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Ballet Hispanico

Artistic Director Tina Ramirez's retirement

by Sigrid Payne DaVeiga

February 20, 2009 -- Playhouse Square, Ohio Theater, Cleveland

Pamela Young of DANCECleveland and Brian Bethune of the Cuyahoga Community College opened Ballet Hispanico’s sold out Friday night performance at Playhouse Square with the announcement of Tina Ramirez’ retirement as the director of Ballet Hispanico.  She was presented on stage with a proclamation created by Mayor Frank Jackson who called Ms. Ramirez an “inspirational example” through her life and career with Ballet Hispanico.  In addition to presenting Ms. Ramirez with this wonderful award, Young and Bethune described the educational mission of Ballet Hispanico and the company’s residencies while in Northeast Ohio.  The company’s dancers visited multiple schools throughout Northeast Ohio to teach and perform for children in the area.  For many children, this was a first opportunity to see a live dance performance.  What a gift for a child to have the dancers of Ballet Hispanico perform in such a setting; future performers for these children will have a lot to live up to based on tonight’s production.

After running in from the icy and biting cold of a typical winter night in Cleveland, I was hoping for and anticipating some heat from the performance by Ballet Hispanico.  I cannot say that I was surprised, but I was definitely enraptured and captivated in an unexpected way.  The production opened with "Club Havana."  There was no lavish backdrop or set, just an effective use of light that caught the eye and drew the audience to the shadows of the three dancers on stage.  Eric Rivera and Waldemar Quinones Villanueva created silhouettes of two masculine figures in suits smoking cigars at the back of the stage as Son opened.

With an evoking enticement, a spotlight appeared on a female figure at the front of the stage. Her costume was a long, dark, skirt with only her bare back and arms visible to the audience.  Her arms started to gracefully and enticingly draw the audience to her, as yet her face was unseen.  The sensuality of the piece became palpable as one of her partners placed a cigar in her mouth as he supported her; she arched her back completely so that the audience saw her face for the first time upside-down.  They were joined on stage by several other dancers, creating a troupe of five couples in totality.  Their movements were so smooth and synchronous, it was easy to forget the technical difficulty of the choreography of Pedro Ruiz.

"Club Havana" moved to "Mambo," performed this evening by Candice Monet-McCall, Nicholas Villeneuve, Jessica Batten, Jeffrey Hover, Min-Tzu Li and Rodney Hamilton.  The three couples performed a nice series of lifts; the women looked to be almost thrown into the air but the control and cleanliness of these movements was impeccable.  Every step, jump and turn was made without a sound.  Li’s extensions were eye-catching and stunning.  There were beautiful seamless transitions between classical ballet and Latin steps.  From the audience, the dancers looked like they were absolutely having the time of their lives.  We were transported from a cold winter night in Cleveland to a sultry night in a nightclub where we were surrounded by rich colors in the form of street lights, skirts, bright smiles and a dance so inspired it flowed through the blood and breath of the dancers on stage.

The third piece in "Club Havana," "Cha Cha Cha," was an utter highlight of this performance.  Eric Rivera and Waldemar Quinones Villanueva opened this piece standing close together, backs to the audience.  At first, they appeared to be alone when quietly and flirtatiously a tiny foot at the end of a delicate leg pointed in between the two male dancers and wrapped around one of them.  Angelica Burgos appeared completely as the female soloist in a gorgeous wine red dress, short enough to make out the grace and beauty of every extension and pointed toe.  She is quite clearly a wonderful ballerina but what makes her exceptional is her body’s expression of the power and sensuality that a dancer’s body can assume when testing the limits of so many genres of dance at once.  Her demeanor was entirely playful and flirtatious throughout.  I loved this piece. I wish everything I watched gave me chills like this combination of dancers with this choreography.

'Club Havana" closed with "Bolero" followed by "Rhumba, Congo."  The pieces were pleasing throughout with clear high points and no lows to speak of.  Rodney Hamilton opened "Bolero" with an exciting but brief solo of undulations and movement that was quite impressive.  The last two pieces moved from moments of quiet and fragility to loud, rhythmic movements.  "Club Havana" was absolutely captivating and truly depicts what dance was meant to be, a place where a body becomes electric.  The dancers of Ballet Hispanico are truly a company.  They worked so well together on stage it was at times difficult to distinguish one dancer from another.

