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The Ballet Folklorico’s Mother of Thousands : Dance: Amalia Hernandez, director and founder of the Mexico City original, brings her much-imitated troupe to San Diego.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I am the mother of thousands,” Amalia Hernandez can say with aplomb. Thousands of folk dance companies have copied her choreography, she believes. “They even use my name.”

Called the Queen of Mexican Folklore, Hernandez has shared her art for 39 years as director and choreographer of the dance company she founded in 1952--Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

In San Diego last week to promote the company’s 25-city tour, which begins at Copley Symphony Hall Saturday and continues Sunday, she demonstrated a regal poise, even a bemused patience with all the copycat troupes.

“You have to be important to be copied,” she quipped.

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She made it clear, however, that she believes no company rivals hers. Based in Mexico City, Ballet Folklorico is the “official cultural representative of Mexico,” has its own theater, an administrative staff of 40 and travels with 7 tons of costumes. This tour, she said, features 60 dancers and musicians performing her choreography, including new versions of four of her earlier works.

Ballet Folklorico is known for its elaborate costumes and for highly stylized interpretations of folk dances and celebrations. Like a pageant or floor show revue, a Folklorico program typically becomes more and more spectacular with each dance--from ancient ceremonial dances to “story” ballets--and ends with a boisterous mardi gras-style finale.

Hernandez has created the company’s entire folk dance repertoire, but her own career began in modern dance and classical ballet. She turned to folk forms, convinced she could best develop her theatrical ideas by staging indigenous dances. “The power of the native dance, the power of these influences that have come into our days, this is what makes the folklore so rich. Not just steps, it all has a meaning.”

She has observed native dances throughout Mexico and loves to see the village festivals, ut says, They’re adifferent kind of theatrical show . . . unique. The sound of the bells, the masks, the dances in the churchyard, the social festivities--it’s a beautiful environment, a beautiful feeling with all that happening. And the religious dances (have) tremendous devotion--the people are entranced, they are dancing in heaven.”

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From these events, she said she takes elements from music, costumes, and dancing that will have the most theatrical impact.

“The authentic material cannot be put, just like that, on stage. What you have to do is to develop it through technique, but keep all the background, the style, the essence, the concept--why they danced--and with that you make the drawing of choreography for the stage.”

Men and women who can do original handwork on the costumes, which she prefers, are hard to find, she said. Nevertheless, she has reworked some of the costumes dances.

She also has reworked some of the dances to “add better choreography” for greater theatrical projection.

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Four such dances are on this year’s program. “Mexican Games,” “Michoacan,” “Festivities in Guelaguetza” and “Guerrero” have been added to Folklorico favorites such as the athletic “Yaqui Deer Dance,” with a male soloist performing a “transmutation” that portrays the survival instincts of a hunted deer; “Carnival of Tlacotalpan,” a fiesta celebration with Caribbean rhythms and giant puppets; and the Spanish heel work and swirls of “Jalisco.”

“First I have an idea of making a ballet of a certain place or motif,” Hernandez explained. Her inspiration for “Mexican Games” came from a song-- “what we call a romance, a corrido-- that she heard during a festival. In the lyrics, she recalled, two men were gambling, and one, who had a beautiful wife, ran out of money, so he decided to gamble his wife. He lost. “Just as the lover was going to take her, the husband said, ‘You take her, but dead,’ and he kills her. This really happened in a town,” Hernandez said. “This is a game, in Mexico, like a game of love.”

But this game was not the only one in her dance. Children’s games also were an influence, as well as Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, which Hernandez calls “fantastic,” with mariachis and dancing in the cemeteries. “Mexicans believe that the spirit of the dead is with them.” Pointing her finger, she added “Mothers, when the husband is dead, will say to a child, ‘Your father is looking at you, so be careful.’ ”

In the dance, this belief is translated into angels and devils guiding the performers. “So my ballet is children’s games, games of chance, games of love, and games of death,” she said, “because life is but a game.”

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In “Guerrero,” another reconstruction, African, Spanish, Indian, Chilean, Islamic, Turkish, and Lebanese influences are present. From this mixture is a new style, Hernandez explained, from which the “roots of the people” can be traced.

Folk dancing requires great speed and moves so quickly that a dancer cannot think, but must “feel it,” Hernandez said. “Modern dance and classic ballet are more intellectual. You plan step one, step two, and you can (create) choreography through the names of the ballet steps. Folk dance is more intuitive; it’s something you cannot learn. The sense of rhythm for folk dancing--you have to be born with it, you cannot develop or educate that.”

To find dancers with the needed sense of rhythm and to train them for the company, Hernandez relies on her school in Mexico City. Each year the school advertises classes in folk dancing of various cultures, along with modern dance and ballet. According to Hernandez, many students come from abroad, and some Mexican-Americans enroll. The company now has one American whose parents are Mexican, but 90% to 99% of the dancers are from Mexico, she said.

Company dancers range in age from 17 to 30. Hernandez believes that folk dancing is physically more difficult than classical ballet “because it is such a tremendous effort of jumping,” which means a shorter professional career. When her dancers retire, most become teachers and some turn to choreography, even to form their own Folklorico-style companies. But Hernandez said she hasn’t seen a good one yet--"most are just imitating.”

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She’s optimistic, however. Folk traditions in dance will be carried into the future. “The young choreographers will do something different from what I did. Talent is always present in the human being.”

The Ballet Folklorico de Mexico performs at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall. For tickets call 278-TIXS.


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