Folklorico’s Prima Dona : Dance: Mexican troupe brings founder Amalia Hernandez’s 42nd ballet, ‘The Olmecs’ -- and a culture’s history--to O.C.
Amalia Hernandez, 75, eases carefully into a chair, settling down to discuss Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, the internationally renowned troupe she founded 40 years ago and still runs. She’s a woman of great beauty, but time has nonetheless softened her commanding profile and slowed her stride. Retirement, however, is unthinkable. Heaven will have to take her first, she says.
“I have worked so hard, for so many years, I have such a passion and I am faithful to what is my mission,” she said during an interview at her hotel.
Indeed, Hernandez recently choreographed her 42nd ballet, “The Olmecs,” after visiting a southern Mexico river town and the Colombian jungle to research the ancient people of that name. Ballet Folklorico’s 40th anniversary tour includes the U.S. premiere of “The Olmecs.” The Orange County Philharmonic Society brings the company to the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight for its first county appearance in 15 years. (It performs four shows at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles starting Friday through Sunday.)
Long an official cultural representative of Mexico, the troupe has spawned numerous imitators. Hernandez oversees its resident company, a school that trains hundreds of students a year and a touring arm of about 65 dancers and musicians that has traveled the world for decades. It visited the United States often in the ‘60s and ‘70s until Sol Hurok, the famed impresario who arranged its tours, died in 1979. A decade later, regular stateside trips resumed under new presenters.
The troupe’s sole choreographer, Hernandez has illuminated Mexican history and culture with theatrical flair. Known as lavish dance-spectacles, her works celebrate ancient indigenous societies, Revolutionary Mexico or myriad regional festivals. They also reflect Mexico’s diverse ethnic makeup through dance steps influenced by European, African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.
Wearing a loose-fitting white skirt and blouse, her deep-set eyes dramatically outlined with dark makeup and silvery hair framing her face, Hernandez spoke of her continuing dedication and enthusiasm.
To prepare her new ballet, she read a good deal about the Olmec Indians. The Olmecs are thought to be the earliest civilization in the Americas and to have thrived some 3,000 years ago, she said.
“All the anthropologists say that this was the origin of life in Latin America. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas in Peru--all were descendants of the Olmecs.”
She visited ancient Olmec temples, and carefully studied Olmec jade figurines and the pocho, or tiger dance, performed in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique. She used both as sources for the movement she devised.
A very old man in Tenosique told her that, according to legend, the Olmecs revered the tiger and that villagers still break into the pocho dance when they feel the animal’s spirit rise from “the river of the old Olmecs,” she said.
“The old man said it is very dangerous if you don’t do the dance, because you have to please the tiger, and (to do that), after the dance, they give (the tiger) a Coca-Cola,” she said.
Neither man nor beast sip The Real Thing in “The Olmecs.” But the company performs a ritual adoration of a tiger, personified by a dancer dressed as the striped feline. Taped music is based on drum and flute rhythms from Cauca, Colombia, and vivid green costumes echo Olmec jade sculptures, Hernandez said.
Despite years of commercial success, Hernandez has had her critics. The doyenne of Mexican dance has favored spectacle over authenticity, they’ve charged. She maintains, however, that she does her homework and strives to represent the essence of a culture, not an exact replication.
“I made a ballet that takes place (near) a little island, and this is a fisherman’s dance, and the fish dance also. But I cannot convert the house of a theater into a lake. I have to pretend it is a lake--otherwise, the public will be drowned,” she said with a grin.
“I study as much as possible about a culture . . . to retain the power and the essence and the vitality of the authentic folklore. (But) I use the modern techniques of choreography, design, scenery, lights and costumes because you have to produce an art that you can transmit to the public. . . . You create a power from the stage, and a power from the public, and this is success.”
Ballet Folklorico’s 40th anniversary tour is dubbed “500 Years of Dance,” a reference to the Columbus quincentennial. But the tour moniker is somewhat arbitrary given that the repertory, as Hernandez pointed out, draws upon thousands of years of history. She dismisses the phrase as something the tour presenters dreamed up, and while the souvenir program positively depicts Columbus’ voyage as “the birth of a new race,” she views the whole thing with a kind of detached, philosophical acceptance.
The Spanish conquistadors, she said, were cruel to their countrymen at home, burning thousands at the stake. “And they say that the (indigenous) Mexicans were cruel because of the sacrifices they made” in religious ceremonies.
“So who was more cruel? They were both cruel. I was just in Yugoslavia with the company (before ethnic violence erupted), and they were nice, beautiful people. Beautiful! And we had a big success. And now? They are destroying each other. In human beings exists both sides. The good part, the bad part, cruelty and kindness.”
Hernandez’s father was a wealthy rancher who built her a private dance studio near their home. There, she studied ballet, modern and Spanish dance with dancers her father brought in, from Anna Pavlova’s company, the Paris Opera and elsewhere.
She was more drawn to the songs and dances of her native land, however, and left a teaching position at Mexico’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1952 to form her company with eight young dancers. She stopped dancing some 20 years ago to choreograph and concentrate on managing the growing troupe.
Today, she admits to feeling the strain of a demanding schedule.
“When I need to go to Dallas, and from Dallas to Houston, and from Houston to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Boston and so on, then I feel unhappy because I feel weak. But in general, I feel strong enough to go on with the work.”
Nonetheless, she is grooming “as fast as possible” her two daughters and grandson to take the reins, she said. Viviana is a lead dancer with the company, Norma directs the resident company, and Salvador coordinates tours. In addition, she believes her eldest granddaughter, 10-year-old Viviana Alvarez, has an exceptional talent for choreography.
“She is very young, but you can see how she’s all the time creating and inventing dances, the way I was when I was her age.”
* Ballet Folklorico de Mexico performs tonight at 8 at Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. A pre-performance discussion about the troupe will begin at 7 p.m. Presented by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. $12 to $35. (714) 556-2787.