In 1970, Ballet Folklórico de México graced the stage of the Auditorium Theatre for the first time, featuring a troupe of one hundred dancers performing their signature style, baile folklorico, a mixture of ballet, Spanish foot-stamping zapateado and Mexican folk dances from across the diaspora. The creation of dancer and choreographer Amalia Hernández, the company is still delighting Chicago audiences with selections from Hernández’s extensive repertoire.
Now in their 70th year, Ballet Folklórico de México de Amelia Hernández is celebrating with a tour that will take them across the country from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles. The program consists of works by Hernández—who passed away in 2000 at the age of 83—that explore the various cultures and mythologies of Mexico. Now under the direction of Hernández’s grandson, Salvador Lopez, the company boasts a large roster: swaggering men dressed in rustic, light peasant clothing, or intricately embroidered suits that shine like crushed black velvet, and women wearing dresses in a wide variety of pleasing, earthy colors—turquoise, clam shell, maize, pumpkin—and emblazoned with elaborate patterns. The company is complimented by a ten-piece band consisting of guitars, violins and trumpets, each musician displaying a virtuosity on par with the dancing.
The program opens with “Aztecas (Hijos del sol),” a four-part ballet that perfectly displays Hernández’s intercultural influences. A succession of priests wearing totems of cheetahs and goats bound across the stage, leaning back and kicking their legs high, thick strings of bells around their ankles accenting every stomp of their feet as they enact a pagan ritual. A string of innocent maidens then performs a series of solo jigs and reels, before morphing into a furious dance of war, which culminates in a full-company celebration reminiscent of the 18th century quadrille, forerunner of modern square dancing.
The following piece, “Sones Antiguos de Michoacán” is perhaps the best expression of Hernández’s Euro-Mexican hybridized style. Grand leg extensions are metered by low, flat-footed stamps; intricate group movement patterns whittle down into one large revolving circle; there is an incessant tug of war between soft arm movements and fist-clenching bravado.
In “Tarima de Tixtla,” focuses on the complicated, flamenco-inspired footwork that is incorporated into each work—even when not wearing their usual thick heeled, metal-tapped shoes, their feet continue to beat out the quick, syncopated rhythms. Under a fantastically large and verdant tree, a group of men in straw sombreros and red neckerchiefs perform a call and response number that invites the women on stage for a percussive dialog. To my embarrassment, I had unconsciously been loudly tapping along under my seat— I couldn’t help it! —but my instincts were vindicated by the rumble of tapping feet coming from other people throughout the theater.
“La Revolution” is dedicated to the memory of the soldaderas, women soldiers who had a decisive role in the Mexican Revolution. The piece begins with a jaunty party of aristocrats, only for their festivities to be interrupted by a long line of women in brightly colored and loose-fitting outfits, adorned with large sombreros on their heads and belts of ammunition slung across their chests, as they parade around the stage in lockstep while brandishing large rifles above their heads. The juxtaposition socio-economic classes is apparent, with the common women going off to fight for the rights and freedom of the nobility.
“La Charreada,” is translated as “Mexican rodeo,” and displays the skill of the charro, or horseman, who adeptly spins a wide rope lasso, creating oblong shapes in the air which he steps in and out of, and sends around his body, creating fantastic optical illusions. While simultaneously enticing a fair maiden into a long smooching session—move over, Don Juan!—the charro continues to twirl the rope for the entire piece, occasionally switching arms while the company of dancers spins on their heels around them.
The next number, “Fiesta en Tlacotalpan,” has a heavy Spanish influence, with six men furiously beating out Andalusian-inspired rhythms with their feet atop two wooden platforms, amplifying the thunderous scraping heels and fast-shuffling toes without the aid of microphones. Against the setting of a tropical oceanside villa, beautiful women in traditional Veracruz outfits of billowing white skirts and lacy black aprons flirt with the men, one couple choosing to tie the knot—literally, as they unfurl a long, scarlet ribbon and proceed to “dance” it into a pretzel bow. At this point the audience can barely contain themselves and the exuberance is doubled as majigangas—wearing enlarged, papier-mâché heads of ethnic caricatures—join the festivities. The excitement is triples as even larger versions appear, towering over all, easily 10 feet tall. How on earth could they ever top such a spectacle?
In terms of presentation, they do not, choosing instead to shift the tone of the evening from that of bright and celebratory into the realm of mysticism through the retelling of two tales of Mexican folklore. “La Vida es un Juego” introduces a red, bull-headed, winged demon who manipulates a cast of colorful characters, deviously spinning his ominous “wheel of fate” and meddling in the affairs of mortals. The demon, after a careful spin of the wheel, wins himself a bride—Lady Death—portrayed as having an enlarged skull for a head and rubbery arms and legs that wave around like a deranged marionette being strung along by a pitiless puppet master.
“Danza del Venado,” (The Deer Dance) is a timeless tale of nature, that of predator and prey. The deer prances this way and that as the hunters stealthily close in, drawing back their bowstrings in anticipation of the kill. As the deer lies dying and struggling to stay afoot, I dare you not to get a little choked up.
The evening culminates with “Fiesta en Jalisco,” as a string of Mariachi musicians build the crowd back up with rousing solos and familiar songs like “El Jarabe Tapatio (The Mexican Hat Dance). The audience, sufficiently warmed up, welcomes back the full company for a closing number that again exhibits the elongated leaps and strides of ballet with the into-the-floor foot-pounding of flamenco.
Streamers explode from the stage as the company yells “Viva México!,” to which the crowd calls back, “Viva!” Reluctantly, the audience releases the company after three curtain calls. The house cleared out quickly—we were already on our feet! Even outside the theater the rhythm stayed with me. I allowed myself a few imitative scuffles and stamps on my way back to the Blue Line.
As I danced down the sidewalk I imagined myself tracing the paths of an audience leaving the same theater some fifty years ago, equally enchanted by Ballet Folklórico.