When it comes to ballet, some in the dance world say that Latinos are the new Russians.
In the last decade, there has been a steady and remarkable increase in the number of principal dancers who are from Latin America. The likes of Argentinian Herman Cornejo, Cuban Xiomara Reyes and Spaniard Gonzalo Garcia have leaped, twirled and plied their way into storied companies, including the American Ballet Theater.
Not only are audiences seeing diversity on stage, Latino artistic directors are having a greater hand in the dances that are being performed, including the recent appointment of Lourdes Lopez to lead the Miami City Ballet Company.
With an increasing number of Latinos artistically in charge and gracing the stage, this era may well belong to Latin Americans who have built on the technical mastery of Russian trained dancers but have elevated the bar on artistry.
“It is something stereotypical but there is a performance skill,” said Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, based in New York City. “We have the need to be gregarious, the need to connect and share and that makes the dancer even more characteristically flamboyant on stage.”
Latin American dancers come from certain areas where there are pockets of very professional training, which can include conservatory style schools. Many dancers hail from Cuba (which some consider the most highly evolved school in Latin America), Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
“I think the presence of strong dancers from Latin America is inevitable,” said Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, whose mother is Cuban. “Great dancers find their way into great ballet companies. The growing strength of Latin dancers made this inevitable.”
Part of what is making the presence of Latinos so noticeable is that the repertoire of major companies is subtly changing. Whereas Eurocentric productions used to be the norm, some companies such as The Washington Ballet are diversifying performances to include Latin music and cultural themes.
“I’ve emphasized Latin music over Latin popular dance,” explains Webre, who says he intentionally commissions pieces that reflect the demographic shift in the US and the access to other cultures worldwide. “The focal point has been Latin American music and cultural and I’ve let contemporary ballet be the physical language of the piece.
That combination has been successful. Webre said the troupe’s May show, Noche Latina, was their best selling repertoire and a larger number of Hispanics came to watch it than the norm. Successes like this are prompting Hispanic leaders to consider how to better engage the community and how to further dialogue about issues of concern using the arts.
Right now there are no solid answers but one profound question that underlies some of the Latin influence seen in ballet in the today:
“What is our responsibility to this growing demographic, artistically?” Vilaro said he asks himself regularly.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.