On Saturday, October 28, I had the opportunity to watch Manhattan-based Ballet Hispanico perform at the historic Detroit Opera House. Their triple-bill program featured works made exclusively by women and told politically-charged narratives of those women’s experiences. All three pieces, beginning with “Linea Recta” by Annabell Lopez Ochoa, followed by “Con Brazos Abiertos” by Michelle Manzanaeles, and “Catorce Dieceiseis”by Tania Perez-Salas, were intelligently composed, beautifully designed, and incredibly danced by the company’s fifteen dancers.
The importance of an exclusively-female program is easily overlooked. At first glance, the dance world can seem to be a women’s world. Dance studios, classes, and companies are always looking for more boys and men to recruit and hire, enticing them with scholarships and free tuition. And after all, the legendary George Balanchine once said that, “Ballet is Woman.”
Yet, according to the New York Times, in 2016, the New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets in its season that were all choreographed by men. The Royal Ballet in London has not commissioned a woman choreographer in over a hundred years, and the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia only had one woman work on a single ballet in its season. In a different article about author Rupi Kaur’s work, New York Times writer Tariro Mzezwa concluded that “Art by women and art intended for women can be derided as common, popular and unsophisticated.” Each of the three works that were performed on Saturday night serve to challenge that statement.
“Linea Recta” by Annabell Lopez Ochoa opened with a striking image of a woman in a bright red dress. Her long, ruffled skirt swirled behind her as she started dancing, first as a soloist, and then with four men. She whirled and stomped, kicked and leaped, leading the men around the stage and then gesturing the other women to join her. United in their strength and individuality, the piece highlighted the strength in each dancer, as well as their willingness to give in to each other to create a stronger whole.
“Con Brazos Abiertos” by Michelle Manzanaeles dealt with Manzaneles’s experiences as a first-generation Mexican-American and the images and stereotypes that went along with that label. Utilizing a diverse score from bilingual spoken word to Radiohead, Manzaneles created an intimate look into cultural dichotomies that are impossible to reconcile. Perhaps the most powerful image in the piece was that of a single female dancer simply lying onstage, the majority of her body covered under a giant sombrero. Given today’s current political climate, the image was powerful and heartbreaking in its simplicity.
The final work, “Catorce Dieceisies” by Tania Perez-Salas, was the most contemporary of the three. There was no obvious Latino influence: the costumes were all flesh-toned and form-fitting, the score was Baroque. Yet, that choice in of itself is a strong assertion. In an Interview with the Detroit Free Press, company dancer Melissa Fernandez said that, “In the 1970s, it was kind of taboo to be Hispanic and a dancer…today, we can be dancers. And choreographers…it was the expression of a contemporary female voice. A female who happened to be Hispanic.” Fiery yet delicate, wild yet controlled, virtuosic yet human, Ballet Hispanico’s performance was one to remember.