Dallas — Anita N. Martínez Ballet Folklórico, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary as a cultural institution in Dallas, performed its latest original work, A Tale of Two Quinces, on May 8 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. The company bears the name of its founder, whose noteworthy accomplishments include being Dallas’ first female Mexican-American councilmember (1969-1973). Both the dance company and the Anita N. Martínez Recreation center were founded in the mid-1970s with the single-minded focus of providing cultural identity and recreational facilities to the Mexican- American children of Dallas.
The show began with opening remarks by Lisa Mesa-Rogers, the company’s vivacious executive director, acknowledging a sense of place, of recognition of performing in the Winspear, which, by looking over at the house, was filled to about 80 percent capacity in spite of torrential rains and the threat of tornados. Mesa-Rogers highlighted that this show engages the full ensemble, whose members run from age 5 (the mini-professionals) to the senior pros in their 30s. Their dance programs represent the various musical and dance traditions from numerous regions of Mexico, including the Texas-Mexico border regions.
A sense of identity was established towards the end of the performance by dropping down a Texas flag stage left, and a Mexican flag stage right, to be completed by a higher-placed United States flag in the center. It was heart-warming to see the little ones execute their choreographies with such precision and grace, an aspect not lost on the appreciative audience composed mostly of the Hispanic community, which turned out to support the program. While Mesa-Rogers introduction was entirely in English, and there were no speaking parts in the dance-drama, I heard a whole lot of Spanish all around me. Brilliant costumes, complex choreographies, competent dancing at all levels, and a lovely display of cultural pride highlighted this production.
As a dance-drama the action centers on the figures of two twin sisters, abuelita (grandmother), mother and father, a modern nuclear Hispanic family. The title of the piece, A Tale of Two Quinces, refers to the two girls about to turn 15 (quince in Spanish), which, in turn alludes to the traditional rite of passage festivities surrounding a girl’s coming of age. The piece begins with the two small girls and their abuelita, quickly followed by the girls in their early teens.
The family watches from upstage and the flow of dance numbers suggests the story of Texas in relationship to ancestral Mexican cultures and historical moments. The present and the past intermingle without much respect for actual chronology, thus employing the historically viable technique of telescoping time (compressing time periods) and synchronic selectivity (focusing on particular time periods rather than in diachronic/historical sequence). For instance, the first three numbers centered on the theme of the Mexican Revolution (1910). This was suggested by the image of the soldadera (from the Spanish, soldado, or soldier, these were female soldiers who took up arms along-side the men). This segment represents the Nuevo León region, one that borders Texas, whose traditions include that of corridos (ballads) from the Mexican Revolutionary period. These hail from the oral tradition, which documents historical events and figures such as the adelitas (another name for the soldaderas). The energetic dancing by numerous male and female dancers got things started with hearty audience approval.
A flash-forward segment followed, in which the teenage sisters each demonstrated their passions: one is shown reading an oversized book and holding the Yale University school flag, while the other holds soccer ball and displays a desire to play that sport. Here, a contemporary choreography of hip-hop was performed with varying degrees of dexterity, which in this case means the disassociation of upper from lower torso necessary for a strong percussion movement. However, audience reaction to this number also signaled high approval.
The next segment flashed far back historically to the time of pre-Columbian Mexico, mixing the Aztec conchero dance with the Meso-American ballgame. Concha means seashell, referring to the strung cowry shells that adorn the legs and arms of male dancers, contributing the musicality of the dance. The conchas’ sonority emerges from the body movement of each dancer, creating a mesmerizing combination of percussion rhythms. An ancient ball game was introduced to this piece, effectively linking various time periods. Known in Spanish as juego de pelota (ballgame), in classic Maya as pitz, and in modern Nahuatl as ollamaliztli, the ball game segment effectively provided a genealogy of this particularly important Meso-American ritual game. With modernized versions of historic, plumed costumes, the dancers performed with due respect and much grace.
Moving the action towards the present, a romantic bolero (a slow tempo romantic genre) entitled Dentro de mi corzón (Inside my heart), recorded in 1996 by the legendary Mexican singer Alejandro Molares, a couple danced sequences representing the courtship period between the girls´ mother and father.
A Tale of Two Quinces is a loosely structured dramatic narrative. While expecting to see more story and character development, in this aspect the piece fell a bit flat. During a pivotal segment of the story in which the girls make important choices about their futures left me and my companion (a culturally competent Oak Cliff-born bright Mexican-American young woman, a former student of mine, with one Masters’ Degree and working on a second) wondering precisely what was taking place. College-bound girl (Yale flag) and her soccer-playing sister seemed to be at a crossroads. It was evident that college-bound girl got the better deal, since she ended up with the only quinceañera crown being passed between them, but why? What is the relationship between the crown (signifying the quince party) and the college? Were they both not turning 15 and having a quinceañera party? Why only one crown? The message of this segment was a bit lost.
Furthermore, if the intent of the piece was to establish a dichotomy between the advantages of studying and not studying, why juxtapose it with soccer? Are there not scholarships for girl athletes as viable a means to college? My former female student went to college on a wrestling scholarship! If the point of the piece is to underline the importance to getting into college for a better future, it might have been better served by juxtaposing it not to soccer, but to partying, premature pregnancies and/or flunking out of school.
In the beautifully staged ball gown sequence, the girls and the audience are mesmerized by the quinceañera gown display, a lovely vision of ornate, bell-shaped long skirts with slim, narrow bodices, ranging from pure white to pastel shades. Slow-motion choreography to world beat music set the six young women floating surrealistically in space. All perfectly thin and magazine cover-quality beauties, while visually appealing, this full display of pristine, thin hyper femininity may be suspect to those of us aware of the damage female body image issues creates in women of all ages. Could not one of the gowns been worn by a lovely gordita? Just a thought.
Thankfully the hyper-feminine was counterbalanced by the girl soccer team sequence, the mariachi dance, the get-down hip-hop choreograph, and of course, the representation of the bright young woman as intellectual. Many of the dance numbers met with evident audience approval. The foot-stomping Jarocho dances (meaning from Veracruz) also elicited hearty applause from the appreciative audience. Wrapping up the festive spirit, the entire cast boogied to the Harlem Shake. The all too brief one-hour show left us in high spirits and wanting more!
A warning word against photographing or recording at the beginning of the performance might have saved the audience the nuisance of having our visual experience interrupted by ushers scurrying up and down the aisles requesting that cameras be put away.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas.