You owe it to yourself to see the ticketed headliner for Overture's International Festival, Ballet Folklorico México de los Hermanos Avila. This world-class Mexican folk dance troupe is Madison-based, and its Feb. 16 debut on an Overture stage is long overdue.
Ballet Folklorico founder/artistic director Jesus Avila left home in Coahuila, Mexico, in 1971.
"My mother had a friend who worked at a bottling plant in Poynette, where they paid a decent salary. So we went. We moved to Madison a year later. There were only 20-some Mexican families here, dispersed all over town. That's why I started my group. We'd been practicing folk dances at school, like all Mexican kids do at fiesta time, when I got dragged away. I was 9. I felt very alone and out of place here, and I missed doing those dances. So I got some people together. Most of us were kids, with a couple of college students - my sister Carmen [the company's co-director], a couple of Colombianos, a Cuban, one boy from Japan. Our first performance was at the Mills Neighborhood House in 1973, to celebrate Paul Soglin's mayoral election."
If that's not a Mad City story, I don't know what is. Avila persisted. At 13, he convinced his mother to let him use his snow-shoveling profits to take a Greyhound to Mexico, alone. "I went to buy our first costumes," Avila says. "They weren't so good, but we were thrilled."
Some of the original members, including the hermanos Avila, still perform in the now all-Mexicano troupe, though the elders are bringing up a young new company drawn largely from the Academia de Danza Mexico, which they opened in Milwaukee in '06. Marking their Brew City success, the Avilas are moving their studio into the old Goldmann's Department Store that's being renovated for the arts on Mitchell Street, the heart of the burgeoning Latino arts district.
Ballet Folklorico's performed in venues large and small, worldwide. "We performed at a national Chinese festival in Shanghai. It was extraordinary, dancing for a huge crowd in a communist country. Most of the people had never seen traditional Mexican dances before."
Last fall the company did a megashow in Hot Springs, Ark. "We had a cast of 45, including the Mariachi Guadalajara from Chicago, which came with us. The event was dedicated to uniting the communities. The Mexican population is growing in Hot Springs, and the city wanted to recognize our culture."
The company performs in New York state this month, before stopping back home Saturday afternoon. "Then we perform at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in conjunction with the Frida Kahlo exhibit opening there this month, and we have some shows and workshops on Aztec culture in New York City after that."
Shame on Madison's culture brokers for not recognizing a home-based, fast-rising performance group sooner. Here's what you'll see on Saturday's bill: regional folk dances mexicanísimos, like Jarabe Tapatío and Huapango Veracruzano, plus a reconstructed set of Aztec ritual steps largely choreographed by Mexico City native dancer Rafael Araíza, who came to Wisconsin for a Native American ceremony in the Dells years ago and decided to stay.
"Last Sunday we did a halftime show at a Dallas Mavericks game," Avila says. "We just did the Aztec dances. People were screaming, cheering for us. It's very special."