Ballet Folklórico Tapatio elevating tradition to high art

Ballet Folklórico Tapatio

Ballet Folklórico Tapatio

There has been a trend among folklórico groups in Tucson over the years of transforming traditional Mexican folkloric dance to a true vehicle of story telling.

Julie Gallego and her Viva dancers were among the pioneers of the trend, putting together shows that told the history of Tucson from precolonial times to the present. Along the way her Viva Arizona shows also filled in the blanks about our town’s Mexican American history – the pioneers of Mexican radio, the old ballrooms that here so much the heart of the culture, the barrios (neighborhoods) that bustled with culture and life, and so much more.

Gallego painted portraits of Christmas in the Mexican American community as well that showed what was unique to her culture and what overlapped with the prevailing American culture. She reinterpreted that Christmas show at Saint Augustine Cathedral and created a new sacred counterpart to her secular theater offering, Noche de Paz. Gallego’s ability to tell long-form stories with folklorico and other dance forms is what has made her an indispensable part of mariachi shows in Las Vegas, and what earned her group an invitation to perform at the 2012 London Olympics. Her shows over the decades have carved a unique niche for themselves in Tucson’s cultural landscape.

Julie Gallego's Noche de Paz

Julie Gallego’s Noche de Paz

In recent years the younger Ballet Folklorico Tapatio company, under the direction of Jose Luis Baca, has taken a different tack on story telling through dance, reinterpreting classic Mexican corridos (ballads). Whether one comprehends a word of Spanish or not, no one can be unmoved by their work in realizing El Corrido de Polino Guererreo as they show a happy young couple in the sway of love, the man abruptly murdered by a jealous lover. The mourning woman arches over the murdered man’s lifeless body as woman of the village echo her sadness in stylized dances, encircling her as the mourning woman kneels in shock. The men of the village, in stylized, ritual precision full of dignity and grace, hoist the murdered man on their shoulders and carry him off, the woman and the rest of the mourners following in rhythmic expression of grief and collective sorrow.

Ballet Folklorico Tapatio’s El Corrido de Polino Guererreo. Click the right hand bottom of the video screen to watch larger on YouTube.

Every element is as precisely rendered as a fine oil painting by one of the masters. The movement, the lighting, the costuming, the choreography and the music conspire to sweep the audience into the drama and emotion within the traditional song. It is at once exquisite and profoundly moving. And it sets the bar high for those who will follow.

Like mariachis before them, Tucson’s folklórico dancers are evolving deeper and richer traditions of their own and forging new directions in their artistry. They are no longer mere color in a show. They ARE the show.

Seeing the work of the Viva dancers and Ballet Folklorico Tapatio fills the sails of this documentary on the rise of the mariachi and folklórico movements in Tucson. The music and the dance are as inseparable as the poetry from the tune of a song. Along with the political, educational  and social changes these art forms have generated in our town there has been a corresponding lift in artistry. The standard moves higher with every new wave of young talent.

What’s interesting as well is that both Julie Gallego’s Viva group and Jose Luis Baca’s Ballet Folklorico Tapatio ensemble keep as strong a hand in teaching as they do creating new works. They are passing along the craft of dance as they inspire the coming generations. And they incorporate the young talent within their shows, making sure that kids see themselves both in their culture and in the high art their dancing might lead to.

Tradition is not a frog in formaldehyde. It has to move forward and innovate or else it dies out. It also must appeal to new generations to be carried on. Tucson’s folklórico dance tradition is alive and well.


~ by Daniel Buckley on March 10, 2013.

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