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Ballet sans pretension

Tina Ramirez's Ballet Hispanico takes its audience on a smoldering and multicultural Latin dance tour

If your ballet consumption is limited to a gnarly 'Nutcracker' every five years because you can't stand all the grim abstraction, Ballet Hispanico is targeting you.

The New York-based, Latino-centric dance company returns to Portland this week with three works that sit somewhere between the callipygian self-regard of classical ballet and straight-up dirty dancing.

In other words, these dancers aren't just buff bods in space. They have human interest, too.

'The audiences like this type of dance because it's rooted in passion and emotion Ñ it's humanistic,' Artistic Director Tina Ramirez says of the work of her company, which was formed in 1970 in New York City and now consists of 13 dancers.

Ramirez strongly believes in a pan-Hispanic culture. Spanish flamenco, Argentine tango, Cuban mambo and Brazilian samba are all great dances and musical styles, but unlike ballet, they are social styles, drawn from the clubs in the barrios across the world. Have them performed by a classically trained troupe, and you get something like 'West Side Story' on creatine. But in a nice way.

Although she still dances around her kitchen on a Saturday afternoon listening to 1940s music on public radio, these days Ramirez directs her passion directly into her dancers. And they need more than technique to keep a place in her troupe.

'They have to have drama, energy and a love of moving through space, taking chances,' Ramirez says. 'To hold an arabesque for 10 counts and almost fall, but not, that's exciting.'

This Hispanic multiculture is not strictly accessible to native Spanish speakers, as shown by the popularity of soundtracks to movies such as 'Buena Vista Social Club' and 'Frida.' Half of Ramirez's dancers are from places such as Korea, Israel, South Africa and Russia.

'In the 1960s,' Ramirez says, 'the Cubans often said they preferred the Chinese to the Russians because they shared the same respect for teachers and their parents.'

Cuba figures prominently in 'Club Havana,' choreographed by company member Pedro Ruiz. It re-creates the sounds and dance moves of the pre-Castro era, using stylized Cuban social dancing: mambo, cha-cha and rumba.

'Eyes of the Soul' is about Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, who went blind, and his wife, who gave up her career for him. Ramirez knew them both.

The show will end with the same piece that was so popular here three years ago, 'Ritmo y Ruido' ('Rhythm and Noise'), choreographed by Bob Fosse protŽgŽ Ann Reinking. (The company also will do a special show for Portland Public Schools at the Schnitzer on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 12.)

In the costumes as well as the moves, the pieces celebrate style, from a time when the Americas were well-dressed. The company's dancers have told Ramirez she wouldn't want to see the way people dance now in clubs on a Friday night.

'It's very sexual, the way they partner,' she says disapprovingly. 'I miss the elegance today.'

This doesn't mean she's a prude. As for where the most beautiful women in the world come from, Ramirez is diplomatic. 'Well, Venezuela has the reputation, but the Brazilians give them a run for their money,' she says. 'The sexiest? The Cubans. Oh, and the Puerto Ricans, I must mention them. And, of course, the Dominicans.'

So what does she think of the current poster child for Latin success, J.Lo?

'I think she is very smart,' she says warmly. 'She's always dressed for the occasion; when she goes out she looks like a star. That green dress Ñ they were still talking about it a year later. And she is a good dancer. She has the energy.'

Ramirez adds that she likes Portland for its energy, too: 'It's a little bit like Europe. I can sit down and have a glass of wine, and not feel like I'm wasting time.'

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..