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An American cultural treasure, Ballet Hispánico returns to Austin after too long away

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Ballet Hispanico will bring "Tiburones" to Austin's Bass Concert Hall.

"Absolute grace, absolute originality, absolute soul-stirring dance," arts critic Jeanne Claire van Ryzin wrote in a review for the American-Statesman in 2002. "Ballet Hispánico fused the sheer refinement of contemporary ballet with the rich expression of folk traditions for a program that bedazzled Friday night at Bass Concert Hall, proving why it is one of the foremost modern ballet companies in the country."

"The movement vocabulary draws from ballet, Latin dances and jazz," wrote dance critic Sondra Lomax for this newspaper in 1997, "the signature styles of Ballet Hispánico."

For a few golden years, it looked like New York-based Ballet Hispánico would join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which first landed at Bass Concert Hall in 1981, as a regular visitor to Austin. 

Now, still-new Texas Performing Arts director Bob Bursey is bringing both signature companies back to Bass for its 40th anniversary season on the University of Texas campus. Ballet Hispánico plays Oct. 30 for the first time in almost two decades.

"In the late '90s and early 2000s, Texas Performing Arts was one of the most important dance presenters in the country," Bursey says. "At that time, I was working for choreographers like Pina Bausch, David Roussève and Bill T. Jones. I visited Austin often with their companies, presenting incredible, large-scale works that were only being seen on the coasts and a small handful of other cities.

"In assuming the leadership of Texas Performing Arts, I've studied that history. It's clear that there was a remarkable community of supporters and a dedicated audience for world-class dance companies like Ballet Hispánico."

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Different directors work from different visions; the past 20 years of UT's performing arts program have not always featured dance prominently.

Bursey looks to reestablish Austin's engagement with the country's leading artists, making the city a regular must-stop in their touring plans, and also a place where they can do research and develop new projects alongside students, faculty and community members.  

Ballet Hispánico, which will also perform as a full company at Mendez Middle School in South Austin, was recently designated one of "America's Cultural Treasures" by a national group of major funders led by the Ford Foundation. 

"Some companies would send two dancers to give a presentation," Bursey says. "For Ballet Hispánico, that school performance is just as important as performing at Bass Concert Hall. So they're bringing their full company to the school and will give these students a remarkable experience."

Dandara Veiga in "Tiburones," which comes to Austin's Bass Concert Hall thanks to Ballet Hispanico.

In a normal year, Ballet Hispánico plays at its New York home base several times. The company also tours nationwide with customary stops in California and the Midwest and Northeast.

For its 50th anniversary season, Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico, has curated a touring program dubbed "Noche de Oro." 

This evening will include relatively new but already standard parts of its repertory, including "18+1" by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano and "Tiburones" by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

"Tiburones" a direct response to the reemergence of "West Side Story" and questions who gets to tell that story. "18+1" is an athletic and playful romp set to the rhythms of Pérez Prado’s mambo music.

"With the return of live dance in New York City, both have been performed recently to great acclaim and will be part of the program in Austin," Vilaro says. "While not entirely new, Vicente Nebrada’s work, 'Arabesque,' is making a return to our repertory for the first time in over 30 years, and reflects the company’s aesthetic from the 1970s, experimenting with a fusion of flamenco and classical ballet."

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Like many dance companies, Ballet Hispánico during the pandemic turned to virtual alternatives to stay connected with its communities and to keep artists working.

"In the midst of celebrating our 50th anniversary, we had to transform the celebrations into online events," Vilaro says. "Our first virtual gala, 'Noche Unidos,' consisted of entirely new works choreographed for our company members. They worked virtually with choreographers across the country and even some in different countries."

Bursey clearly has used his time here — he arrived for duty just weeks before the pandemic reared its ugly head in spring 2020 — thinking about ways to reinvigorate the idea of Austin as an arts mecca.

"With the rapid growth of Austin, I'm interested in what turns a city into a community," Bursey says. "Artists can do that. They create community around ideas, histories and hopes for the future. ... Our goal is to return to being one of the leading stages for dance."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com

Ballet Hispánico: 'Noche de Oro'

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 30

Where: Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus

How much: $10-$60

Info: texasperformingarts.org