Ballet Hispanico Impresses Despite 'Idol' Moments

Founded 27 years ago, Ballet Hispanico of New York filled an immediate need: offering Latinos the kind of artistic showcase and vehicle for community pride that the older Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater provided for African Americans. But artistic director Tina Ramirez never had a resident choreographer of Ailey's stature, so was forced to scramble, shop the marketplace and cross a number of borders to keep her young, chamber-sized ensemble dancing distinctive new work.

The risks and rewards of that approach to repertory came into focus on Saturday during the company's unfailingly vibrant performance in the Luckman Theater at Cal State L.A. For "Idol Obsession," a dance drama about slain Tejano singing star Selena, the company turned to Broadway and modern-dance veteran George Faison--the choreographer whose historical epic "Slaves" opened the Ailey engagement at the Music Center last week.

Strangely enough, Faison used much the same approach in telling Selena's story in 1996 as he had in depicting the enslavement of an African village back in 1971. Once again societal totems stalked the stage (an African griot in "Slaves," the Lady of Guadalupe and the figure of Death in "Idol Obsession"), and the choreography again ricocheted between radically compressed dramatic pantomime and expansive, empty show-dance display.

Where "Slaves" survived through the power of its subject, "Idol Obsession" contained no such built-in safety net. For starters, it never began to define the character of Selena (danced capably by Lisa Nafegar), never used her recordings imaginatively, and so bungled the story of her killer (powerfully played by Veronica Ruiz) that the final death and apotheosis scenes left many members of the audience utterly confused.

Ann Reinking's 1997 "Ritmo y Ruido" also had a surprise ending, but this time it was deliberate: one of many playful fake-outs built into this plotless 1997 Broadway-Latin showpiece to music by Philip Hamilton and Tobias Ralph. As might have been expected from Reinking's background, sassy, mock-throwaway Fosse influences predominated. However fresh ideas and witty juxtapositions turned up throughout, even in the Fosse-esque slink-and-pose opening solo (Ruiz again) and especially in an extended, sensual gymnastic duet (Alessandra Corona curling kittenishly on the back of the impressively stalwart Chad Bantner).

To get beyond looking merely sexy, tireless and versatile, Ballet Hispanico went to Spain, recruiting Barcelona modernist Maria Rovira to challenge the company's deepest artistry in "Poema Infinito," a 1997 ensemble piece to music by Enrique Morente and Nana Simopoulos. Distilling ideas from the poems and experiences of Federico Garcia Lorca, the work developed a twisty, windblown style of dance gesture anchored by weighty footwork and powerful emotions.

Beginning conventionally with a dramatic solo for Pedro Ruiz that quickly expanded into a passionate duet with Bantner, the work soon abandoned any suggestion of linear narrative by sharing its intense motifs first with the four men in the cast and then with the five women. At any point, each of them could have been Lorca or Lorca's ominous poem--"Life is no dream. Watch out! Watch out!"--though arguably the work's galvanic epicenter came in an engulfing, body-lashing solo for Yael Levitin.

A superb achievement by a choreographer and company deserving much wider renown.

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