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About this Piece

When Viviana Basanta speaks of her mother Amalia Hernández’s pursuit to codify, celebrate, and uplift Mexican dance, she says, “She made a creation and a synthesis. She expressed not only what she saw, but what she felt.” As founder of the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, a company dedicated to preserving and promoting Mexican culture, Hernández created each one of her choreographies through fastidious cultural study—one that involved tasting regional foods, tracking distinct musical histories, and viewing and participating in dances across Mexico. Now, her daughter Viviana Basanta takes up her legacy, both in dance and in spirit. Once a dancer and now the Artistic Director of the Ballet Folklórico, Basanta has melded her mother’s choreography with her own and has brought the Ballet Folklórico into the 21st century. With the company’s cross-generational ethos and its desire to showcase a wide range of Mexican dance, the Ballet Folklórico takes the audience on a tour of the country’s cultural history, one tapping heel planted in the 1920s salones, a twirling arm in 1990s plazas, and a gaze set upon Mexico’s future.

Given the Ballet Folklórico’s commitment to celebrating indigenous song and dance, Carlos Chávez’s Second Symphony is a fitting start to the evening. Chávez, born in Mexico City one year before Amalia Hernández, had a similar drive and objective. As a composer, teacher, writer, and ethnomusicologist, Chávez was devoted to sustaining and continuing the legacy of Mexican music and folklore. Discussing his pride in indigenous Mexican music, Chávez said, “The most important result was that it gave the young composers of Mexico a living comprehension of the musical tradition of their own country. It will never be necessary for them now, from a lack of background of their own, to imitate European musical forms and formulae. The elements of this music, which finds response in their own feelings, will assist them in creating their own idiom, giving it color and vitality, rhythmic vigor, and harmonic variety.” Through swift tempo changes, swelling horns, a feverish mix of percussion, and the repetition of three indigenous Mexican melodies, the work, nicknamed “Sinfonía India,” speaks the idiom.

From Chávez’s vision of Mexico, we journey to the state of Jalisco, the birthplace of both Juan Pablo Contreras and mariachi music. In his note on Mariachitlán, Contreras writes, “The work recounts my experience visiting the Plaza de los Mariachis in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, a place where mariachis play their songs in every corner and interrupt each other to win over the crowd.... Near the end of the piece, a policeman blows his whistle in an attempt to stop the party. However, the crowd chants ‘Mariachitlán,’ gradually increasing in intensity, and is rewarded with more vibrant music that ends the work with great brilliance.”

Gabriela Ortiz’s Antrópolis ventures eastward and deep into Mexico City. The “antros” of the title, Ortiz explains, “referred to bars or entertainment places of dubious reputation.” Fittingly, Antrópolis honors those darkly lit cultural hotspots of the composer’s formative years in the ’90s: a “sonorous reflection of a city through its ‘antros,’ including the accumulation of experiences that we bring and that form an essential part of our history in this very complex but fascinating Mexico City.” Subversive, suave, and shyly celebratory, Antrópolis makes Mexico’s antros glow.

Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá is a disarming, propulsive homage to Aztec lore and a favorite of the Ballet Folklórico for its narrative structure. Sensemayá was based on a poem of the same name, subtitled “Canto Para Matar una Culebra” (chant to kill a snake). Inspired by the poem and by the pictograms in the Codice Mendocino (an Aztec codex), Hernández created the theatrical choreography. In her rendering, the Aztecs arrive in Tenochtitlán to find an eagle and a serpent. As the animals begin to dance, the music builds, echoing the chants of the poem (“¡Mayombe-bombe-mayombé!”) and concludes with the dramatic killing of the snake, as depicted in the national emblem.

The inviting warmth of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 also holds a special sway over Viviana Basanta and the Ballet Folklórico. Márquez is known for bridging the traditional with the contemporary; in much of his music, he builds off well-known danzón rhythms, creating an alluring counterpart to the Ballet Folklórico choreography. Describing his reverence for danzón, a tradition of passionate partner dance, Márquez writes, “I was fascinated and I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness, a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world; we can fortunately still see this in the embrace between music and dance that occurs in the state of Veracruz and in the dance parlors of Mexico City.” This delicate balance of nostalgia, sensuality, tradition, and newness foregrounds the Ballet Folklórico’s artfulness.

After taking us into the salones, plazas, and homes of Mexico, Basanta zooms out into what she calls “a recapitulation of small parts of my mother’s choreography” set to José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango. Inspired by the folk music of Veracruz, Huapango is an exuberant romp through a lush city—Moncayo's own “recapitulation of small parts” that combines and builds upon three popular folk songs. The iterations grow at a stunning pace while sections of the orchestra take turns sharing the melody.

As she discusses Agustín Lara’s Danzones de Lara, Viviana Basanta’s face lights up. Having studied him for many years, she’s still fascinated by his ever-changing expressions and ability to relay emotion. In both his classical compositions and his love-song standards, Lara infuses a suave romanticism that often befits partner dances; for nearly a century, his works such as Danzones de Lara, Piensa en Mí, and Aquellos Ojos Verdes have accompanied dances across Mexico. Concluding the evening with Danzones de Lara, Basanta urges us not to ignore the everlasting popularity of danzón in Mexico; “It’s not something that we have to remember—it’s still with us. It’s a way of life for a lot of people.”

—Tess Carges