Ballet Hispanico promises ‘a quintessential Latin experience’

Winter may be just around the corner, but the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts will be anything but frosty this weekend as Ballet Hispanico presents a sizzling and seductive night of Latin music and dance.

One of the nation’s hottest dance companies, Ballet Hispanico, along with the Grammy Award-winning Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, will present a program of three high-energy works beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8.

Led by artistic director Eduardo Vilaro, the 42-year-old company is known for such stylish social dances as mambo, rumba, salsa and cha-cha. With the Cuban, jazz and big band music of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by artistic director Arturo O’Farrill, the show promises to bring audiences to their feet.

“The dancers are so incredibly talented,” said Jenny Hamilton, executive director of the New Orleans Ballet Association. “It’s a real opportunity to see the culture (of Latin dance) through such a beautiful lens. It’s an opportunity to see the best in the world of what Latin dance has to offer.”

The program begins with “Tito on Timbale,” a tribute to the music of master percussionist Tito Puente. Choreographed by William Whitener, the work aims to capture the joys and intricacies of social dance through cascading patterns and sensual partnering.

In “Club Havana,” choreographer Pedro Ruiz draws on his Cuban roots to transport the audience to a sultry, smoke-filled nightclub where elegantly dressed couples move to the rhythm of conga, rumba and other forms of Latin dance.

The evening’s centerpiece is “Danzon,” a Cuban-inspired work by Vilaro, who joined Ballet Hispanico as artistic director in August 2009 after 10 years with the Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago. The danzon, which evolved from Haitian contradance, is the official dance of Cuba, and Vilaro gives it a contemporary feel with his reinvented staging.

“The audience should expect a quintessential Latin experience with intoxicating music by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and dancers that are bold, passionate and elegantly athletic,” Vilaro said.

Vilaro, once a principal dancer with Ballet Hispanico, will present a pre-performance talk at 6:45 p.m. on the mezzanine level.

The show has won rave reviews, with the New York Times calling it “an evening that makes you want to get up dance.”

Hamilton has no doubt that the show will be intoxicating.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful show,” she said. “It will be an extraordinary evening of music and dance.”

But the two Main Stage shows are only a fraction of what Vilaro and Ballet Hispanico will do while in New Orleans. Their agenda includes an array of programs for children and families, among them two free bilingual performances – Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School in Kenner and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Delgado Community College.

The narrated performances will take the audience on an exploration of Latin American and Caribbean dance and will feature local dancers of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD)/New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) Center for Dance. The dancers chosen for the performances had the opportunity to work with Vilaro and Ballet Hispanico over the past two summers through the Chevron Master Artist Series.

“We have an obligation to our youth, and we bring professional artists in to work with the children on a deeper level,” Hamilton said.

In addition, the company will conduct workshops Wednesday through Friday at schools in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, as well as a master class Saturday at Tulane University for students of the NORD/NOBA Center for Dance.

Ballet Hispanico has a long-standing relationship with the New Orleans Ballet Association, having first performed in the Crescent City in 1992. The company donated its talents and services to the local arts community after Hurricane Katrina, giving the troupe a special bond with the city as it began its road to recovery, Hamilton said. In addition, Vilaro, while artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, led two summer intensives in 2005 and 2006.

“He got to spend a lot of time with the children,” Hamilton said. “It was important for him and the artists to hear their stories.”

Tickets for Saturday night’s performance are $20 to $80 and may be reserved through the New Orleans Ballet Association Box Office at (504) 522-0996 or online at www.nobadance.com or www.ticketmaster.com. For information on Ballet Hispanico’s other New Orleans programs, call the Ballet Association.