Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall holds special significance for me. On March 6th, 2020, I was there to take in Cal Performances’ presentation of the Joffrey Ballet, having no idea that it would be twenty months before I would be back in a theater for a live dance concert. That fast was broken on Saturday night as I returned to that same venue for Cal Performances’ debut of Ballet Hispánico. Under the Artistic Direction of Eduardo Vilaro, the New York-based company brought Noche de Oro, a dazzling mixed repertory program in honor of its fifty years as a center for Latinx culture and dance – it truly was a “night of gold.”
When looking up the word arabesque, you’ll certainly find the ballet definition of the term. But you also encounter words like ‘intertwining’ or ‘interlacing.’ It is those sensations that Vicente Nebrada’s Arabesque (1984) conjures. A lovely suite for a cast of ten, Arabesque featured an exuberant, interconnected mix of solos, duos, trios and group sequences, each one perfectly matched to Enrique Granados’ score. Movements varied from elegant and sweeping to sharp and staccato. Classic ballet syntax was peppered with plenty of angles – in the arms and in attitude to the front, side and back. Some chapters felt romantic; some more playful. Community spirit and camaraderie abounded, as did impressive technique from every company member. From time to time, there were some spatial blips, especially when many of the dancers were onstage together, but the joy and fun over Arabesque’s twenty-five minutes was undeniable.
As the curtain rose on Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tiburones (2019), it was clear from the deconstructed stage space that something very different was in store. And over the next half hour, a sophisticated, critical statement on representation and identity would unfold. Rhythmic snapping and the piece’s title (which translates to ‘sharks’) indicated that the lens for this investigation would be West Side Story. There was plenty of high-powered partnering, like that from the movie’s gymnasium scene, as well as choreography inspired by Maria and Tony’s first meeting, reimagined as a duet for two men. Throughout Tiburones’ various sequences, a director-type figure with a clapperboard and a whistle crept ominously amongst the ensemble. At the beginning, the dancers responded to his various whims and manipulations, but by the end, they weren’t responding any further. Instead, they were creating their own reality. The narrative message was highly effective.
Though I wouldn’t characterize Tiburones as full-on Dance Theater, the work did dip its toe into that genre. And like much Dance Theater, there was a lot going on – movement, score, text, props, lighting, costume – sometimes the stage got a little busy.
Closing the Noche de Oro program was Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s 18+1 (2012) – a brilliant, high-energy dectet that celebrated the mambo compositions of Pérez Prado. The Zellerbach crowd went wild for this piece, a work that refused to slow down from beginning to end. Sansano’s choreography punctuated Prado’s score perfectly, so much so that the movement felt like the physical embodiment of the orchestrations. Vocabulary ranged from full-speed running to floorwork to complex hand and arm phrases. Sequences were sharp, precise and lightning-fast. And much of it was done in the most amazing unison! So in sync; not one performer pulled focus. Moments of whimsy were carefully injected so as to not take away from the choreography and performance – a burst of purple glitter and one dancer casually sitting at the edge of the stage.
18+1 did have one section that was a bit puzzling. One of the ten dancers removed her long grey coat (the entire cast was costumed identically) to reveal a bright red flowy top. She then moved to center stage to cycle through some movement phrases before putting the coat back on. While her choreography was compelling, this one costume change felt out of place. Perhaps there was a narrative reason, but it was hard to tell.