In a flash, the stage is bursting with almost forty Juans and Marías whirling about at a hundred miles an hour, hankies in hand, dressed in dazzling costumes of orange and yellow like a bowl of zesty citrus fruit come suddenly to life. The first five minutes leave you simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, and that in itself lets you know it’s going to be really really Mexican.
Amalia Hernández’s Ballet Folklórico de México visited the London Coliseum in July for the first time in over twenty years as a part of the programme of events for the Mexico-UK Dual Year 2015. Dance, music, parties and celebration form such an integral part of Mexican life, and have done since time immemorial, that it’s just the perfect way to capture the essence of Mexico in one intoxicating showcase.
The dances are Mexican, of course; a varied programme of beautifully choreographed pieces that give us a political as well as historical and geographic tour of Mexico. It’s important to appreciate the impressive amount of research, training and technical ability that goes into its production (the ballet has a permanent residency at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City as well as its internationally touring company). But the show from start to finish is just so much more: it encapsulates the vital elements of Mexican life, and, crucially, the feel of it. Essentially, it’s a complete education in Mexican spirit delivered in full volume, at breakneck speed.
One of the things I love most about Mexican culture is how inclusive it is, nowhere more evident than at the regular family fiestas where guests both young and old are trussed up in ridiculous party paraphernalia dancing alongside one another from dusk until dawn. Mexicans just really get stuck in and throw themselves into things without the stuffy self-awareness and stiff upper lip that’s so characteristic of the British. The Ballet Folklórico appeals to everyone, it’s just impossible not to get swept up in the vivacious energy that radiates from the stage. They’re having fun and they love what they do; it’s evident and contagious.
With an abundance of sombreros and criminally tight trousers, and enough elaborate stomping to get Michael Flatley toe-tapping, the show is hugely entertaining, a visual and aural delight. The performance, like the culture, is totally immersive, not just literally (when the company dances with the audience in the aisles), but emotionally, too. It’s cheeky and romantic, raucous and unapologetic. There are shouts of encouragement amongst compadres on the stage: “¡Eso!” and “¡Viva México!”, and streamers are thrown bountifully into the auditorium. Just the same as you’ll find when visiting Mexico, they don’t just want you to enjoy it, they want to you to share it: it’s an open invitation to empathise with their national pride – an honour indeed as it’s hugely cherished and was notably hard-won.
I can’t talk about the Ballet Folklórico without giving the musicians – the mariachi and jarochos (who belt out the tunes as well as mastering their handheld instruments) – the praise they deserve. The show is not only a dancing triumph but a musical extravaganza. And I’m pretty sure they’re the only nation who could fit two full-blown fiestas into a couple of hours. It’s no mean feat, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. When you’ve got a British audience in one of the UK’s most prestigious venues whooping and cheering on their feet, I think you can safely say you nailed it.
You’ve now missed the opportunity for a slice of fiesta with your afternoon tea (hopefully they won’t wait another twenty years), but, as if you needed an excuse to go to Mexico, the Ballet Folklórico is performed throughout the year at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and tours internationally.
This article was originally written for Mexico Retold.