Amalia Thrills While Calpulli Heartens

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Spectacular is probably the best word to describe the Amalia Hernández dance company’s recent New York show–from beginning to end, it was a huge fiesta of intricate, colorful costumes, amazing athleticism, and perfectly-choreographed dances that thrilled the crowd to the point of audible “oohs.”
Featuring dances from nearly every region of Mexico, the Oct. 18th performance easily proved why this troupe is the world’s best known baile folkórico company. Every dance was amazing, from the leaping soloist who imitated a fleeing deer in the Yaqui Indian-derived danza del venado, to the giant papier-mâché mojiganga puppets who wobbled up and down the Beacon Theater’s aisles while dancers joyfully fandangoed onstage, recreating a feast day in the town of Tlacotalpan.
Other highlights included an awesome baile de lazo which had audience members wondering how the male dancer’s arm didn’t fall off after continuously twirling a lasso for 10-plus minutes. And a comic devil figure made a Huasteca wedding dance hilarious and hugely entertaining.
Of course, with the troupe’s storied history, we expected as much. Amalia Hernández founded the group back in 1952, and worked tirelessly for 48 years until her death in 2000 to preserve folkloric dance from all over Mexico–and to have it performed with the professionalism of a world-class ballet. Her dedication shows. This show is, by far, the best danced, and well-costumed traditional Latin American performance any audience is likely to see anywhere–and we’re lucky to have them back in New York after a 10 year absence. (Their last scheduled local performance was set for Sept. 11, 2001, and for obvious reasons, they were forced to cancel.)
Still, the performance’s slickness at times kept it from transcending entertainment and becoming art. For all its glitz and highly-trained dancers, it was missing the kind of soul a smaller local company can pull off – like Calpulli Danza Mexicana’s Sept. 29 show at the Queens Theater and their Nov. 3 performance at el Museo del Barrio for example.
Watching Amalia’s dancers, one almost feels like a tourist–there is no nod to modernity or current issues like immigration, so the dances can seem like frozen traditions, trundled out to show how beautiful Mexico’s history is.
In contrast, a show like Calpulli’s performance with the local Villalobos Brothers boasts more relevance to our lives as New Yorkers. Yes, they also preserve tradition, but their display includes updates to time-honored ways. The Villalobos Brothers change the words or melodies of traditional songs to tell stories very specific to Mexicans in New York, while Calpulli has dancers from South and East Asia, reflecting the diversity of the company’s Queens home. Obviously, companies like Calpulli owe a huge debt to Amalia, but it’s interesting to see how despite scant resources, they’re able to make the dances she salvaged much more accessible–and heartfelt.
An easy comparison: watching Amalia is like eating an expensive meal at Mexican food pioneer Zarela Martinez’s restaurant, while Calpulli is like finding that amazing little taqueria with authentic flor de calabaza quesadillas. Both are great at what they do. And we’re lucky to have both.
Click here for upcoming tour dates of Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández (you can still catch them in Miami!), and here for more info. on the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company.