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September 2015
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More Than Mariachi: Ballet Folklórico Celebrates Mexico’s Diverse Culture

amalia

amalia

The Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández, a national treasure of Mexico, comes to Chicago for select performances this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. I spoke to Salvador Lopez, the Ballet’s director and the grandson of the company’s founder Amalia Hernández, by phone from Mexico to learn more about the company and the program.


 

Can you describe what kinds of music we’ll hear?

We have done a lot of new arrangements for this current production. When the company first began, we arranged music found originally in small towns throughout Mexico. But in our new arrangements, we have included different instruments, or arranged the music so that is a bit more – let’s say – lively. It’s the same music presented in a more spectacular way.

We want to present a variety of different music to give different taste of Mexico.The mariachi everyone knows very well. But in our program we include music from the Coast of Mexico, music from Central Mexico, and even pre-Columbian music using pre-Columbian drums and woodwinds.

Working on the music has been very interesting for me because I took over the company in 2000 and since then I have been trying to do things so the company shows we are entering a new age. And I think we have succeeded. If you have seen the company ten years ago and now you go to the theater today, you will see a different company- a stronger company. The dancers are better prepared. As I said the music is different from the way we played a few years ago.

So how would you describe the differences between the music from the coastal regions and Central Mexico that you incorporate into this production?

In the various regions of Mexico there’s a lot of contrast, not only in dance but in music. Let’s say in the Coast of Mexico the influence of Afro-Latina influences and also the Spanish influences. So you see, in the Gulf Coast of Mexico we use the harp, la vihuela, a small guitar. So there are instruments from Spain, but there’s also an influence from Caribbean music.

In Central Mexico, we dance to a lot of indigenous music – mixture of pre-Columbian music and European music. Dances like Matachines, the first number, it’s a war dance so there’s a lot of indigenous drums and steps. They dance to the spirits of war. They dance to the earth,  showing us that they are warriors and that they respect very much the earth. In Mexico we use 25 drums for this piece. It’s not possible in the United States because we don’t have enough people. But we use drummers, a lot of drummers, around stage.

It’s so impressive.  It’s a very physical from the beginning to the end. It reflects the fighting spirit of the Mexican Indian dance. The costumes are made of feathers, bird feathers, originally that are green like trees. It’s a very interesting dance.

In the second part we open with the Danza de Los Quetzales and it’s a bird in Central Mexico. The music includes small drums and flute. The drums are very small drums that are called tijuan – an indigenous name. The flutes are made of leather and wood.

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Many of the pieces on the program are very theatrical, it seems!

Life Like a Game describes the Mexican way of life during the fiesta, during celebration. That is a very theatrical piece. It includes demons, the angel, the lover, the husbands, the dead. And it’s like a small piece of theater with Mexican music, different kinds of Mexican music. It’s a very theatrical piece that reminds you the way the Mexican lives during the fiesta in a small town.

The program seems to reflect Mexico’s diverse and rich history. What do you hope people will learn about Mexican culture from this performance?

I think that a lot of people that are from the United States and have limited exposure to certain kinds of Mexican culture and only think of Mexico’s mariachi. They will be fascinated by the diversity of things that they’ll see on the program. You know, it really does present a lot of different dances and a lot of different music.

Ballet Folklórico is the best taste of Mexico because it presents the magic of our culture and the diversity of our culture. I think Amalia’s work was great, she was very talented, she was my role model, and she was so talented that still the company seems to be very fresh on stage. The company that has been around for sixty four years, and it is one of the best, best of its kind in the world. At least that’s what the president said!

It’s a very good way to learn about Mexican culture – everything from the diverse music to the colorful costumes represents the magic of Mexico.

How many costumes approximately would you say that there are in the whole show?

There are about 450 costumes with 17 changes for each dancer.

Wow, 17 changes for each dancer?!

Yes.

That is incredible! 

In any dance number, they have a lot of quick changes. The dynamic of the program is impressive. The costumes are like food in Mexico – there is so much diversity. Our program shows the diversity of our culture through costume. The contrast of the colors that we use in Mexico is an important part of richness of the culture. That is one of the things that we want to reflect the most – the colors of the east coast, contrasts of the west coast, or the central part, or the pre-Hispanic cultures. Even with no sound you could see the performance and see it reflect how diverse Mexican culture is.

What are some of your favorite production elements in the show, or favorite numbers?

I could say Veracruz because that is like waves of the ocean. In the dancing you kind of see the ocean in terms of rhythm. Though I also enjoy the end because it’s a a huge carnival and everyone in the theater gets to be involved in this part of the program.

Why do you enjoy performing in Chicago?

Chicago is a place where there are a lot people from Mexico. Mexicans in Chicago know that the company is part of Mexico. We’re bringing a piece of Mexico to the United States. It’s also very interesting because there is a mixture in the audience of Anglos and Mexicans, in the same place, enjoying Mexican culture. And that’s our mission, to bring our culture to the world.

Being a cultural ambassador there’s a great deal of responsibility and you have an even more special responsibility because your grandmother is the founder of the company.

The company started with eight people and now we are six hundred people in the company including students, teachers, and 2 professional companies. About 45 million people have seen the company around the world!

The responsibility to represent Mexico is huge because we show our culture around the world. You have to bring a company that not only shows our culture but shows that we are competitive. We are a fresh company and we have to be.

I’ll take the risk and say that this is our time. As far as folk dance, we are one of the best companies in the world. That means a lot of discipline that means a lot of hard work, a lot of creative work. It’s not easy to work as artists, you know, but also, it’s not easy to work knowing you have a responsibility to your country.

The company is a Mexican treasure. It’s not easy for anyone to be part of the company and for me it’s huge to know that I have to think about what’s going on with the company in the next ten years. It’s a lot of hard work.


 

To learn more about Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández, visit the company’s website.

 

 

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