Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Truth and artistic activism set Ballet Hispánico’s Eduardo Vilaro free

By Heather Longley

Ballet Hispánico Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro succeeded founder-choreographer-dancer Tina Ramirez in 2009. Since then he has advanced the company’s mission to offer a modern alternative to tired, typecast references in Latin-inspired dance. His company presents works that speak to and for the Latinx community—and ultimately to every community. The language is dance of all styles with a Latin flair. The message is inclusion, diversity, and equality.

One of the ways for Vilaro and his company to stimulate dialog, instill cultural pride among marginalized people, and to encourage open-minded thinking and multi-ethnic appreciation is to simply show up and dance.

“I think we address social justice in many ways, first, by our very existence,” Vilaro tells BWW Dance World. “On stage, we bring the stories of the marginalized through their voices and create work that is inclusive and open for all to revel and learn. We give voice to the other.”

The Cuban-born, Bronx-raised artist and his company also nurture cross-cultural understanding while on tour by engaging students in residency programs in schools throughout the country. This laid-back version of arts activism mirrors the lives of young people in Latinx communities and brings awareness of different cultures to other groups. This desire to create awareness—of dance and of Latino culture—is born out of Vilaro’s own experience.

He spoke of his own experiences with tradition, expectations, and his mission as an artist in an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts.

On the evolution of traditional culture and gender roles among Latinos who have immigrated to the United States:

Immigrating from your home country is often a dramatic and traumatic experience, whether you are leaving because of political oppression, social oppression, or the need to give your family a better path in life. For most immigrants coming to America, the process catapults them into reevaluating and questioning prior values and beliefs, because the adoptive country demands it of you, especially if you are folded into the social and political doctrines of our country.

While the degree of assimilation varies, it is particularly freeing for women who find themselves in a nation that supports their empowerment and rights as humans and gives them an out from the constraints found in oppressive, social communities found throughout Latin America.

From my personal experience, I have seen many women in my family find their voices once free of hyper-male dominated social structures found throughout Latin America.

On how his own experience with gender expectations and evolving identity has influenced his choreography, career, and company’s direction:

Ballet Hispánico was a catalyst for my own search for identity and social freedom, and it has impacted my entire being … . Finding myself as an artist empowered me to go on a journey to share the beauty and power of culture and diversity. It has led me onto a path of social consciousness that still resonates today through my work as Ballet Hispánico’s leader.

The direction to me is clear. The work does not pigeonhole the artist or the culture; it expands possibilities, the same possibilities we find because we are immigrants. We fuse, change, and morph. It is the ultimate improvisation, so our art must reflect that experience. We become Latino Americanos, we live in the middle, we are at times the other, and yet we are ever fighting for our right to belong. All of this is much more than the cultural iconic representations, which non-Latina(o)s have been exposed to by the media and the centuries-deep misappropriation of our stories.

Ballet Hispánico is the cultural connector for anyone interested in discovering more about our Latino human experience. The work is drenched in the diasporas, history, and essences of who we are in the world today.

On his calling as an artist-activist:

While the use of the term artist-activist is exciting and demands a certain marketing attention, I feel that as an artist you are forever an activist. If you are an artist, you are the reflection of life, society, and the world. One cannot hide from that truth, and ultimately your work will make a stand for something that requires your voice.

As an artist during the AIDS crisis, we danced down the streets of Fifth Avenue demanding our administration wake up to the mass destruction of our gay community. The company I founded in Chicago [Luna Negra] brought light and hope to children in New Orleans months after Hurricane Katrina through dance residencies. Ballet Hispánico has brought dance to incarcerated youth, opening a window to a world beyond their difficult environment, and we shine a light on the need for women leaders by being the only dance organization giving Latinas a rightful place in the cultural landscape.

My art, my work, is an act of activism. No need for a hyphen.

The presentation by Ballet Hispánico is part of the Center for the Performing Arts Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative. Visit cpa.psu.edu/diversity for more information.

Heather Longley is a Center for the Performing Arts communications specialist.