company has itself become something of a tradition that elicits national pride among both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. It has been honored with more than 200 awards, such as the Prize of Nations in France, the Tiffany Award for lifetime achievement, The National Prize for Culture (Mexico's highest national award), and this year, the Estrellas de Nuestra Cultura award from the Mexican Cultural Institute.

And its mission has grown. Through the Children's Cultural Education Fund, the ballet provides corporate-sponsored shows for students in select cities on the U.S. tour. Headed by Hernandez and Columba Bush (Florida Governor Jeb Bush's wife), the Fund was the brainchild of Solorzano and Friedson, who wanted the ballet to reach beyond the Latino population. Solorzano told the Los Angeles Times, "Mexican art is perceived as interesting only for Mexican or Mexican Americans, and this is something we have to fight." Since its inception, the Fund has sponsored free kids' shows for more than 275,000 children, with 20,000 this year alone. The performances are packaged with classroom study materials that allow teachers to delve further into Mexican culture.

For years, Hernandez's Ballet Folklorico de Mexico has been about taking the show further, outdoing itself again and again. It's not just a skirt, it's 30 yards of skirt. It's not just a prop, it's an enormous pyramid. It's not just a traditional dance, it's a show. But it's not just a show, it's a history lesson. "God gave me this mission. He said, `You are going to dance and I gave you this talent,'" Hernandez says.

In turn, she has dedicated her life to her heritage and its survival. Her footsteps through life have been an unforgettable dance, and her heartbeat--the drum that has moved thousands--keeps on beating.

52n1.jpg The Ballet Folklorico, the largest company to tour the U.S. in 25 years, includes 75 dancers, musicians and members.

53n1.jpg Each performer wears a Mexican handmade costume.

54n1.jpg In the Danza del Venado, or Deer Dance, a dancer revives the ancient religious dance of the Sonora Indians.

56n1.jpg The company wears approximately eight tons of fabric in every performance.


By Diana A. Terry-Azios

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2019 18:11

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