The Latin Rhythm Percussion Ensemble joined Ballet Hispanico on stage for "Tito on Timbales."  Again, the staging was simple and did not distract.  The dancers performed as a tight knit group on one side of the stage.  The female costumes were hues of brown, purple and wine.  Their skirts were long and flowing but the fabric of the costumes on their torsos was sheer such that every shift, pulsation and slight movement of the hips, rib cage, chest was visible.  Candice Monet-McCall performed quite well in her highlighted choreography here.  She played with the layers of her skirt creating enticing visual effects as a brighter yellow color appeared under the dark layers.

As a group the dancers stood, at times, in straight lines where all movement stopped except for the motion of their heads bobbing up and down together to the endless rhythmic beat provided by the Percussion Ensemble.  The movements and music were so well entwined that when watching the dancers one almost forgot live musicians were on stage with them.  Rodney Hamilton performed a brief duet with Min-Tzu Li.  Her extensions again were so long and far, I almost thought she might flip at one point; but as all the dancers in Ballet Hispanico, their bodies looked pulled to the limits and yet simultaneously in control of every inch of movement.

After a short pause, this evening’s performance moved to "Tres Bailes," choreographed by Graciela Danielle for Fire Island Dance Festival 14, benefiting Dancers Responding to AIDS.  This piece was a definite shift from the first two with very different choreography and tone.  Yesid Lopez and Jeffrey Hover wore black straps over their torsos with a long drape over their lower bodies.  Jessica Batten, Min-Tzu Li and Alexandra Gonzalez wore similar strapped tops of red and fuschia with shorts and bare legs.  Every muscle on the dancers bodies was visible as they work through the intricacies of this choreography.  There is an element of captivity to this piece as evidenced by the costumes.  The beauty of the piece comes from the visual strength and grace of these dancers who made every movement an act of cunning and poise despite the visual mechanistic quality of the costumes.

The piece opens with Lopez and Hover dancing while the three women stand harshly behind, watching their every movement.  There is a moment when Lopez holds Li with one hand, his other hand several inches above her torso, rising and falling as if holding her heart beating and her body rhythmically responds with a slow, smooth beating torso.  It was truly masterful and spoke volumes about the human condition and the connections between human beings.  Alexandra Gonzalez danced as a soloist in the piece showing off her amazing feet and lifting to extensions from tendu with an utter grace and exceptional strength.  Her ability to make a slight movement dramatic, even the change from a pointed to a flexed foot, was stunning to watch.

"Ritmo Y Ruido" closed this evening’s performance.  The curtain rose on Candice Monet-McCall in a spotlight.  She exhibited an amazing length through her legs, toes and arms.  The rest of the company entered and carried this energy as well.  This entire piece was a cataclysmic event of movement and Ann Reinking’s use of every note in the music was truly genius.  It is a rare occasion to see a piece hit so sharply and with such precision.  The dancers move together as a tight unit for portions of the piece and then break out into various featured solos.

Waldemar Quinones Villanueva performed a sublime series of jumps and led the group well with passion and force.  Angelica Burgos partnered with Eric Rivera for a lengthy duet in this piece.  They were just beautiful together.  Again, the dancers and the dance are the epitome of the art here; there was no distraction by props, sets, or elaborate costumes.  Burgos and Rivera’s movements were pristine.  As an audience we were again transported, this time through movement alone, to another place.  We could see Burgos running through a field as Rivera carried her, swimming in an ocean, feeling the wind on her face.  They were really exalted and majestic in this piece, taking the audience with them.

It was a piece to make one believe in the beauty and grace of the human body and when well-matched with each other there is nothing we cannot do.  The company returned on stage and closed this performance with another series of leaps, lifts and turns embodying a fantastic energy.  They ran back and forth across the stage with repeated switch-leaps landing each on time with the music.  They stop to bow briefly.  We thought the performance was over.  With a crash, the music began again and another onslaught of movement.

This performance was truly one of the best dance productions I believe I have ever seen.  There are times when words are not adequate to describe; this is one of those times.  What a feat of human accomplishment this company proves itself to be at every turn, lift and leap.  I give Tina Ramirez a great thank you for stopping with her company in Cleveland before her retirement.  May we all hope to do in our lives one small part of what this woman has accomplished; may we for one brief moment know what it feels to fly with each other in a moment like these dancers have for us tonight.

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