On Dance Taught and Performed Bilingually
Vilaro joined Ballet Hispánico as artistic director in August 2009, becoming only the second person to head the company since it was founded in 1970. In 2015, Vilaro took on the additional role of chief executive officer. He has been part of the Ballet Hispánico family since 1985 as a principal dancer and educator, after which he began a ten-year record of achievement as founder and artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago. Vilaro has infused Ballet Hispánico’s legacy with a bold and eclectic brand of contemporary dance that reflects America’s changing cultural landscape. Born in Cuba and raised in New York from the age of six, he is a frequent speaker on the merits of cultural diversity and dance education.
own choreography is devoted to capturing the spiritual, sensual and historical essence of the Latino cultures. He created more than 20 ballets for Luna Negra and has received commissions from the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Grant Park Festival, the Lexington Ballet and the Chicago Symphony. Luna Negra amassed a distinguished repertory of works by such Latino
choreographers as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Vicente Nebrada, and Gustavo Ramírez Sansano. In 2001, he was a recipient of a Ruth Page Award for choreography, and in 2003, he was honored for his choreographic work at Panama’s II International Festival of Ballet.
In 2011, Vilaro premiered Asuka, his first work for Ballet Hispánico, “an unexpected interpretation of [Celia] Cruz’s music … high-energy and colorful,” wrote the Chicago Dance Digest. In 2016, he was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame.
Vilaro was an associate professor at the Dance Center of Columbia College and has served on the Board of Trustees of Dance/USA. He currently serves on the advisory board of Dance/NYC. He has also served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. He was a guest speaker at the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders and the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture.
Will you share your background and the journey you took to become a leader at Ballet Hispánico and in a dance world.
Vilaro: Ballet Hispánico is the organization that formed me as an artist and as a dancer. I was lucky that this organization has a strong foundation in education and understands how necessary it is that a cultural organization understands the needs of a community. I grew up here. Tina [Ramirez, company founder] gave me my first opportunity to be a leader. She had an idea during the 1990s, when homelessness and shelters were an intense problem here in New York City. Tina’s love is children and she was concerned about the kids in these shelters. She wanted a program for them saying: ‘We’re going to have to feed them and we’re going to teach classes for them.’
At that point in my career, I was exploring interdisciplinary work and teaching students various forms of dance. Tina said, ‘You design and run the program.’ So we bussed kids from a shelter to the
studio and I taught them dance and had artists come in to teach them about painting, dance and culture. We gave them T-shirts and clothes and breakfast in the morning. I talked to a McDonald’s and asked them to give us breakfast Happy Meals for these kids. I didn’t know any better about nutrition at that point! That experience began developing my fundraising skills.
I still work like that today. I’m mission prone. I see it and say, ‘Let’s get it done.’
I was 21. It was a lesson that allowed me expand into a leader. Nowadays, you have to get trained in a program to lead. But back then, I just gave love and taught those kids the importance of discipline. The basics. The results were amazing. Ballet Hispánico is the organization that formed me as an artist and as a dancer.
You were growing and learning at Ballet Hispánico. Why did you feel the need to break away and form your own company? What challenges did you face in doing that?
I needed to go away because I had spent a decade at Ballet Hispánico with Tina and I took on many more leadership roles. But I didn’t feel that I knew what was next for me. Tina never said, ‘I have a plan for you.’ I felt that she expected me to make the next move, so I decided to go back to school. I told her, ‘If you need me, call me.’ My 10 years with Ballet Hispánico was in its heyday of touring: We toured like nobody’s business. That’s how I learned more about the craft and its needs, by being on the road. But it’s tiring. I left and went to school at Columbia College in Chicago, where I enrolled in an interdisciplinary arts program, which I found very interesting and informative about arts pedagogy in new ways. As I was finishing, I felt I needed a company and saw the need for a Latino-lead organization in Chicago. What I knew best was dance, so I started Luna Negra Dance Theater. From working with Tina and working as a dancer, I felt I could build a structure for a new company.
Starting a company is challenging. What was the hardest part about going out on your own after being under Tina’s wing?
I always come back to this: I am an immigrant. I was not born here. I understand what it is to have to get up every morning and face your fears because you want to succeed. My parents, who came here and did not speak a bit of English, taught me that. They put us through school and continued to be successful in their own way. So that’s a deep part of me.
