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Unexpected stylings from Mexico

Ballet Nacional, while defying traditional notions about Mexican dance, squanders some dramatic possibilities.

September 20, 2003|Jennifer Fisher | Special to The Times

The odd thing about the word "ballet," when it's used in the names of Mexican dance companies, is that it so rarely means actual ballet. There's ballet folklorico, of course, which is theatricalized folk dance, and evidently there are Mexican modern dance companies that call themselves ballets too. So if you came to Ballet Nacional de Mexico at California Plaza downtown Thursday night expecting to see feet stamping to mariachi music or women on pointe, you could be forgiven.

Instead, there was a peculiar brand of modern and postmodern dance by a group that bills itself as the oldest contemporary dance company in Latin America. Based in Queretaro, a few hours' drive north of Mexico City, it was founded by artistic director Guillermina Bravo in 1948.

The three short works by two choreographers that it offered Thursday (it will dance a different program tonight) had a few things in common -- the kind of drama that calls for grand gesture, for instance, along with a vague narrative thrust fractured into so many non sequitur elements that its purpose was always puzzling. Each piece also used familiar music that had a deep inner life and power the choreography couldn't really match.

The program was bookended by two dances using Stravinsky's most choreographed ballet scores. His majestically scary "Firebird" music loomed large over Federico Castro's "Myths and Narrations," which seemed to be about a society of sorts. The sleek 14-member ensemble, at first wearing flowing red pants or dresses, ended up nearly naked, while a lurking Narrator (Raul Almeida, using a lot of magician-like mime) had shaggy dark hair and black-and-white makeup that made him look like a member of KISS. A mask attached to the back of his head and his constant flipping from front to back made for an interesting effect at first. There were processionals, menacing intruders, a lyrical dancing couple who could have been Adam and Eve.

More invented ritual arrived in Jaime Blanc's "Rite of Spring," in which the dancers, draped this time in gray-brown, seemed to respond to every musical shift of mood with a primary gesture or step -- a flurry of karate chops, a few backward somersaults, sudden jerks and flutters, arm-writhing. Oddly, steps sometimes had distracting association -- chickens flapping, jazzy dance-floor moves or the monster mash. Groups of men and women either kept their distance from one another or got together for brief orgies.

The chosen one (Citlali Zamudio) emerged after a kind of race-walking ritual had downed the other women. She was ceremoniously wrapped in layers of green cloth to look as if she were pregnant, then stripped at the end. Her solo, to Stravinsky's climactic shrieking chords, was a series of quick transitions that looked a little as if she was kicking up her heels.

In between the Stravinsky works came Blanc's "Four Solos and an Accident," in which scattered performers sat on and stood around chairs doing a kind of exaggerated mime -- jerking, slumping, wriggling -- to a series of Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht songs. It seemed something of a theme for the evening to jump from step to gesture to stillness, none of which ever knitted together kinetically or conceptually to draw the viewer in.


Ballet Nacional de Mexico

Where: California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles

When: Today, 8 p.m.

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 687-2159

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