Ballet Hispanico Artistic Director Tina Ramirez, who brings her troupe to Cleveland this weekend for two performances at PlayhouseSquare, has performed many roles, onstage and off, in her long and critically acclaimed career. But the one one she's found most satisfying is teacher. "I started teaching at the same time I got tired of performing," says Ramirez via phone from New York, her voice bursting with emotion. "I tried [teaching] for a year and loved it."
Following the retirement of her Spanish-dance teacher and mentor Lola Bravo in 1963, Ramirez eagerly set aside her successful performing career to teach, starting the Ballet of Hispanico School of Dance in 1970. The school gave her the opportunity to educate and train young Hispanic dancers. Her goal was to help students become professional dancers, to "pay their rent and put food on their tables," she says, from working at their art.
The Venezuelan-born Ramirez began her professional career with the Federico Rey Dance Company and later performed in several Broadway productions, including Kismet and Lute Song. (She won't confirm her age, but references indicate she's around 80.) In her early days in New York, Ramirez saw few Hispanics dancing professionally. So she took some of the students from her school and created Ballet Hispanico in 1970. The company blends Latin dance, classical ballet and modern dance in a style that reviewers have called "theatrical."
Ramirez likes that description. Theatrically is exactly what she's aiming for.
"I want our dance to be like theater," she says. "Ever since our first reviews, the critics talk about the immense energy all the dancers have and how they communicate with the audience."
The current company features six men and seven women, ranging in experience from four first-season dancers to Eric Rivera, a 12-year company veteran. Ramirez says she looks for dancers who "represent live people [and] have the emotion to communicate. With dancing, we don't have words. We only have our poor little bodies to express what we want to say."
A highlight of Friday's performance is "Tito on Timbales," featuring live music from the Latin Rhythm Percussion Ensemble. Also on the program are "Ritmo y Ruido," choreographed by Tony Award-winning choreographer Ann Reinking; "Club Havana," choreographed by former Ballet Hispanico dancer Pedro Ruiz; and "Tres Bailes," by Barcelona-based choreographer Jean Emile. Saturday's matinee will feature "Stages," choreographed by Graciela Daniele, choreographer of the Broadway revival of Pal Joey. Ramirez makes a cameo in the story of a little girl who grows up to become an artistic director.
Does the ballet tell Ramirez's life story?
Ramirez laughs. "My friend Graciela … it's my story and her story. And she made me dance onstage at the end."
While Ramirez is giving up the title of artistic director later this year, she makes it perfectly clear she's not leaving Ballet Hispanico.
"I'm not really retiring," she says with a laugh. "This is all I know how to do. I want this institution to survive. I know I am going to be involved."
Ballet Hispanico 8 p.m. Friday, February 20 2 p.m. Saturday, February 21 $20-$45
Family Festival of Latin culture 1 p.m. Saturday, February 21 Free Ohio Theatre 1501 Euclid Ave. 216-241-6000 playhousesquare.org