Ballet Hispanico is the antidote for anyone who thinks Spanish dance is all clacking castanets and combustible cha-cha-chas. So says Tina Ramirez, the company's artistic director.
"Twenty-one nations speak Spanish and there are variations, similarities and differences in the cultures," says Ramirez, speaking by phone from her company's New York studios. "Although people call it folklorico, there's actually a great mix of styles. I am proud of my culture and want to show it in all its beauty."
In fact, several diverse traditions combine under the rubric of Spanish dance. "There is European dance, and all of that culture that was transported to the Americas," says Ramirez, a Venezuelan-born protegee of New York Spanish dance legend Lola Bravo. "Then there was the influence of the Indians and the blacks. That's why, in one type of dance, there is such a great variety."
That variety is key to Ballet Hispanico's popular appeal. The company, which is soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary, performs at Occidental College tonight, where the bill will include the West Coast premiere of "Si Senor! Es Mi Son!," a new work by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, set to music from Gloria Estefan's Grammy-winning album "Mi Tierra." It also performs Saturday at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
The company has toured three continents and played for an estimated 1.5 million people since its 1970 inception; it is known for mixing classical ballet technique with Spanish dance forms. It performs mostly commissioned works set to Spanish and Latin American music, ranging from traditional to avant-garde, that are as varied as Latin culture itself.
The company's 12 dancers--who hail from Argentina, Italy, Cuba, Israel and the United States, among others countries--are trained in ballet and modern dance. Their particular brand of Spanish dance employs "weight and movement in the upper torso," as Ramirez describes it, but with a distinctly Latin flavor.
The eclecticism is deliberate and, says Ramirez, not without precedent. "From the beginning I saw the possibilities of the mixture," she says. "It exists in Spanish dance: Look at the turnout of the feet.
"It has been in modern dance for a long time too," Ramirez continues. "Look at the way Martha Graham would have her costume cut low on the hip. That's from Spanish dance."
Ramirez's agenda was to refine and encourage the growth of this hybrid form. She has accomplished that goal in large part through an emphasis on new work.
Indeed, she prides herself on being forward-looking. "I am a woman of the 20th Century," she says, having commissioned more than 50 new dances for her company from such recognized artists as Vicente Nebrada, Graciela Daniele and Susan Marshall.
Yet newness is certainly not her only criterion. "I like dramatic works because that is the way that I see dance," Ramirez says. "And more young choreographers are trying to get back into dramatic form, too, though maybe not in the same narrative way as before."
Ramirez used to choreograph for Ballet Hispanico, but she stopped about 15 years ago, turning her full-time attention to administrative matters. "I didn't set out to make an institution," she says. "It sort of just happened. As the company and the school grew, I found I had to devote myself to building the institution."
The obstacles have been considerable, however. A particular problem is the difficulty in persuading patrons to pick up the tab for building the repertory. "Money for new choreography is hard to get," says Ramirez, who recently announced a $6.8-million fund-raising drive to pay for new repertory.
Ramirez's goals have not changed since the company began, she says. "I was aiming for people who were not Hispanic to know us and need us." She wanted, in particular, to remedy the popular misapprehension of Latinos as monocultural and strictly working-class. "Twenty-five years ago, the conception that people had of Hispanic people was (limited)," she says. "The only ones people saw were the ones in low-paying jobs. They didn't see the Hispanic people who go to the Metropolitan Opera."
Her second motive was even more pragmatic. "I was teaching kids dance and I saw that there was a lack of opportunities for them in the market. There was no Hispanic company expressing what we are expressing today. I wanted to give opportunities to the dancers that I was training."
Today, the situation is better. "We've been accepted more now and more doors have opened," Ramirez says. "I see more dancers who are Hispanic now, but I wish there were more who were choreographers."
The faces in the house are also changing. "We've always attracted a mixed audience," says Ramirez. "The difference is that now I get more Hispanics in the audience than I did at the beginning, especially when we go to California. The population is rising and their salaries are rising, so they have more money to go places."
And perhaps most important, the culture at large has begun to regard diversity as an asset rather than a liability. "We were always multicultural," says Ramirez. "Now, people have caught up to us."
* Ballet Hispanico, Thorne Hall, Occidental College, Eagle Rock, tonight at 8. $16. (213) 259-2922. Also Saturday at Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, 8 p.m. $23-$29. (714) 432-5880.