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Dance on the path of life.


The people in line outside the Sala Miguel Convarrubias at the Centro Cultural Universitario of the Universided Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) seem an unlikely collection. One man identifies himself as the butcher from the local market, another is a computer programmer working in international telecommunications. Another, a housewife, explains why she made the three-hour trek across the city with her young daughter. For her, as for the others in line, a Sunday afternoon without a concert of neoclassical ballet by the UNAM's Taller Coreografico (Choreographic Workshop) would be unthinkable.

The tickets, at about ten dollars each (half that for students and laborers), place some of the most exciting dance available anywhere in the America's within reach of almost anyone. The response has been tremendous. Over its twenty-four years, the Taller has established itself as the ballet company for everyone. The dancers wouldn't have it any other way.

Families are a common sight at their concerts. The company views its preteen public as a vital part of its future. Like many of the elements that combine to form the Taller, its audience challenges stereotypical notions about the ballet. Much to their delight, the dancers of the Taller are just as likely to overhear conversations about their latest premieres on the bus as they are to read about them in the city's cultural supplements. Their schedule has carried them to schools, public parks, even jails, to show that ballet--ballet without storybook settings, elaborate costumes, or traditional music--can speak directly to the soul of contemporary Mexico.

Every season, the Taller presents a number of new works to encourage its audience to keep coming back for more. While the Taller is decidedly populist in its approach, its musical choices are intentionally challenging. A typical concert is just as likely to contain music by the cerebral Alban Berg as it is to feature Bizet's saucy "Carmen Suite." The chamber-sized company--it consists of only fourteen full-time dancers--has presented nearly two hundred different ballets. It maintains an active repertory of over eighty-five works set to music ranging from fourteenth-century chants to the latest compositions from Mexico's avant garde. The group's devoted fans can attend an entire four-month season and rarely see the same work twice.

Like any ballet company, however, the Taller has its stock of ballets. Programs dedicated exclusively to the music of Igor Stravinsky are highlights of every season. Its annual Day of the Dead concerts, featuring works like Mozart's Requiem, also are a major draw. Perhaps its most popular presentation is dedicated to works by Mexican composers. The Taller has preserved classics from Mexico's golden age of modern dance, such as Farnesio de Bernal's "Los Gallos," among its offerings, as well as Artistic Director Gloria Contreras's own works. Her Imagenes del Quinto Sol (Images of the Fifth Sun), a retelling of Aztec creation myths with an evocative score by Federico Ibarra, was originally created for the Compania National de Danza. Even restaged for the much smaller Taller, it retains its elemental force and immense popularity.

More than any other ballet, Contreras's "Huapango," set to Pablo Moncayo's energetic music has come to exemplify the Taller's exuberant spirit The Mexico City premiere of "Huapango" caused a minor uproar in the Palacio de Bellas Aries. Traditionalists were shocked that this most Mexican of all musical compositions had been set to a dance that had nothing in common with the country's rich folk traditions. They were surprised that the soaring lines of the choreography could capture their nation's spirit without so much as a reference to the sombreros and scrapes the music typically evoked. "Huapango" continues to galvanize audiences wherever it is presented. Several years ago, a teenaged dance student saw the Taller perform this piece on one of its frequent forays outside the university campus and decided that one day she too would ascend along with Moncayo's music. Today, Alejandra Llorente is one of the company's best known ballerinas.

The Taller's impact on Mexican dance can be measured not only by its devoted public, but also by the number of young ballerinas it has inspired. Many of its most promising dancers have come to the Taller as a direct result of its ambitious performing and educational schedule. As much as it cherishes its audiences, the Taller's goal is far larger than simply pleasing the public. It aims to create a full-fledged neoclassical dance tradition in Mexico. Through its full slate of performances, the Taller seeks to foster the engagement of composers, designers, painters, photographers, and writers in the art of the dance. Not surprisingly, the Taller has published seven books of art, poetry, and critical essays inspired by its work. Exhibitions of dance-related art and photography are also regular features of each season.

The packed houses that greet the Taller were not always the rule. The company's first performances were the result of sheer determination. Contreras has been the force driving the company forward from its beginnings. A diminutive dynamo with the unmistakable posture of an experienced ballerina, Contreras credits one of Mexico's first ballet teachers, Madame Nelsy Dambre, with igniting the creative impulse that led to the creation of the Taller.

The initially difficult dealings between the former prima ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet and the teenaged Contreras gradually developed into a relationship of mutual respect. The other students at Dambre's school, including such notable dancers as Laura Urdapilleta, Nelly Happey, Pola Platt, and Lupe Serrano, also spurred Contreras forward. Watching Serrano dance Debussy's "Clair de Lune" in class convinced Contreras that she wanted to dance professionally.

