LA JOYA — Dance students from three high schools and eight middle schools in La Joya ISD were treated to a performance Tuesday by Ballet Nepantla, a New York-based dance company founded and directed by Edinburg native Andrea Guajardo.
Guajardo and the members of her company are classically trained ballet dancers, but their performance Tuesday, “Valentina,” only resembles ballet in its poise and finesse. Instead of tights and tutus, the dancers wear flowing skirts and serapes. Heeled leather boots often take the place of slippers during the performance. The only props most of Ballet Nepantla’s ballerinas use during the show are rifles and bandoliers.
“Valentina” tells the story of women during the Mexican Revolution, melding together characters and styles that have long had a place in Mexican folklorico with ballet and contemporary dance to tell a tale of struggle and strife during a time of war.
Although Ballet Nepantla employs performers from all over the world, five of the dancers Tuesday were Valley natives, including La Joya High alum Francesca Iannelli, 24, who previously danced on the same stage as a high school student. She said performing there again felt natural.
“I guess when I was in high school I never really realized how great of an auditorium this was,” she said. “I always performed here, and now it’s like we don’t really get to perform in places as nice as this. It felt good to be back.”
After the performance, Guajardo and Iannelli stayed behind for a question and answer session and dance lesson with students, answering queries on their careers and offering advice on the students’ dancing.
“The fine arts program is big in La Joya, so a lot of the kids are in folklorico, and they start them off in middle school and bring them here,” Iannelli said. “It’s like the popular thing to do, there are so many guys in the dance program.”
Ruben Adame, the fine arts administrator for La Joya ISD, says that the school sponsored the performance to show students that a career in the arts is possible.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for kids to see the possibilities of being a dancer, so we made it happen, and I’m glad we did,” he said. “It just brings so much pride, that any young boy or girl who has dreams to be a professional of anything, that their dreams can come true. For Francesca to be here and to share her talent and show what she has been able to do, I think it brings hope and inspiration to our kids, cause she was one of them at one time.”
The performance clearly made an impact on the dance students in attendance. Instead of whispering through the show, the students watched in rapt attention. There were loud laughs at the funny parts, serious silence during the sad parts and a roaring applause for the finale. One student even said she was brought to tears.
“There was a lot of emotions, there were different tempos to it,” La Joya senior Alenis Chavarria said. “There was a lot of emotion.”
During the question and answer session Guajardo and Iannelli discussed the trials and tribulations that come with a career in dance. Both dancers have suffered physical injuries dancing and undergone knee surgeries, and have sometimes doubted their future in dance. Chavarria said that in many ways the pair are inspirations to her.
“I want to open up my own company at some point, and this helped me see that you don’t necessarily have to do one genre of dance, you can mix any genre of dance and make it your own, and then sell it, show it to the audience, present it as this gem, like a diamond in the rough,” she said.
Guajardo, 28, did just that when she co-founded Ballet Nepantla two-and-a-half years ago. Although she formally studied ballet at The Ailey School, Guajardo took folklorico classes when she was young. It took years as a professional dancer for her to realize that the traditional Mexican dance style of her home had a place in her professional career.
“I didn’t really love folklorico growing up. I always wanted to be a ballet dancer, and I was always so surrounded by the Mexican culture growing up along the border that I just took for granted this beautiful culture and this artform,” she said. “I always wanted to be different, I wanted to be the girl who moved to New York and was a ballet or contemporary ballet performer, and it wasn’t until I had moved to New York and lived there for eight years that I started working with a folklorico group there.
“It was there that I realized that this is so important, that I needed to be representing this, I needed to be doing this.”
Guajardo says folklorico performances in New York usually drew Hispanic audiences already familiar with the style. She started a GoFundMe page for her vision and used the proceeds to found Ballet Nepantla, bringing together a troupe of professionally trained ballet dancers with the folklorico style.
“I had dancers who graduated from Purchase, from The Ailey School, from Juilliard, and people knew that they were now dancing with our company, so they come and they’re being exposed to folklorico for the first time ever, and it’s something that’s so beautiful to them, that they didn’t even know existed,” she said. “At the same time we do still have that Hispanic community to see our show, and for the first time they’re seeing the ballet, and it brings together these really, really diverse audiences.”
According to Guajardo, audience members who don’t live near the border are usually ignorant of the folkloric traditions performed by the company, often mistaking it for flamenco. Ballet Nepantla has performed across the country and internationally, and Guajardo sees it as an ambassador for folklorico and Mexican culture.
“It’s really cool to see how they react. For many of them it’s the first time they’re seeing anything like it, and they come out of it talking about the beauty of the costumes, the colors, that form of dance they’ve never seen,” she said. “They’re learning something totally new and they’re being exposed to such a beautiful side of Mexican culture that, this day and age, everybody needs to see more of. It’s a very positive thing, it’s a very beautiful thing.”
Guajardo says that “Valentina,” Tuesday’s performance, also helps to highlight women in the Mexican cultural tradition who sometimes don’t receive the attention they deserve.
“We tell popular Mexican folk tales like Jauna Gallo and La Chamuscada, we take these stories and we bring them to life through contemporary ballet. So, a lot of folklorico groups do a dance called Jauna Gallo and La Chamuscada, but all the versions are kind of similar and they don’t tell as much of a story,” she said. “It’s not celebrated enough.”
La Adelita, a legendary female revolutionary, was in many ways Guajardo’s inspiration for the show.
“The story of the Adelita is so inspiring, it’s so powerful, it’s something women need to see and need to know about. I always thought it was such a cool, such a badass dance, but I always thought there could be more, that it could be more,” Guajardo said.
Guajardo and her dancers will continue to tell those stories in Texas with a performance in Elsa Wednesday and another in Corpus Christi on Thursday. More information on Ballet Nepantla is available on its website at balletnepantla.com or on their Facebook page.