Mexican troupe dances a new world

DANCE

September 25, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

These days, when other dance companies are canceling performances, considering mergers and otherwise hanging on by increasingly thin financial threads, it's a major accomplishment to celebrate a 40th anniversary with a 30-city tour.

But then, to Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, 40 years must seem a mere drop in the cosmic bucket of time. The internationally acclaimed dance company, after all, draws on centuries of tradition and folklore as a matter of course.

"Mexico is a rich country for folklore," said the company's founder and choreographer, Amalia Hernandez, speaking by phone from Mexico City before launching a tour that brings the company to Baltimore for one performance on Saturday.

Indeed, the company taps into the vast array of cultures, both indigenous and foreign, that have shaped Mexican life: the myths and rituals of the ancient Aztec and Mayan peoples, the songs and religions brought by European colonialists, the rhythms and customs of Africans who escaped slave ships that shipwrecked off the coast.

Ms. Hernandez, now in her 70s, starts with those influences, but highly stylizes them for greater theatrical effect. To that, she adds the lavish costumes and colorful scenery that have become the company's trademark. It's a never ending process for her -- research, choreography and continual refinement.

"I go to the villages, with cameras. I record all that I see," she said. "I go to the oldest people in the towns. They explain the legends. And I really believe these legends."

She constantly tinkers with the choreographer, something she learned from American modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey.

"She allowed me to watch her rehearsals, and every time, she was changing steps," Ms. Hernandez recalled. "She saw the possibilities of changing the dance, making better designs."

Ms. Hernandez' own dance training began in the classics -- ballet and modern. At 8, she decided to become a dancer, overcoming her father's initial resistance. But despite her classical training, she found herself drawn to the native folklore and music of her country.

She started her company with just eight students.

"I never made any plans. I just started with a small group, and it grew and grew," Ms. Hernandez said.

Today, she has two large companies, one for performances at home and one for worldwide touring. Ms. Hernandez, who is considered one of her country's premier cultural ambassadors, will accompany about 65 dancers and musicians on the U.S. tour.

The company has performed for several U.S. presidents, including George Bush last year. One of the Bushes' daughters-in-law, Columba, is Mexican and has raised funds for Ballet Folklorico.

While Ms. Hernandez has no plans for retiring in the near future, she takes comfort in the fact that she has two daughters and a grandson who work with the company as well.

That, and the generations of dancers she has trained.

At "every university now," she said with obvious pride, "I have a teacher who is trained by me."

Ballet Folklorico de Mexico

When: Sept. 26 at 8 p.m.

Where: Lyric Opera House.

Tickets: $35, $28 and $22. Available at the Lyric box office and all TicketMaster outlets.

Call: (410) 481-7328 or 889-3911. Outside Baltimore, (800) 669-STAGE.

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