Art is often used to tell a story, and an image or a score can transport its audience to another time and place. At the Joyce, Ballet Hispanico tells the story of Latino dance and its roots across continents and oceans.

Espiritu: Rodney Hamilton, Vanessa Valecillos, Mario Ismael Espinoza, © Rosalie O'Connor
Espiritu: Rodney Hamilton, Vanessa Valecillos, Mario Ismael Espinoza,
© Rosalie O'Connor

Program A opens with Nube Blanco (White Cloud), Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography to music by María Dolores Pradera. From the men’s high-waisted black pants, the women’s flared skirts and ruffled petticoats (costumes by Diana Ruettiger) to Pradera’s soulful voice, everything about this piece shares a connection to the Iberian Peninsula. The whole company starts out wearing red heeled shoes, striking the floor in rhythmic flamenco style. They capture the drama and tension of flamenco, with twisting torsos, flexed backs and strong arms amidst traditional ballet technique.

But each component of the dance morphs throughout the piece. Beats stomped on the floor are added to claps and shouts to resemble something like stepping, as the dancers create music with their bodies. The costumes are deconstructed and absurdly reassembled. In one section, the men slice lines through the air holding their white shirts and the women hold their shoes, the lines of their arms ending in fiery red. By the last section, their wardrobe is reduced to shorts, crop tops, and one shoe, and they move as though exhausted and overcome by gravity. One woman floats threads through the company in a puff of white, like’s she’s taken all the women’s skirts and forced them onto herself. Bouncing and leaping in opposition to everyone else, all the energy is focused in one luminous cloud.

The world première of Espiritu Vivo captured the spirit and diversity of Afro-Caribbean dance. Compared to the specific geographic ties of Nube Blanco, Espiritu Vivo almost feels nomadic from the beginning. Clothed in long pants and tops with hoods (again by Ruettiger) the dancers drift slowly across the stage in a transient state. Brooklyn-based chroreographer Ronald K. Brown explains that his dance explores the stages of grief, each section leading to the final step of hope for the future. The dance is perfectly matched to Susan Baca’s music and the dancers capture the emotion of the live music (including vocals, bass, guitar, percussion, and violin). Espiritu Vivo shows the range of influence and talent of the company’s dancers as they combine West African phrases with samba among leaps and arabesques.

Asuka is the final piece in Program A and the only one choreographed by artistic director Eduardo Vilaro. From the music (sound score by Jesse Felluss and Vilaro with songs by Celia Cruz) which mixes sounds from old radio broadcasts, this dance is clearly set in Cuba in the middle of the last century. Couples come together with the familiarity of social dancing: intimate and sensual. But while Nube Blanco used traditional gender roles to emphasize characterization, in Asuka these rules are thrown out. Vilaro uses the challenges and flirting between men and women typical of many Latin styles to have women partner men. At one point two same sex couples dance their duets in unison. Gender is still part of the dance, but it creates tension in a new way. Guantanamera is the unmistakable last song in this piece and rather than breaking out in a popular-style dance party, Vilaro maintains his company’s classical vocabulary. Asuka is stronger for it, and it is more interesting to see these movements to Cuban rhythms.

Vilaro and Ballet Hispanico pack a lot into one program. Their clear point of view and entire company of strong dancers make it possible to present three very distinct pieces, each with its own story, humor, and insight.