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Show Guide for Ballet Folklórico de México

Show Guide for Ballet Folklórico de México

A guide to the culture, traditions and legends reflected in folkloric dance

Ballet Folklórico de México by the Numbers

  • In 57 years, the company has performed over 15,000 shows, which is about 263 performances per year.
  • The combined audience of Ballet Folklórico de México would be more than 22 million people.
  • More than 3,500 dancers have danced with the Ballet Folklórico de México during the company’s 57-year history.
  • The dancers have gone through over 30,000 pair of shoes.
  • Over 300 backdrops have been created for Ballet Folklórico de México productions.
  • Ballet Folklórico de México and founder Amalia Hernández have collectively received over 200 awards recognizing their artistic merits, including the Prize of Nations in France, (1960); The Tiffany Award for Lifetime Achievement in New York (1992); and, for Ms. Hernandez, Mexico’s highest award, The National Prize of Culture.

About the Company

Ballet Folklórico de México began in 1952 as the Ballet Moderno de México. Founder Amalia Hernández—a dancer, dance teacher and choreographer at the National Institute of Fine Arts—began the troupe with eight dancers. For the company’s debut, Hernández premiered Sones de Michoacán (Melodies of Michoacán).

In 1954, the group was given the chance to perform on the televsion program Función de Gala. The project was sponsored by then-director of Televicentro, Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta. Hernández became a director in addition to a dancer and a choreographer. She presented a different dance during each of the program’s weekly broadcasts, a staggering feature considering the show ran for 67 performances. At the end of the run the troupe had doubled its number to 20 dancers, including Hernández.

The company also attracted the attention of the Mexican Department of Tourism. In  1958, the department asked Hernández to take Ballet Folklórico de México to North America with the endorsement of her home country. This gave the recently created dance company the opportunity to visit Cuba and Canada, and participate in the Festival del Pacífico. In the same year, the group also traveled to Los Angeles to take part in Mexican national celebrations.

In 1959, the dance company was again invited to participate abroad as a representative of Mexico. Miguel Álvarez Acosta, the director of Mexico’s International Cultural Promotion Organization, asked the group to prepare a special program for the Pan-American Games in Chicago. Hernández organized the tour, for which the 50-member company adopted the name Ballet Folklórico de México. Among the most successful pieces performed were Los Hijos del Sol (Children of the Sun), Antiguos sones de Michoacán, La Danza del Venado (Deer Dance) and Navidad en Jalisco (Christmas in Jalisco).

In the 1960s, Hernández and Ballet Folklórico de México developed the choreography for 40 ballets, some of which used over 70 folk dancers in a single piece. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the company toured throughout the world under the leadership of the great North American impresario Sol Hurok. From its private performance at the White House for President and Mrs. Kennedy to command performances at the feet of the Sphinx in Egypt, the Ballet Folklórico de México brought the richness of Mexican culture to millions.

In addition to its touring company, the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández holds a permanent place at the Palace of Fine Arts. The foremost stage for the arts in Mexico City has housed the company since 1959.

The Founder

Amalia Hernández began dancing at a very young age. Her politician father hired teachers from the Paris Opera Ballet to give Hernández at-home lessons. She also trained in American and Mexican modern dance as well as in flamenco. Studying classical dance opened the doors to form and discipline, but the history and traditions of Hernández’ home country of Mexico were the driving forces behind her creativity.

Hernández began to teach and choreograph modern dance at the National Institute of Fine Arts (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, or INBA) in Mexico City. She drew inspiration from the music her father listened to out in the country as well as the rhythm of the city she worked in. Hernández’ childhood experiences of dance grew into a quest to restore the dancing traditions of Mexico.

For her untiring efforts and her brilliant contribution to the art of her country, she received over 100 decorations and awards in Mexico and abroad, including being the recipient of the 1997 International Woman of the Year award by the Hispanic Women’s Council as well as the 1999 honoree of the Estrellas De Nuestra Cultura award from the Mexican Cultural Institute.

