Choreographer Javier Velasco's beloved 'Ritmos Latinos' is back
San Diego Ballet's signature annual program pairing classical ballet with Latin music takes over the new outdoor stage at Liberty Station.
Over twenty years ago, at a family wedding, Javier Velasco's aunt joined the mariachi band on stage and asked to sing "Que Bonito Amor (What A Beautiful Love)" to her daughter.
Velasco — who is the San Diego Ballet's longtime artistic director and company choreographer — hadn't heard the song before and was struck by the music and the message, as well as the celebratory element intrinsic to mariachi music.
He then choreographed the music for ballet, and "Que Bonito Amor" has been an audience favorite for the San Diego Ballet for decades. And in the past several years, the work has been part of their "Ritmos Latinos" program, which Velasco said embraces and celebrates the region.
"One of the things that is a shared experience here in Southern California is that people have a relationship to Latin American music because of our proximity to the border, whether you're Latin American or you're not, you hear a lot of it," Velasco said.
The choreography in Velasco's piece is classical ballet — think: dancing on pointe and the use of the traditional foot positions — but the stories, the flourishes and costumes are informed by folklore. And the energy draws on the tradition of mariachi.
"Whoever you are, whatever your background is in San Diego, you know that if there are going to be mariachis some place, that it's party time," Velasco said.
If "Que Bonita Amor" is inspired by folklore, then another Latin music classical ballet in the program, "Mambomania,'' takes cues from what Velasco refers to as "'50s club dancing."
"Mambomania" is a medley of mambas performed by the late Cuban pianist and composer Pérez Prado, and also draws on Velasco's family history.
"These are songs that I used to hear when I was a kid, when my parents used to have parties at the house. I was responsible for putting the records on the record player," Velasco recalled. "And I just remember the great time that my parents had, and that the people at the party were having. It was great party music."
Perhaps as a sign or symptom of the young future-choreographer and dancer's creative sensibilities, Velasco's experience with mambo music included whatever visual and movement cues he could find. He specifically remembers the distinctive album covers on his parents' mambo records.
"They had these twisting, wild women in these vibrant colors, and it always just sort of stuck with me," he said.
Velasco and former executive director Robin Morgan launched the San Diego Ballet more than 31 years ago as a way to provide opportunities for world class dance in San Diego — both for audiences and for the dancers.
"At the time, really, if you wanted to be a professional dancer, you had to leave town, because there was really no place for you to perform, to do your art in such a way that you could support yourself. You had to go to New York, you had to go to Los Angeles," Velasco said.
In addition to ballet, Velasco also works in the theater. Choreographing theatrical productions, playwriting and directing, he mostly collaborates with San Diego Repertory Theatre, and has also done work at the La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe.
But, Velasco said, one of the things that sets dance apart from the work he does in the theater is that he is more able to take an artistic vision from start to finish as a choreographer.
While "Ritmos Latinos" is the beginning of the new season for the San Diego Ballet, it's not their first show back since the pandemic — in fact, the company kept relatively steady programming, and continued teaching and rehearsing as best they could.
The company held a drive-in "Nutcracker" last winter, and more recently, partnered with Malashock Dance and San Diego Dance Theatre to devise, fund and build a new, semi-permanent outdoor stage at Liberty Station. Each company performed in the "Dance is in the Air" series throughout May 2021, and SDB also performed works set to the music of Debussy in June.
After "Ritmos Latinos," the 2021-2022 season continues with a Dec. 19 performance of "The Nutcracker" at The Magnolia in El Cajon, and May 21-22 performances of "Giselle," a production postponed since May 2020 due to the pandemic.