It’s not just a performance — it’s a celebration; of raw emotion, of music, of the capacity for musicians to connect to an audience. “Xichulense Yo Soy” the Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco’s 25th-anniversary show prompted rapturous shouting and applause last Saturday throughout Cowell Theater at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.
The players of each instrument were spread out in a line to clarify what was being played and by whom. Barefoot female dancers hoisting pineapples over their heads began to line dance, and one immediately got the impression that this was not a classical ballet. That was the intent of the artistic director, Zenon Barron, whose unique ensemble was composed of dancers with varying levels of experience, age and ethnicity. One factor united all of these dedicated performers: maintaining and spreading Mexican culture through folkloric dance.
For Barron, dance is just as central to family as it is to culture. “I was born in a small town in Mexico, and I became involved in dance and art through my family’s traditional dance, originating from my grandfather’s side, called ‘matachines,’ ” Barron said. “I started dancing with my parents when I was five years old and performed in the traditional celebration for my small town.”
He continued: “When I was growing up, the government had a program for Mexican folk dance in elementary school as a part of the curriculum. I found it was a passion for me and started dancing in Mexico City.”
One may be inclined to wonder how Barron has not gotten tired of folkloric dance when it has been so pervasive throughout his life. But for Barron, it’s far from getting old, and he’s always looking for new ways to engage with audiences.
From the beautiful women with rainbow cloth braided in their hair to the men waving handkerchiefs in the air to the rhythm, folkloric performances present an inextricable flamboyance. For instance, in “Xichulense Yo Soy” just when the emotion had settled from a heartfelt instrumental solo, Barron — who is a genius for direction — captivated the audience, yet again, with an upbeat dance number.
Quick changes in stimuli are credited to Barron, whose aim is to convey why folkloric dance is so popular. “Mexican folk dances are very popular around the world. Ballet Folklórico de Mexico was one of the first groups to share this culture, and now audiences can see how we continue this tradition,” Barron said “I want the audience to see different aspects of dance. From the beautiful costumes to the live music, they can see a lot of passion on stage.”
And in “Xichulense Yo Soy,” the passion was undeniable. Different body types challenged pre-existing ideas of the traditional ballerina’s body. In this performance, there were no limitations on the dancers’ physique; the sole requirement was energy.
A third of the audience was filming the show periodically, emphasizing both the modern and casual nature of the performance. Shouts could be heard from those involved in the performance, and more came from the crowd, which presumably consisted partly of family members and friends. Soulful musicians occasionally harmonized, sharing intimate musical expressions with the crowd. Colors of the incandescent background changed to reflect the mood — a lack of set design beyond that forced the audience to focus on the dancers and their costumes. The formalities associated with traditional ballet performances were abandoned for “Xichulense Yo Soy.”
It, therefore, seemed that the intent of this performance was to, in some manner, have viewers become more involved. Members of the audience were encouraged to dance throughout the performance, with dancers occasionally dropping into the crowd and whisking away willing participants.
When asked what his mission was when constructing the ensemble, Barron pointed toward cultural reception: “To celebrate the 25th anniversary, I decided to bring to the dance and arts community how people from Mexico celebrate dance.
This performance was, quite literally, very foreign to how dance and music are often presented in the Bay Area. For non-Spanish speakers, “Xichulense Yo Soy” forced an appreciation of sound, not substance. While music serves as a constant expression of emotion, “Xichulense Yo Soy” provided a specific insight into the passion of Mexican culture. On how this performance helps preserve Mexican folk dance, Barron stated that “the community, especially the kids, can see how to become involved in the discipline of dance. It’s to preserve our culture in this city and (to) bring the different aspects of Mexico here.”