Confection Suite: Ballet’s Homage to the Queen of Salsa

BRIAN SEIBERT reviews Ballet Hispánico’s new work “Asuka” for The New York Times.

At the Apollo Theater on Saturday afternoon Goya Foods provided samples, as if the lobby were a supermarket. There was free coffee and wafers with dulce de leche filling. One reliable purveyor of Latino products, promoting its brand, was sponsoring another: Ballet Hispánico.

These days the man responsible for the dance brand is Eduardo Vilaro, a onetime company member who struck out on his own to give Chicago a similar organization, Luna Negra Dance Theater, in 1999. Since taking over as artistic director of Ballet Hispánico in 2009, he has brought in new dances and new dancers. (Only 2 out of 12 members predate his tenure.) But it wasn’t until Saturday that his first work for the company, “Asuka,” had its premiere.

The subject is in line with the company’s mission to celebrate Latino culture: a homage to the Cuban-born salsa legend Celia Cruz. The title refers to her catch phrase — “Azúcar!” or “Sugar!” — and the soundtrack naturally draws on her famous recordings. But not only music accompanies the dancing. An announcer identifies Radio Habana Cuba, the official station of the government that, in becoming a United States citizen, Cruz rejected. A voice gives a lesson in Cuban geography and demographics. More than one section sounds like a nightmare.

Mr. Vilaro, who was himself born in Cuba, is trying something more ambitious than a suite of Cruz hits. “Asuka” is not straight biography, either, though there is a Cruz figure, danced by Jessica Alejandra Wyatt. At the beginning of the piece she contracts in pain at the back of a line of dancers who could be waiting for goods that are in short supply. At the end she reappears in sparkles, at one with her public.

The ensemble sections in between are quirkier than the usual Hispánico fare. As a man and woman crawl across the stage, the woman’s head rests on the man’s rump. The dancers tend to nudge one another’s body parts into motion, and much of the partnering, sometimes in single-sex pairs, is unconventionally two-sided, with women dipping men.

Mr. Vilaro presents Cruz as fierce in the face of trouble, but Ms. Wyatt projects more fierceness than she needs to. Her dancing has enough snap and power on its own, especially in the thighs, and during her final duet to “Guantanamera,” she luxuriates in Mr. Vilaro’s juiciest choreography. What Mr. Vilaro and the sound designer Jesse Felluss do to Cruz’s “Pa’ la Paloma” is a bigger mistake, burying the song’s Afro-Cuban rhythms in a cheap club remix. Up to date or not, that’s no way to treat this music.

Hiring the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is. On Saturday Mr. Vilaro sandwiched his sugar filling between two company staples, energized by the playing of Arturo O’Farrill’s big band. Rather than digging in to rhythms, both William Whitener’s “Tito on Timbales” (1984) and Pedro Ruiz’s “Club Havana” (2000) coyly acknowledge their presence or skim over them.

Yet these are harmless pieces that show off the dancers’ professional technique. Unfortunately Mr. Vilaro hasn’t taken advantage of the turnover to discard the artificial smiles that have long emphasized blandness in the company repertory. Despite some new products, his Ballet Hispánico still delivers what consumers have come to expect.

For the original review go toánico-at-the-apollo-theater-review.html

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