Thirty years of folkloric exploration

Times Staff Writer

Danza Floricanto USA celebrated its 30th anniversary in a performance at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Friday, reminding everyone through speeches and program notes as well as dances old and new just how radically the company has transformed Mexican folklorico over the years.

Some of the ideas founder-director Gema Sandoval has explored season after season have never made it to the stage in a satisfying or even coherent form, and her taste for historical dance-pageants can mire the company, and its audience, in lugubrious pretense. But Sandoval’s need to expand and update world dance performance -- to give the whole field a political conscience, a feminist outlook, a sense of belonging to American cultural traditions as well as those of the mother country -- has encouraged every other locally based folklorico company to pursue a distinctive vision.

Although funders and even the Horton Awards have ignored local world dance achievement in recent years, companies such as Avaz (Persian dance) and Kayamanan Ng Lahi (Philippine dance) often outpace nearly everyone in the community in innovation. On Friday, their representatives spoke onstage at the Ford, linking their histories and accomplishments to Sandoval’s.

Boasting the distinguished musicianship of Mariachi Mexicapan in the first half of the program and Quetzal in the second, Floricanto’s birthday bash grew most exciting when it touched on Sandoval’s latest mission: freeing Mexican dance from entrenched theatrical cliches by dumping choreographed routines in favor of improvisational performances focused on percussive step rhythms. “La Marea/The Tide” proved especially compelling, with Michelle Aispuro, Leovi Nunez and Gema M. Sandoval (the choreographer’s daughter) foot-drumming with great immediacy in traditional jarocho style on a resonant wooden platform.


“The Guards,” by modern dance choreographer Loretta Livingston, found a different use for Floricanto’s percussive skills: turning a dozen dancers into a quasi-military brigade, marching in formation while ornamenting their steps with intricate tapping patterns. And “You Must Die” made the technique expressive in another way, as four women in black danced as victims, flanked by a soldier and accompanied by a Quetzal protest ballad.

Whether tracing Floricanto’s changing approach to dances from Jalisco over its 30-year existence or merely letting the dancers cut loose to a remarkably fresh arrangement of “La “Bamba,” the performance exemplified the high energy and higher intelligence that Los Angeles has come to expect from Sandoval’s company.

Thirty years ago, many world dance pioneers trivialized the cultural identities they wanted to celebrate by adopting formats from ballet and show-dancing that turned every foreign idiom into ethnic vaudeville. Sandoval and her generation of reformers saw deeper, worked harder and quietly, step by step, they’ve brought us the amazing transformation of intentions and practices so resplendent at the Ford on Friday.