A history told in moving colors
For those who've had too many intimate dinners at Mexican restaurants interrupted tableside by aggressive bands of roaming musicians in tight black suits and sombreros, it's tempting to buy into stereotype, relegating the culture of our neighbor to the south to the relentlessly merry realm of mariachi. But as the 48 effervescent dancers and musicians of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico de Amalia Hernandez showed Saturday night to a wildly enthusiastic audience of all ages, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Admittedly, a huge proportion of Mexican music and dance is of the upbeat, feel-good, clap-along variety, as the violins, trumpets, and guitars play and the women flourish their colorful flounced skirts and the men hammer their heels in catchy, repetitive rhythms associated with Spanish character dance and flamenco - but minus flamenco's tempestuous soul. And yes, there are sombreros galore.
However, when the late Amalia Hernandez founded the company in 1952, her goal was to help keep a variety of Mexico's oldest cultural traditions alive, some dating back to pre-Columbian civilizations. The troupe, Mexico's national dance company, combines historical research with creativity, refining ancient and continuing traditions into vivid entertainment that bounds back and forth in time as it draws from the more than 30 cultures Mexico has embraced over the centuries.
The show opens with the thundering feet of the "Matachines," a ferocious dance inspired by pre-Hispanic people that evokes warriors readying for battle. In hard-soled sandals and feathered headdresses, they stomp and hitch kick in and out of line formations at the cue of a sword-wielding leader.
The "Deer Dance" recalls the ancient rite, which continues to this day, that the Yaqui people organize in preparation for a hunt. As two hunters stalk with bows, a bare-chested dancer wearing a deer headdress leaps, prances, shivers, and paws the ground with a feral intensity. At his mimed death throes, you can almost hear the audience sigh with regret.
One dance alludes to the pervasive strains of Spanish colonialism, another to the influences of the Caribbean. There is also a rope dance, a rather hokey ballet featuring gun-toting women meant to recall the pivotal Revolution of 1910 (which marks the beginning of modern Mexico), and a bizarre comic little dance fantasy about a wedding that includes a motley crew of masked characters -- a clownish devil, a skeleton, two roosters, a fairy. The kids seemed to like it, but some adults must surely have found it tedious.
The most eye-popping dance is the ancient homage to the quetzals of Puebla, considered sacred by the Indians. The dancers, wearing plumed crowns nearly six feet in diameter, move with impressive grace as they spring, spin, and skip through ever-changing floor patterns, accompanied by a simple drumbeat and the plangent modal tune of a flute.
Wisely, the company saves for last the most traditional material from the state of Jalisco. Here we get the songs and dances of the fiesta, beginning with the full mariachi band singing a rousing "Guadalahara," sailing through familiar tunes like the "Mexican Hat Dance," and ending with an explosion of paper streamers out into the audience.