A note from la directora
Colorful costumes, sonrisas Colgate, romantic couples dancing to traditional sones and headpieces that not even Lady Gaga could dream of… ballet folklórico claims to offer its audience a taste of Mexico’s cultural diversity. From the hot Sonoran desert, to the joyful celebrations in the port of Veracruz, to the courtship dances of Jalisco, México appears in the ballet folklórico stage as magical and as large as a fairytale faraway land.
Through hard work that includes hours of class and rehearsals, ballet folklórico has managed to place Mexico’s name next to that of countries with world-renowned dance companies such as Russia, France, and the United States. Through its cuadros (dance suites), the trained ballet folklórico dancers patriotically portray the image of a “perfect México” that often includes tropes such as mariachi, los charros, la china poblana, and the noble and savage Indian.
As a first-year student of the Performance as Public Practice program of the University of Texas at Austin, I was eager to study Mexico’s one and only ballet folklórico form through a social, cultural, and historical lens to deepen my own understanding of the unique dance style. My experience as a professional dancer for the Ballet Folclórico Nacional de México taught me about the hours and the discipline that it takes to dance Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Norte, Veracruz, Jalisco, and many other regions that I had never even had the pleasure of visiting. Performing ballet folklórico, I faithfully thought, was a chance to rescue Mexico’s cultural history and diversity and I, a twenty-something-year old, had the privilege to do it.
In my first semester of graduate school, however, I quickly learned that the images that I thought inherent to Mexican culture had been actually conceived as components of “lo Mexicano” in post-revolutionary Mexico by the cultural elite and the federal government in an effort to unify the country. Surprisingly to me, the whole concept of “mexicanidad” was completely invented so that the government could package it and sell it to an eager tourist. Mariachi, for example, was selected to become the national music and the images of the charro, the china poblana, and many indigenous peoples were printed in postcards that were distributed in Europe and the United States. Ballet folklórico, uncoincidentally, was also crafted in the second half of the twentieth century as a way to paint that image of the “perfect Mexico” to the rest of the world. This “perfect México,” indeed, followed Eurocentric standards of beauty, with ensembles composed of tall, slim, light skinned dancers moving to westernized ideas of professional dance and high art.
I thought about what it means to be really, truly “Mexican” in this day and age and realized that this identity is something we, Mexicans, get to decide for ourselves and cannot be generalized and packaged in a nice little (proscenium) box. For instance, as a woman and a millennial coming of age in Reynosa, Tamaulipas –famous for making the headlines of major newspapers as an incubator for cartel violence and drugs– I did not have the innocuous experience depicted in the ballet folklórico cuadros. The life of the average Mexican, indeed, is very far removed from what we see on stage especially with regards to gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and race. For example, in ballet folklórico people of different gender identities and sexual orientations are simply missing –we never see images of two charros dancing together as a couple, or a woman dancing the charro part, or a non-binary person represented on stage. In addition, there is a horrifyingly racist, misconceived portrayal of Afromexicanos and of the indigenous people in cuadros such as Veracruz and Danza del Venado, respectively. Most poignantly, is the discrepancy between the reality of women in Mexico and what ballet folklórico presents in cuadros such as Jalisco, where the gallant charro courts the graceful china poblana. The real México is where machismo and gender-based inequalities prevail and women are subject to sexual violence every day, often times by their own partners. But, of course, that is not what we see in ballet folklórico. In the “perfect Mexico” there’s no room for the bad and the ugly.
Inspired by Astrid Hadad’s neo-burlesque style and utilizing diverse methods of research, the ensemble and I have created a piece that explores the many dimensions of mexicanidad through the movement language of ballet folklórico and contemporary dance forms, hoping we can begin to paint a more honest image of what it means to be Mexican and inspire other artists to do the same. I truly hope you enjoy our experiment.