The Washington Post

Ballet Hispanico: Stilettos and the human heart

Ballet Hispanico’s Jessica Alejandra Wyatt and Nicholas Villeneuve in “Club Havana.” (Eduardo Patino)

If your Halloween costume still needs some heat, try a pair of high red lace-up boots with stiletto heels, like the ones that took the first steps in “Mad’moiselle,” an attention-getting work on the Ballet Hispanico program at Strathmore on Friday night.

The wisp of a woman who wore them, with a scarlet pageboy wig to match, looked like a neo-noir heroine, lethally equipped to stomp out trouble. She was a mobster’s moll, perhaps — hot but unavailable, a petite version of Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction.” But why were ghostly strains of “Maria” from “West Side Story” echoing in the background?

The red boots weren’t the half of it. Once our devilish dominatrix was joined by a corps of slim, well-muscled look-alikes (matching wigs and black minidresses, but in stocking feet), it was clear we were dealing with outsize femininity. Look closely, and some of the dancers in skirts and wigs were men. Your heart went out to their wooers in humble T-shirts, who didn’t stand a chance with them. The work closed with a rendition of “Ave Maria,” as our stilettoed anti-Madonna, splendidly accessorized with a trailing red mantilla, resumed her wicked strut but ended up crumpling into a heap.

This work, by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a Belgian-Colombian choreographer known for stark and theatrical creations, treats the consequences of rigid female stereotypes with a witty but knowing touch. She maintained a running current of somewhat transgressive drama — about as much edge as you see in a mainstream touring dance piece these days — in a work that might have gone soft in other hands.

There is little ballet in Ballet Hispanico, based in New York since its founding in 1970, but the company does a fascinating job of blending Latino culture with jazz, modern and social dance. Pedro Ruiz’s “Club Havana,” a suite of amorous encounters to Cuban songs, which closed the program, is typical of the troupe’s approach — festive and entertaining. To that mix, though, it added African dance in “Espiritu Vivo,” a new work by Ronald K. Brown, accompanied by tracks from Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca’s CD of the same name. Brown provided the counterbalance to Ochoa’s Euro-irony. He does not do irony. His work is unfailingly earnest, a strength and a weakness — sometimes you wish for a shot of the unexpected. But in this mix, heartfelt, unvarnished celebration was welcome, especially in the gentle, velvety style that Brown has perfected.

His choreography is heavily African-influenced, and the Ballet Hispanico dancers did not have quite enough give in the torso to fulfill its demands. But those moments when the dancers were beating out a rapid rhythm with their feet, arms swinging toward us as if to say, “This is all for you!” and then they flung their heads back — pure ecstasy. If Ochoa’s work was about the bad, Brown’s was about the good, and with not a bit of theatrics — just their own sweet abandon and delight in its display — those dancers projected goodness you could believe in.

Sarah L. Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. Learn more at and Facebook SarahLKaufmanWriter



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