A Sample of the Dances

The work of Ballet Folklórico de México is folkloric dance. Folkloric dance, like its equivalent English term folk dance, means “dances of the people.” The dances reflect the traditions, customs, legends, beliefs and lifestyles of people in particular countries and regions. Folkloric dance expresses the life and spirit of a people through its movement and music. It is both historical and current, preserving tradition yet moving with the present times.

Ballet Folklórico de México founder Amalia Hernández wanted the dance company to reflect not only her love of her native Mexico but also provide a history of Mesoamerican culture. She set out to capture the beauty of the universe in motion as reflected in the pre-Colombian civilizations and through the Hispanic influences of the Viceroyal era up to the Revolutionary years of the early 20th century. Throughout her life, Hernandez continuously revised and renewed her work, a tradition continued today by her family. The result is a re-creation of Mexican traditions on stage, preserving the diversity and characters found throughout the regions of Mexico.

Hernández choreographed over 70 dances during her lifetime; here is a sample of the most frequently performed pieces in Ballet Folklórico de México’s repertoire:

  • Sones de Michoacán (Melodies of Michoacán) - The first ballet Amalia Hernández choreographed for Ballet Folklórico de México begins with a party in a village. Dances are performed in front of a flowered arch, a common celebration decoration. The brief but striking selection of dances begins with three rattle dancers, or sonajas. The rattle is of Indo-Spanish origin.
  • Deer Dance – The Yaqui people were excellent hunters. The Native American tribe originally lived in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico. They were one of the only indigenous American cultures to preserve their cultural autonomy during Spanish colonization. Free from mingling with other contemporary cultures, the Yaquis continued hunting with bows and arrows as their ancestors did.  The Deer Dance was part of a preparation rite for a hunt.
  • Fandangos – The fandango originated in Spain. Ballet Folklórico de México performs a fandango inspired by the celebration of Candelaria Virgin in Tlacotalpan (tah-LAK-oh-tahl-pahn), Veracruz in Mexico. The dance incorporates the percussion instrument castanets as well as mojigangas, enormous puppets that symbolize different cultural figures and archetypal human characteristics. Walter Bambrook
  • Jalisco - The state of Jalisco is the land of the charros, the chinas and the mariachis. Jalisco’s folklore captures the soul of Mexico in its sensual music, refined dances and dazzling costumes. Ballet Folklórico de México culminates every performance with this ballet. It opens with a Mariachi parade playing lively sones at the start of a fiesta. In the background is the traditional gazebo found in all the provincial plazas of Mexico. During this colorful fiesta, the songs and dances of Jalisco, including El Tranchete and El Jarabe Tapatío, the famous Mexican Hat Dance, are performed. At the end of the performance the dancers salute the audience by throwing colorful paper streamers to them.

History of Dance in Mexico

Ritual Dance

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the native Indians had their own magnificent dance traditions. Many dances involved acrobatic feats and incorporated colorful costumes adorned with jewels, gold and flowers. Sometimes hundreds of dancers participated in a single dance. Dancers also used rattles, drums, and primitive wind instruments and singing for accompaniment. Ritual dances dealt with the birth of the sun, the harvest, rain, hunting, fishing, combat, victory, the offering of human sacrifices, marriage, death and burial, home building, and other domestic and religious functions. Both sexes participated in ritual songs and dances, which they showed to the European visitors. There were processions of women and children crowned with garlands of flowers and bearing offerings of fruits, ripened maize, and other products of the land.

European Influences

The dance art of central Mexico remained untouched by Western influence until Hernando Cortés arrived in 1519. Looking for power and victory for Spain, Cortés began to conquer the indigenous people in 1519. Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization destroyed much of the cultural tradition of the Aztec and other native peoples, but the Spanish brought their country’s artistic Golden Age with them to the New World.

