Dallas — The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House was again the home of the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico annual Cinco de Mayo show, this year opening on May 5. Entitled China, Santa y Petenera, the focus was on the legendary female figure of Mexican folklore, the China Poblana. Rather than building a performance around the historic date of 5 de Mayo (which is not Mexican Independence Day), a date that commemorates the Battle of Puebla of 1862 in which the Mexican army successfully repelled a French invasion, the show was dedicated to a legendary and some say stereotypical female figure “as a national symbol Mexican womanhood.”
While the 2014 ANMBF dance-drama, A Tale of Two Quinces, had a clearly articulated storyline, this year’s did not. One of the male dancers initially greeted the audience in both English and Spanish and read the program the concept of the show from the program notes. Questions surrounding the origins of the China Poblana figure were posed to the audience: “Was she a slave, world traveler, saint, or is she from Asian noble descent?” Unfortunately all were left unanswered by the show’s end.
The program states that this performance “celebrates this woman figure… highlighting the strength, tenacity, courage …. And the music will feature the main cities in Mexico where it is believed that La China Poblana came from: Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Colima, and Jalisco.”
According to the Spanish-language Puebla city website, the figure of La China Poblana is claimed exclusively by this city (thus the name poblana meaning “from Puebla”). Geographic disputes aside, the story behind the historical woman who inspired this tale would have made a fascinating, visual story. It seems that a woman of noble birth from India was sold into slavery by Portuguese tradesmen in 1620. Mirhna or Mirra (born in 1609) was allegedly her name. She was later transported to Mexico by ship from the Philippines. It is a Latin-American (bad) linguistic habit of calling all Asians “chinos” (as in Chinese). She landed in Acapulco and was sold to the Sosa family from Puebla, who later married her off to a Chinese slave with whom the newly renamed and baptized Mirhna would become Catalina de San Juan. She gained her freedom in 1624. The colorful poblana outfit is allegedly a fusion of her Indian garb with that of criolla and mestiza women.
The curious tidbit here is that Catalina allegedly never consummated her marriage, insisting on maintaining her virginity. After becoming a widow, Catalina entered the nunnery at the Convent of Santa Catalina (Catherine in Spanish) where she became known for her miraculous actions of healing the sick, speaking and playing with Baby Jesus, having revelations, for which the Holy Spanish Inquisition forbad people of addressing her as a saint. She died at age 82 in 1688 revered by the local Poblano population. This female figure is later transformed into a national symbol of Mexican womanhood, reinforcing the stereotypical dichotomy that women are afforded in strong patriarchal societies: that of holy virgin or whore. This dichotomy is well-documented in social research.
All of this would have made a great story had the performance been dramatically structured around this fascinating figure. Unfortunately, ANMBF missed a great opportunity of staging a historically relevant story.
The show took off to a slow and long start with various numbers that all seemed to flow one into the other with little rhythmic or choreographic variety. This show differed greatly from the last one I saw in 2014, in which the choreography was lively and encompassed the entire stage. For a good portion of the show, the dancers were lined in a row downstage, facing the audience, executing zapateo steps. The dancers faced in all four directions in predictable ways, doing little more than holding up their skirts, thus leading to a very static choreographic feel.
There was a good mix of numbers by the females (the women company members outnumber the men by a long shot) and the men did a great job of double duty, dancing in many consecutive pieces. However, the slow tempo and monochromatic nature of the music dragged down the mood.
The recorded music relied heavily on the trio huasteco of strings, composed of a guitarra huapanguera (a 5- to 8-string guitar), accompanied by a smaller guitar called a jaranita (also known as a jarana huasteca), and a violin. It would have been enlightening to have this important musical information available to the audience. As it was, we were left to either be in the know already or come home to Google.
The tempo picked up as the show progressed and one of the highlights was an interesting number in which a Mexican female dancer engaged in a musical conversation with a tall male shadow figure, who represented a Frenchman. This is the only historical allusion to the actual historical events of 5 de Mayo, in which the French were repelled in the Battle of Puebla.
Finally, towards the end of the show several crowdpleasers from Veracruz and Puebla got the predominantly Hispanic audience clapping in unison with the dancers. As before, the finale was based on a contemporary English language rap/folklórico fusion piece, which could have been in Spanish. There is rap en Español.
The dancers’ performances were crisp and well executed. As usual the company featured a wide age range, from their minis/children, juniors and professionals. The dancers deserved the well-earned applause from the audience, which was significantly smaller than 2014. The traditional costumes, of course, continue to take center stage. The staging and lighting could better contribute to the emotional landscapes of the performers, and the choreography can certainly use a jump-start. While the impulse towards maintaining the purity of traditional dances is understandable, the Winspear stage offers unique opportunities which were underutilized this time around.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Spanish and Dance & Theater Departments at the University of North Texas. Marrero is a steering committee member of the national network, the Latina/o Theater Commons.