I had this vision and I wanted to do it both like Tina and not like Tina. I thought about this new generation coming up and how they identified as Latino. I examined how I felt about being Latino. The
hardest part for me in developing Luna Negra was the fight I had with myself because I had to be chief cook and bottle washer for this company. I was torn. I just wanted to be the artistic director, but I had to do so many other things in order to run the company. Joining Dance/USA enabled me to learn so much about process, structure, boards, giving and not just acting like you know, but really knowing. That was essential for me.
Interestingly, you come home to Ballet Hispánico and you took on both roles: artistic director and executive director. Not many companies at this level have a single position for both roles.
True. It wasn’t always like that at Ballet Hispánico. I made the decision to return for lots of reasons. One of them was I thought I didn’t have to wash all those bottles. I’m just going to cook and be fierce at it. I wanted to just be an artistic director. I got here and realized that you never know what you’re getting into until you’re in it. We had transition after transition. I am artistically demanding as far as excellence goes. I ask people to really work together and I like movement, of course. I guess there were some partnerships that worked and others didn’t.
The board raised the issue about taking on both roles after six years. And certain things happened to make me agree to taking on the responsibility.
I think this is the next progression. It has a lot to do with how I feel as a leader, not only in the field, but as a leader in the discussion about race and equity. I came to terms with myself and asked, ‘What did I want now?’ I want to bring this organization into those conversations. We have the capability as a cultural organization to be in the spotlight and have a dialogue, both artistically and socially, to be comfortable, to expose and to lead those discussions.
Since my arrival at Ballet Hispánico, we have been moving forward in that direction. That means changing the language at Ballet Hispánico, so we’re not just “the Latino dance company.” It’s the Latino company that also believes in social justice and we know how to put that into the work that we do. I want to be the person who leads us through this. It’s not just in dance; we’re a part of the broader cultural conversation.
Can you discuss the deeper transformation that occurred in moving the company from one singular vision of a Latino company into an organization with a broader cultural context, which reflects where we are as a society and culture now.
There’s nothing wrong with the past and yet there’s everything wrong with not moving forward. By not evolving you perpetrate a fallacy and a stereotype that does not benefit anybody and keeps discussion to an inauthentic level and only accessible to a few. For me I see it as both nothing wrong and everything wrong. Even today I struggle: I try to get into the minds of young Latinos –
see their perspective, what are they thinking about now? If we’re not curious about our younger generation, I think that we do a disservice if we want to continue to be a culturally relevant organization. That means if I am doing just salsa and flamenco and what’s comfortable, easy, and safe, that does not truly reflect the history, legacy, and future behind those forms. I am interested in where young people are now and I want to listen to them speak with truth and authenticity. It is a disservice to my audience not to think broadly. The work that we do has to be set in a contemporary context. It’s not about exoticism or a reflection of this culture from the external point of view. It is a deep reflection of a Latina or a Latino artist thinking about their culture as it is
today. It means utilizing all the essences and even the stereotypes, the icons, the archetypes to engage in a dialogue with everyone. It’s deeply moving.
You come from an immigrant generation of a certain era. We’re seeing new waves of immigrants and their children and grandchildren who all arrive with differing perspectives, experiences, and points of view.
Absolutely. It’s a continuing evolution and we need to be ready so when we teach, we don’t make pronouncements or give ideals handed down from earlier generations. Evolution is about change and for immigrants that change is at a nano second at a time. Instead, we open up the dialogue: Where did you come from and how did you get here? Our approach has to be multilayered to allow everyone to find their narrative in this cross-cultural world. It’s a lot of work, the detail… It’s simply not enough for me to say this is my artistic vision and that’s it. That doesn’t help the mission of this organization. Again, I need to step back and create a catalyst for inquiry and introspection. If we don’t then we’re just propagating the same kind of hierarchy that says this is the art from Western civilization and you have to swallow it. The question is: how do you change that point of view, that hierarchy?
Within this cultural context the question of bilingualism, both in dance but also spoken language in your companies, arises. How does language come into play, both dance language and spoken language, including English versus Spanish, in your teaching and cultural transactions?
Well movement, of course, comes into play. Dance is a language, so those kids who are in our school or in our programs develop a new awareness on top of their second language. They’re also learning to translate in dance and movement. As immigrants, they are yet again learning another language and that’s important, whether it’s spoken in French, or Spanish, or a move in hip hop. It’s a language that translates and can also connect you. The language issues in this country are difficult and complex. I wish that here in the United States we were more open to understanding the benefit of learning many languages from a young age. That’s an issue with our education system. It could help us so much.
