Review: Ballet Hispánico, Piercing Stereotypes

Have you ever noticed how a film-set clapperboard snaps shut like the mouth of a shark? The Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has.

“Tiburones” (“Sharks”), Ms. Lopez Ochoa’s new work for Ballet Hispánico, takes place on a movie set, evoked by lights, camera and a male authority figure snapping a clapperboard imperiously. The dancers around him also snap — their fingers. “Tiburones” is a critique of “West Side Story,” and the legitimate question it asks, in a toothless way is: Who are the real sharks?

In “West Side Story,” you might recall, the Puerto Rican gang is called the Sharks. “Tiburones,” which premiered on Friday during Ballet Hispánico’s annual performances at the Apollo Theater, questions the authenticity of representation in the 1957 musical and 1961 film — a hot issue once again as next year brings Steven Spielberg’s remake and a Broadway revival, with new dances by a Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

On the soundtrack for “Tiburones,” we hear the unidentified voice of Isel Rodríguez, a theater professor at the University of Puerto Rico, grilling Mr. Spielberg about the issue. Almost all we get of Mr. Spielberg’s awkward response is his initial, hesitating “um.” We also hear Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the original show. He’s speaking about tonality in music theory, not about representation, but what we’re supposed to hear is his tone: that of a man who thinks he knows the answer.

Between Bernstein’s self-confidence and Mr. Spielberg’s awkwardness, this material seems ripe for satire. Yet Ms. Lopez Ochoa leaves her prey barely wounded. The fiery Latin dancing her cast does under the lash of the clapperboard looks the same as the dancing the group does after it has rebelled. When the clapperboard-wielding villain is vanquished at the end, shoved and stepped on, the victory is hollow.

By then, Ms. Lopez Ochoa has shifted her focus to a different (more easily represented) issue: gender roles. To counter the machismo of the Sharks, she has the men dance in high heels. She also has two men quote Tony’s and Maria’s love-at-first-sight mirrored dance duet. Replacing old stereotypes is welcome, but can’t Ms. Lopez-Ochoa provide better substitutes than contemporary gender-swap clichés?

In any case, the humorless simplifications of “Tiburones” are at odds with the rest of Ballet Hispánico’s program. “Nací,” made for the company in 2009 by Andrea Miller, is an exploration of Sephardic roots and diaspora that broadens narrow notions of Latin identity. It’s both festive and solemn, spiritually searching in its jumps. A mannered quality I often dislike in performances by Ms. Miller’s own troupe was absent from Ballet Hispánico’s unaffected dancing.

And “Con Brazos Abiertos” (“With Open Arms”), a 2017 piece by Michelle Manzanales that grows more wonderful with repeated viewing, addresses the complexities of Mexican-American identity with the grace and conflicted love missing from “Tiburones.” Ms. Manzanales makes fun of sombreros and jumping beans, yet recognizes their beauty. She, too, addresses stereotypes, using a musical quote about how Mexican-Americans “don’t like to just get into gang fights.” But it says a lot about how her work differs in tone from “Tiburones” that her quote comes from the comedy team Cheech and Chong.

Ballet Hispánico

Nov. 22-23 at the Apollo Theater;

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