Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández turns an impressive 60 years old this year. However, some of the most vibrant dances the company showcases date much earlier — try centuries ago. When the late choreographer founded the troupe in 1952, part of Hernández’s goal was to rescue and preserve some of Mexico’s ancient cultural history. Currently directed by Hernandez’s grandson Salvador López López, with artistic direction by her daughter, Viviana Basante Hernández, the company does just that and more, as it showed vividly in Saturday night’s World Music/CRASHarts presentation at the Shubert Theatre before a rowdy, enthusiastic crowd.
This was no didactic history lesson. Though the show’s musical introduction, an overproduced orchestral soundtrack, is a misstep, once the thundering live drums of the “Matachines” herald the dance, we’re off and running. A dance from the 16th century of stomping feet and clattering rattles, it sets the stage ablaze with vibrant color and engaging rhythms. Intricate footwork carries phalanxes of hunter warriors through rigorous, precise line and circle patterns that seem to continually reconfigure the space.
Most of the social dances tend toward the expected flavor of character dances: sharp, flamenco-like footwork, legs swiveling, bodies sensuously bending, voluminous, brilliantly hued skirts swirling. (The costumes are gorgeous, often including elaborate hats and eye-popping head pieces.) Most dances are performed to live music (expertly performed but over-amplified), which ranges from simple drums to a quartet featuring folk harp to an 11-piece mariachi band for the finale, “Jalisco.” The company’s traditional closer, “Jalisco” turns the show into a lively fiesta, complete with high-spirited charros (cowboys) and “El Jarabe Tapatio” (the Mexican hat dance).
However, there were a few surprises mixed in. A high-kicking dance reminiscent of the cancan preceded a genteel polka, both reflecting European colonialism in Mexico. A corps of gun-toting women honored the “soldaderas” who joined in Mexico’s fight for freedom during the 1910-20 revolution. A rather cheesy “Country love dance” (lots of swoons and mimed kisses) was introduced by a virtuosic lasso display. “Tlacotalpan Festivity” portrayed a Caribbean parade of sea creatures and puppet figures.
The most compelling dances were the oldest. “The Deer Dance,” an ancient Yaqui rite in preparation for the hunt, features a powerful, athletic solo of flamboyant leaps, hops, and feral posturing, conjuring the primal fear of the prey. In the ancient “Quetzals of Puebla,” the dancers personify the sacred birds wearing stunning multicolored headdresses 6 feet in diameter. They fan out atop cone-like hats to evoke feathered tails. As shifting rhythms in the drums propel the dancers through intricate floor patterns of skips, hitch kicks, leaps, and spins, the plumed crowns create a whirling, kaleidoscopic splendor.
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.