Leaving People Happy

Ballet Hispanico combines Latin dance forms into something joyous

It's been so cold lately in New York City that Tina Ramirez, founder and artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, has been wearing a hand-me-down fur.

"It's been terrible, really, really cold," she said by phone last week. "My sister moved to Sarasota, Fla., and gave me her raccoon coat. That really helps."

The freezing February back East is not the only reason Ramirez is looking forward to a visit this weekend to balmy Tucson, where her dancers will perform Saturday night at Centennial.

"I love Tucson," Ramirez said. "It has my favorite restaurant in the whole country--Café Poca Cosa."

The downtown restaurant offers Mexican cuisine with a distinctive blend of flavors. Each day, chef Suzana Dávila picks and chooses from a medley of classic ingredients to create her own dishes, mirroring Ramirez's own artistic M.O. Ballet Hispanico meshes Latin dance forms from the Old and New World--Spanish flamenco, Cuban conga, Argentine tango--and infuses them with the rigor of ballet and the free spirit of modern dance.

"I started the company to let people know who Hispanics were," Ramirez said. "If they know us, they're going to love us."

Her dancers train in the conventional disciplines of ballet, jazz and modern, along with traditional Spanish dance. In a single concert, they might wear pointe shoes, Spanish character heels or no shoes at all. And Ramirez, who founded the company in 1970, is always looking for new spices to add to the mix. This summer, for instance, at the company's studio on New York's Upper West Side, students will try out salsa and Brazilian capoeira.

"They get their technical training first. If you're ever going to make a living with this, you need to learn technique. You get the discipline. I've always had good dancers."

Ramirez's eclectic formula has won her multiple prizes, from the National Medal of Arts to the Dance Magazine Award, and her dancers have performed around the world. Now in her 70s, she gave up choreographing years ago, but she regularly commissions new work. The multiple choreographers in the Centennial show will include Spaniard María Rovira and Cuban Pedro Ruiz, a former company dancer.

"We do 'ballet' in its traditional sense--any type of work with a storyline."

Ramirez's own background is as mixed as her repertory. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela, the daughter of a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother. José Ramirez Gaonita was a traveling bullfighter who met his wife, Gloria, while touring in Puerto Rico. Tina Ramirez happened to be born while her father had a long-term bullfighting gig in Venezuela.

"I lived in Venezuela, then Puerto Rico, and then I came to New York at age 6," she said. "My Puerto Rican grandmother was a schoolteacher, and she taught us about the history of Latin America and Europe. It was a gift to grow up with two languages. You know two cultures."

Her family also introduced her early on to the arts. Bullfighting has its own movement vocabulary, she noted, and by age 2, "My father would put me on his feet and dance. He trained like a prizefighter, and when he'd run, I'd follow." Her mother would take her three daughters to the theater, including one outing to see John Barrymore on Broadway.

"I started formal dance training at 11. I took ballet from Chester Hale, who had worked with Anna Pavlova. He believed in strict discipline. I took Spanish dance lessons, too--flamenco, classical, folklorico--from Lola Bravo."

At 14, she started in modern dance, studying with Anna Sokolow, a noted choreographer who had danced with Martha Graham.

Coming of age in World War II, Ramirez had plenty of chances to perform, because the war simultaneously generated "a great need for entertainment" and curtailed travel by foreign artists. And in the '40s, Americans were becoming enamored of all things Latin.

She started dancing in Spanish clubs in New York City, then toured with Federico Rey and his Rhythms of Spain, and with flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya before going off to the source to study dance in Spain. There she learned the gypsy roots of much of Spanish dance, and performed with Enrique Vargas, the "Gypsy Prince."

Back in New York, Ramirez and her sister Coco put together a sister act, touring on their own and with Latin orchestra leader Xavier Cugat. Eventually, they moved over to Broadway, dancing in big musicals such as Kismet and Lute Song, and working with the likes of choreographer Bob Fosse.

"Working in the musical comedies was so much easier than doing your own act," Ramirez said. "Everything was done for you--the lights, the costumes."

Still, that didn't deter her when it came time to form Ballet Hispanico. In the 1960s, Rivera had gone back to Lola Bravo's studio to teach, and when Bravo wanted to retire, Rivera agreed to run the school for just one year.

"But I loved it. After one year, I was hooked. I saw the power of art and what it could do for people."

A few years later, Ramirez started the troupe "to give opportunities to kids and show them a different way. I wanted to go forward with them."

At the Tucson concert, the troupe's dozen dancers will first tackle "Tierra de Nadie" ("No Man's Land") by Spanish choreographer Rovira. Set to drums and an accordion melody, it's full of "kinetic dancing by all 12 dancers, to music composed for the piece." Dressed in contemporary costumes--brightly colored dresses for the women, tops and tight pants for the men--the dancers conjure up the solitude of the modern world, where "people are so disconnected."

"Repertory Excerpts" is a sampler of styles and choreographers drawn from the company's 37 years in the business.

"They're all quartets, trios and duets, wonderfully danced," said Ramirez, who selected the pieces. "My dancers are so good, I'm showcasing them."

"Besame" is a male duet about "an uptight person and his alter ego." "Bury Me" is a "foot duet" set to gypsy music in which a man partners a woman "with just his feet." "Orfeo in the Carnivals of Soul" brings in Brazilian rhythms, and "Tito on Timbales" celebrates "Tito Puente's music--it's hot." "Cada Noche Tango," to the music of Astor Piazzolla, is set in a bordello.

The finale, "Club Havana," by the aforementioned Ruiz, draws on "Cuban social dancing, but with ballet." All 12 dancers return to the stage and shimmy through the conga, the rumba, the mambo and the cha cha.

"This Cuban piece will leave people happy," Ramirez said.