Ballet Hispanico at Wolf Trap: Close, but no cigar

The members of Ballet Hispanico are 12 of the most technically accomplished and musical dancers you’ll find in the contemporary sphere. It’s a pity they don’t always have choreography to match their talent, as was apparent at the troupe’s Wolf Trap appearance Tuesday night.

This program touched on the dance calamity of our time: With improved training and science, dancers are getting better and better. Choreographers, however, are not keeping up.

The gulf wouldn’t be so obvious if choreographers relied less on the radical flexibility, muscular control and aerobic capacity of today’s artist-athletes. Yet artistic discovery of some kind, whether in the form of illuminating investigations into rhythms and patterns, individual expressiveness or anything else, accounts for little of what the dance companies that tour to this area offer.

There are any number of reasons for this. Among them are scarce rehearsal time and other issues related to funding, as well as a lack of imagination and courage, which is related to creative confidence. But the result is that too many contemporary dance works recycle variations on a theme of physical excitement.

Call it dancing in the key of OMG.

So it was in Ballet Hispanico’s diverting but largely unrevealing program of Cuban-inspired works. The strongest one came first: Pedro Ruiz’s “Guajira,” a tribute to the women of the island’s countryside. The music was stellar throughout the evening, as you’d expect given the motif, and especially so in this piece, with percussive, dreamy and infectiously bouncy tracks from Los Activos, Conjunto Cespedes and Jose Maria Vitier. The dancers responded as though the rhythms resonated in their bones. Images of hard labor, communal support and a lovely, exceptionally aerial love affair developed and dissolved with easy grace.

“Guajira” boasted a clarity of construction that was missing in the evening’s two other pieces. Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro’s “Asuka” was an energetic toast to salsa queen Celia Cruz, but whatever the story line was — reliving the past? hallucinations? — remained murky. Ruiz’s sampling of social dances in “Club Havana” was too straightforward; it felt like a lecture-demonstration. There is only so much visual interest in the mambo if all you’re going to do is stick to the steps, even with a few yanked-open hips thrown in.

As I watched “Club Havana,” seeking some character development that never came, I couldn’t help thinking that this could have been the Cuban “Nine Sinatra Songs.” As Twyla Tharp knew when making that piece, Sinatra’s voice and acrobatic ballroom dance do not amount to anything special. Sinatra, ballroom and a powerful imagination — now that’s a show. It’s an example many choreographers could heed.

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