Contreras praises her teacher for passing along more than mere technique. "As she taught me to dance, she taught me how to free myself. We crossed the door to her classroom without knowing who we were and we left convinced that the dance would be our means of discovering an identity."

When Dambre finally invited Contreras, then fifteen, to dance with the Ballet Clasico, her father was upset. He planned a trip to Chiapas in an attempt to dissuade his daughter from accepting the proposal. She stayed in Mexico City and danced instead. Her father didn't speak to her for months, but finally recognized that she was destined to dance and became one of her strongest supporters.

Dambre's substantial personal investment in mounting the Ballet Clasico eventually failed, and she left for El Salvador where she had been promised government support. Contreras left Mexico too, for Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After a short stint there, she felt the call of New York.

Having visited a number of the city's dance centers, she decided to enter the American Ballet School. Arriving late to her first class session, she ignored the management's instructions and marched into the classroom of Andre Oboukhoff. Contreras later discovered that the only way to enter Oboukhoff's advanced class was through rigorous competitive auditions. But, impressed with her work, he let her stay. When a severe bout with vertigo nearly persuaded her to give up dance, she persevered and began choreographing her own works for her first company, Mexico Lindo, in New York.

Her initial encounter with Balanchine was marked with the same bravado that propelled her into Oboukhoff's classes. During treatment for a broken foot she had suffered in rehearsal, she discovered that her doctor happened to treat Balanchine's wife, ballerina Tanaqil LeClerq, as well. Contreras asked for the choreographer's address and telephone, and, after having written him a letter, decided to set it aside and call him directly. Describing herself as an instinctive choreographer who wanted to know if she had made the right career choice, she asked Balanchine to look at her work. Her courage earned her an appointment with the master.

Arriving with a tape recorder and her dancers, she presented "Huapango" and "El Mercado," a cheerful evocation of a Mexican market set to the "Sones de Mariachi" of Blas Galindo.

"He got all excited," Contreras recalls. "He stood up to play the piano, interpreted a musical phrase and said 'bow would you resolve this problem?'" After she had worked through a few of his challenges, Balanchine told her that, it was clear that she loved music and dance. "If I have to sign a paper saying you are a choreographer, I will sign it," he said. "But you don't want to choreograph, what you want to do is make poetry. I am the choreographer of my generation. You will be the choreographer of yours."

Balanchine opened the doors of the American Ballet School to the young choreographer. She was invited to take whatever classes she cared to. The cost of a pianist for rehearsals was covered by the school. To complete the picture, she was offered the opportunity to create dance for some of the world's finest ballerinas. In addition to providing the best in physical facilities, Balanchine also passed along his own insights into the choreographic process. Perhaps the most important lesson he taught Contreras was to study the musical score of a work in depth before beginning to create a ballet. For him choreographic ideas had to spring from musical phrases as well as from meter and rhythm. With its carefully constructed phrases, Contreras's choreography bears the unmistakable stamp of Balanchine's instruction.

Contreras's differing views on the importance of life beyond the dance studio eventually led to a break with the master. "Balanchine was like a priest," she observes. "His only preoccupation in life was the dance and he dedicated himself to it with body and soul. And, in some form, he wished for the people surrounding him to adopt a similar surrender. When I married and got pregnant for the first time, he was very disappointed. But with the second pregnancy, he dropped me definitively."

After her estrangement from Balanchine, Contreras returned, this time as a choreographer, to the Winnipeg Ballet. She also worked with Robert Joffrey in New York and began regular trips to Latin America. She created dances for Arthur Mitchell in Brazil, Oscar Araiz in Argentina, and Patricio Bunster and Ilse Wiedmann in Chile.

According to Contreras, the opportunity to work throughout Latin America helped shape her choreographic vision. In recognition of the importance of these outside influences, the Taller places a high priority on working with choreographers from throughout Latin America. Argentina's Alejandro Cervera, for example, has been working with the company since 1989. His "Tango Vitrola" and "Perfume de Gardenias," based, respectively, on popular Argentine and Mexican songs, quickly earned key positions in the Taller's repertory

Working in other countries also reinforced her ideas about the importance of experience in enlarging dance's expressive capacities. "The effervescence of the Chilean ballerinas, their politicization, their searches, had an enormous influence on me. The more conscience a choreographer or a dancer has, the greater the possibilities that they will be able to create true art. If a person is isolated, he can express only little. Interaction with the world is what promotes development. To grow and develop, it's important to know what happens in life. You can't do big things with little people."