I’m dealing with my eight year old and asking, ‘When are we going to start getting languages in the curriculum?’ That would break so many glass ceilings and help us with the various race discussions we are having. As far as language, and different languages and cultures that are Latino, the problem is that immigrants come here and they have to learn the language – English. Many people may think immigrants don’t want to learn English, but that’s simply not true. The whole American dream is based on forgetting yourself and assimilating, not acclimating. If you were acclimating, you would keep your culture, and keep the language. Where we are as a country makes the conversation difficult. For my culture it’s really hard. Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with class and where you were socially and economically when you left your homeland. If you were a middle-class person coming from Cuba during all these changes, your family not only kept you connected to your roots, but also encouraged your education. If you were from a poorer family or neighborhood, that didn’t happen. So the experiences are different: some immigrants hold on to their language and some let go of it immediately.
At Ballet Hispánico we absolutely teach our classes bilingually, especially flamenco. Just like you learn French in ballet, you learn Spanish in flamenco. And you learn Afro-Cuban words in Afro-Cuban classes because specific words and the names of the gods used. It’s not a language education, but our students are exposed to the language of dance both vocally and kinetically.
This is a conversation we’re having across the United States.
Yes, whether it’s Latino, or African, or Arabic, and, depending on what kind of immigrant you are, if you are from a colonized country, there is an effect. It’s not like everyone is immigrating from Switzerland or Japan. It’s completely different set of situations and outcomes.
As a leader in areas of equity issues, are you seeing a growth in arts organizations that are conscious of racial and cultural equity or are we still stuck?
There is a myth I keep hearing that dance has always been diverse. No. If we had really been diverse, we wouldn’t have the black ballerina issue we see today. I think there are companies that are very focused on diversity, but we still have a long way to go. Of course, the ballet world has the biggest issue – but it’s not the only area in our field.
This past year, we had a discussion with dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba. When the current dancers were growing up, they had never seen a black ballerina, even when they had the opportunity to. What’s the problem? Those questions need to be asked. We have to remove the idea that the trappings of ballet are the aesthetic form for everyone. The leaders in ballet companies need to come together, not live in their silos, and see the actual living diversity in our field.
Here’s how incredibly multi-leveled this issue is: New York City Ballet has had Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. She has been working six years in the U.S. with us and other dance companies. A New York writer states that Annabelle is well known for her work in Europe, erasing all the work she has done on a Latino company here and on a ballet company with a Latino artistic director. How do we change that conversation. How do we understand that what we say and what we do is hurtful to the work that we brown people do?
Are you seeing an increase of people of color on boards, in administration and in decision-making positions? Is that where the change will come from?
We are seeing people of color in administration. In our company, I’m a big proponent of developing talent and moving them up. I make sure that our staff is diverse and reflects our work, just like our language reflects our work. Are we seeing more diversity in dance companies? I think so. Do we need to see even more? Yes. Where do we need to see more? In leadership roles such as marketing directors, development directors, executive directors, even the chairs of boards. But we have a problem, especially in the Latino community, which doesn’t understand philanthropy in the same way. Philanthropy is either for church or sports for many Latinos. As far as introducing support of the arts to Latino people, there’s really a lot of work to do. We need to get Latinos to think differently about supporting the arts.
What would you advise young people of color if they want to move into arts management?
I think leadership is made on the job. Young people have to put themselves in situations that take them out of their comfort zones, and not think that there is a trajectory that’s set for them once they have finished school. They should constantly challenge themselves. Try this job. Try that job. Give yourself a chance to develop a very improvisational, intuition-based mentality that can guide their know-how that they’ve learned in school – everyone is going to college for that degree – but what they don’t teach is to act on your feet immediately. Find the mentors, whether you tell them that they’re mentors or not. Find them and you’ll learn. I did and I have a long list of people to thank.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal, and her writing on dance and the performing arts has appeared in Dance magazine, Washington Jewish Week, The Washington Post and other publications.
We accept submissions on topics relevant to the field: advocacy, artistic issues, arts policy, community building, development, employment, engagement, touring, and other topics that deal with the business of dance. We cannot publish criticism, single-company season announcements, and single-company or single artist profiles. Additionally, we welcome feedback on articles. If you have a topic that you would like to see addressed or feedback, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of Dance/USA.