MEXICO CITY — Choreographer Amalia Hernandez, who created the famed Ballet Folklorico and built the dance troupe into a roving ambassador for Mexico's cultural riches for nearly half a century, died Saturday. She was 83.
One of Mexico's most influential women, Hernandez did not escape controversy in transforming regional country folk dances into stylized, theatrical dance suites.
Hernandez scoffed at suggestions that she was tinkering improperly with folkloric tradition, telling a Times interviewer in 1997: "I am a perfectionist. I have worked harder than you can imagine to keep the authentic style, the essence, in everything."
She founded the Ballet Folklorico in 1952 with just eight dancers, creating a repertoire that drew on such material as the feather dance from Oaxaca state. She choreographed more than 40 different ballets in all, from more than 60 regions, and her company grew to number 300 dancers.
The Ballet Folklorico maintains a resident company, which has performed every Wednesday and Sunday at Mexico City's elegant Palacio de Bellas Artes since 1959, as well as a traveling troupe that has toured to more than 80 countries. The company appeared in September in Los Angeles and other California cities during its 48th anniversary tour.
Those travels brought Mexican ethnic dance to a global audience and earned Hernandez and the company more than 200 awards.
Gema Sandoval, founder-director of Danza Floricanto/USA, Southern California's oldest such company, told Times dance critic Lewis Segal in 1997 that some believe Hernandez "is the first Mexican who has reached a world audience through the performing arts. Then there are those who feel she has misrepresented the culture, that she does not put folk dance on stage in its original form."
Sandoval added: "She never pretended to do folk art. What she presents is beautiful, colorful, bigger than life, based on themes that she has taken from folklore and then given her own twist."
In recent years, Hernandez had turned over daily management of the Ballet Folklorico to daughter Norma Lopez, its artistic director. But with her renowned energy, the founder remained involved in designing the dance programs.
"The most important thing my mother leaves me is her passion for her work, the passion she instilled in others, all that she taught us through her efforts and her talent," Lopez told reporters Saturday.
Leading figures in Mexican culture gathered at Hernandez's home Saturday afternoon for a wake after her death from a respiratory ailment earlier in the day. Lopez said that the performance this morning at Bellas Artes will be dedicated to her memory and that her body will be on view there this afternoon so that the public can join in mourning her.
Other family members also participate in Amalia Hernandez's folkloric empire. Daughter Viviana runs the dance school, and her grandson does scheduling for the traveling company.
Born into a wealthy Mexican family, Hernandez began her career as a classically trained ballet dancer.
She decided when she was 8 to dedicate her life to dance, despite the objections of her father, a prominent senator and rancher. Resigned to her choice, he brought great dancers to train her, including a principal from the legendary ballet star Anna Pavlova's company and Nelsy Dambre of the Paris Opera.
Early on, however, Hernandez turned away from classical dance and focused on the traditions of the Mexican countryside. She worked with Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, the powerful founder of television in Mexico, to bring national attention to her new folkloric troupe.
The American impresario Sol Hurok promoted the Ballet Folklorico's tours in the 1960s and '70s, including a performance at the White House for President Kennedy.
Hernandez relentlessly hunted for fresh material throughout Mexico to add to her programs. With its lavish headdresses and costumes and elaborate sets, the company has a dazzling technical precision. Its suites come from the folk dances of central Zacatecas and Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, from traditional Maya dances and from the famous Guelaguetza festival of Oaxaca.
Yet she didn't hesitate to adapt the original dance music, adding pre-Columbian tones, for example, that she felt better expressed the emotions of the dances.
She told The Times' Segal that she loved the Guelaguetza's feather dance because it combined ancient Indian and Spanish colonial traditions in both the movements and the costumes.
"What I admired is how the two elements matched," she said. "When you find both together, in synchronization, you can say you have the history of Mexico."
Her awards included the Prize of Nations in France and Mexico's highest award, the National Prize for Culture. In 1997, the Los Angeles Hispanic Women's Council named her its International Woman of the Year.