Eventually Contreras found herself back in Mexico in search of a project. A friend, impressed by a performance of her "Opus 45," persuaded her to approach the UNAM about sponsoring a ballet. When her initial funding proposal was rejected, composer-conductor Eduardo Matta, then head of UNAM's music department, came to the rescue. Having worked with Contreras in a New York production of "Isostacia," danced to his "Improvisations Number Two for Piano and Strings," he was already an established supporter.

The company's beginnings were underwritten by funds that the UNAM had originally designated to purchase uniforms for its American-style football team. Contreras recruited two dancers in Mexico and held auditions in New York to fill out a company of fourteen, with ballerinas coming from Brazil, Uruguay, Panama, and the United States.

Creating a space for dance at the UNAM was a more difficult task than finding qualified dancers. The Taller was offered the theater in the school's architecture department. Holes big enough to drop a piano through scarred the stage floor. Students had stripped the proscenium of its curtains to make velvet jackets. There were no lights. But Contreras was not discouraged. Through the cooperation of the UNAM and a series of fundraising presentations, the theater was restored. It still serves as the company's spiritual home. Twenty-four years later, the Taller can be found in residence there, offering free student concerts at midday every Friday during the academic year.

Although they started with just a handful of students for an audience, word of this remarkable new educational experiment rapidly spread. The Taller's performances became a meeting place for Mexican artists. Composer Mario Lavista and his group Quanta were numbered among the Taller's first fans. The two groups took advantage of this creative ferment to improvise a series of performances that were, unfortunately, not captured for posterity.

Artists were not the only members of the audience. The Taller became so popular that the university's 1973 announce-merit that it was cutting the Taller from its budget was greeted by a spontaneous student protest, which ensured the company's survival.

Several years later, the Taller took another giant leap forward when the UNAM built the Sala Miguel Covarrubias for dance performances in the school's well-appointed cultural center. The new theater not only ensured seating for a much larger audience, but it also provided the company with its own rehearsal space. Sala Covarrubias boasts two ample rehearsal halls: the largest one named after Dambre; the second is named in honor of Balanchine.

The enlarged facilities encouraged the Taller to expand its educational activities. In addition to its teaching responsibilities with the UNAM's students, the company opened its seminarios to the community at large. The company's dancers, who train regularly under the watchful eye of Leningrad-trained ballet mistress Nina Kirillova, serve as the instructors. In keeping with the Taller's motto--"Whoever does not dance ignores the path to life"--everyone is welcome. Courses range from basic rhythm and movement for preschool children to preparatory classes for young dancers and beginning dance for their parents.

The influence of these seminirios can be felt well beyond Mexico City. In order to improve the level of ballet instruction throughout the country, Contreras authored Ballet Paso a Paso [Ballet Step by Step], a series of books on practical ballet technique that leads teachers and students through the basics of dance.

Contreras recognizes that it will take years for these efforts to reach their full potential. However, the company's investment in the community has paid some unexpected dividends. Like ballet schools everywhere, the Taller has difficulties attracting men to its courses. When one woman was unable to attend the beginner's course for which she had registered, she passed the registration on to her musically inclined son, who attended his first class on a whim. Encouraged by his instructor, who had come to dance after a career as a boxer, Domingo Rubio left his studies in architecture to focus on dance. After training in the United States and Germany, he returned to Mexico and earned a place in the Taller. Today Rubio dances the demanding role of the Sacrifice in the Taller's most ambitious production to date, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

The Taller's new generation of dancers is leading the company confidently forward into its second generation. In a relative rarity for the Americas, the company includes a pair of sisters and one brother and sister duo. Rocio Melgoza, another standout dancer in a company filled with standouts, is actually a second-generation ballerina, whose mother once danced with Contreras. Although far from the standard set by the established ballets of Europe, where many ballerinas have parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents who have danced professionally, the Taller is beginning to show signs of establishing its own tradition in Mexico.

The company's insistence on extending ballet beyond its typical environment is also bearing fruit. New ties are emerging with some of the country's leading artistic talents, including conductor Eduardo Garcia Barrios of the Orquesta de Baja California and graphic designer Sabino Gainza. And young audiences continue to fill the company's concerts to capacity--and sometimes beyond.

Contreras is buoyed by these signs of a new dawn in Mexican dance. "Today more than ever I am convinced that dance will be the Mexican art of tomorrow," she affirms. "Mexico can develop a dance movement of great breadth, comparable to its cinema of the forties or to muralism. My love for dance is greater every day. My faith in its future is indestructible."

Mitchell Snow is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Latin American Art magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Taller Coreografico
Author:Snow, Mitchell
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Previous Article:Trailing footprints from the past.
Next Article:Disaster in Darien.

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