Spain’s Golden Age was marked by the richness of its folk music and dance, which incorporated the influences of the Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Basque cultures. They, like the Aztecs, danced in religious and solemn ceremonies as well as in times of celebration. The early dances Spaniards brought with them also included their own religious festivals of pre-Lenten Carnival, Christmas, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, and saints’ days. Monks brought miracle and mystery plays from which dances still survive today in many Latin American countries. At their parties and gala occasions Spanish emigrees danced the jotas (HOH-tahs), fandangos (fahn-DAHN-gohs), zapateos (zah-pah-TEH-ohs), boleros (boh-LEH-rohs), zambras (ZAHM-brahs) and other loved dances from their home provinces.

Dance and Christianity

The Spanish wanted to wipe out all things non-Christian. Since music and dance were associated with so many Aztec and other native religious ceremonies, early missionaries set about to supplant the native music and dance with European forms. They introduced European church hymns translated into the Native Indian language. They taught the natives European musical notation, how to play and construct European instruments, and encouraged their creative ability in composing. The conversion was neither sudden nor complete. Some of the more beautiful and solemn indigenous dances were permitted in the early Christian churches.

The early missionaries found it expedient to permit the Indians to carry on their old dramatic dance forms, adapting them to Christian themes, substituting saints and feast days for idols and pagan holidays, and eliminating blood sacrifice. The resulting intermingling of Catholic and Indian customs may be seen today at fiestas where the Catholic Mass and dances of ancient Indian origin both take place in or near the church.

The Combining of Cultures

The customs of the Spanish and Indians have combined to make what we now know as the Mexican tradition. The Spanish and Indians intermarried, and the resulting mestizo—(meh-TEE-sohs), the Mexican people who are of combined Spanish and Indian heritage —amalgamated their cultural heritages, as well as the blood and ancestry of both peoples. However, in more remote regions, where contact with the invaders was limited or avoided entirely for many years, many pre-conquest dances exist much as they did 400 years ago. Most of the pre-conquest dances have been modified in some origin, although plumes, flowers, animal hides, and masks are still abundantly used. However, now china, paper, ribbons, bits of mirrors, and colored glass beads have replaced the sparkle formally achieved by precious jewels and gold.

Dances attributed to pre-conquest origins that remained relatively unchanged include the famous El Volador, or the Dance of the Flying Pole, in which one performer dances on a small platform atop a pole thirty feet high while four others hang by ropes tied to their waists, whirling earthward as the ropes unwind; Los Quetzales, named for a beautiful tropical bird; the Zanco stilt dance; the ribbon dances of the Yucatan, Campeche and Hildago regions, which bear resemblance to a maypole dance; and El Venado y Las Pascolas, or the Deer Dance, of the Yaqui Indians.

This type of baile (BAH-ee-lay), or dance, as well as the aforementioned Spanish folk dances, of the earlier colonists and some of the native Indian steps, contributed to the make-up of the dances of the mestizos. The Indians observed the Europeans and Creoles dancing at their Carnival and parties and initially mimicked them. They adopted the movement style for Indian dance postures, since bare or sandaled feet could not be used like those in Spanish high heels.

Modern

In addition to the Indian, Spanish and French, another influence must be recognized which contributes to the mosaic of Mexican dance. The Spanish brought African and Carribean slaves with them. The music and dance of the eastern coast, particularly near Veracruz, include huapango (oo-ah-PAHN-goh) and son (sohn) both of which strongly resemble Afro-Cuban dance music.

The secular folk dances of the present day developed out of this diverse cultural amalgamation. As people traveled throughout the country, dances evolved naturally. Today in modern Mexico the bailes of 1850 have given way to the ballroom dances similar to those now danced in the United States and Europe like the modern waltz, mambo and the tango. The ritual and folk dances are still danced at fiestas, but the native folk dances are sometimes considered “old fashioned.” However, Mexico’s Department of Education has recognized this decline and is making efforts to rectify the situation. Folk dances are encouraged and taught in the city and rural public schools through college. They are included in fiestas and parades, and regional dance performers and troupes—like Ballet Folklórico de México—have been invited to perform at the Palace of Fine Arts. These efforts are helping folk dancing regain popularity.

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