How to be serious and still give the audience a hot show: That was the problem obsessing three choreographers on Friday when Ballet Hispanico made its UCLA debut in Royce Hall. Never straying far from rhythmic showpiece dancing, this New York-based, 30-year-old company also continually flirted with daunting themes--though never with the daring or originality of its best repertory on previous Southland visits.
David Rousseve's "Somethin' From Nothin' " tried to establish a context for celebratory group dances with a prologue in which Arleane Lopez listened to a radio supposedly broadcasting the reminiscences of a former slave recorded early in the 20th century.
The slave's voice sounded a lot like Rousseve doing his grandmother act, but no matter: The silliest dance ever made would gain deep significance when linked to slavery in this manner. However, three years after Savion Glover used the same subject and title for a powerful, all-dance statement of African American resilience in an early sequence from "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," Rousseve's approach seemed pointlessly static and self-conscious.
The actual dancing found Lopez and nine others ricocheting inexplicably from surging social dances that sometimes resembled the funky chicken to tear-stained passages replete with Pieta poses--all adroitly catching the dynamic mood swings and irresistible beat of music by Eddie Palmieri, but at the cost of making the cast members seem mere choreographic pawns rather than real people.
Pedro Ruiz distinguished himself in a liquid solo here and also lent his supple gravity to the central role of "Bury Me Standing," a full-company vehicle in which Spanish choreographer Ramon Oller sought to evoke the tribal solidarity and nomadic life of the Gypsy people.
Unfortunately, just about everything in the piece turned out to be aggressively, relentlessly clever and colorful--imposed rather than organic--starting with the Broadway-style patchwork costumes by Willa Kim and including the women's sitcom jabbering, the splashy gymnastics for Hector Montero and Rochelle Aytes (him lying on the ground and partnering her with his outstretched feet), on through the final series of mime snapshots.
Lopez brought a strong focus to the one solo marked by balletic influences. Otherwise, Oller explored a complex vocabulary of barefoot flamenco steps and poses loaded with twitchy torso accents and lots of gestural filigree--plus plenty of knee-walking to dramatize the awareness of oppression in Gypsy consciousness.
Along with the dancers' energy and prowess, recorded music from a variety of cultures kept "Bury Me Standing" entertaining, but such choreographers as Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, David Gordon and Donald McKayle have taken us much closer to the heart of dispossessed people.
In "Guajira," Ruiz changed roles from veteran Hispanico dancer to inexperienced Hispanico choreographer--but one who bested both Rousseve and Oller when it came to creating credible life-affirming dances out of a bleak, lower-class milieu. Like Oller's Gypsies, his Cuban field workers spend their lives on their knees. And like Rousseve's recorded slave, they might well say that "surviving hard times was learning to make something from nothing."
However, Ruiz made their dancing spring directly from work tasks--planting, washing clothes, etc.--and showed their identity as workers to be a source of both individual pride and mutual respect. So even if the duet for Alessandra Corona and Jae-Man Joo drifted awfully close to the swoony excesses of tropical nightclub adagios, it stayed rooted in a sense of people dancing for their own pleasure--not merely providing us with another splendidly performed Hispanico divertissement.