It's been nearly a year and a half since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, but that doesn't mean the effects of the storm aren't still being widely felt. Thousands of Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida after the storm hit (the exact number is unknown), and many are still settled in Orlando.
This weekend, Orlando Ballet brings its Bailamos! program to audiences in Central Florida, and the company is offering 1,000 free tickets to Puerto Ricans in the area who were displaced by the hurricane. The ticket donation was organized in partnership with Orlando's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, who helped spread the word about how individuals and families could claim their tickets to the February 16 matinee. Some of the marketing for the performance was entirely in Spanish, and the program will also include an insert for Spanish-speaking audiences. "We're not just a professional ballet company; we are Orlando Ballet and we have a role to play in this community," says executive director Shane Jewell. "We have a social responsibility, I believe, as an arts organization, to do whatever we can to enrich the quality of life for everyone who's here."
The program itself, part of artistic director Robert Hill's 10th anniversary season, features a collection of short works that combine classical ballet with Latin-infused contemporary, pulling in styles like salsa and tango. Works include excerpts from Don Quixote; contemporary pieces set to the music of Costa Rican-born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas and Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso; and larger orchestral works like Danzón No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. "It's a real broad spectrum of musical choices and dance choices," says Hill, "It's got a little bit for everybody."
It's also a program well-suited to the Orlando population, which was home to a large Hispanic community long before Hurricane Maria. Many of Orlando Ballet's dancers themselves come from across Latin America, with current members hailing from Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. While the company presented versions of Bailamos! in 2010 and 2011, this particular iteration highlights Hill's choreographic contributions to the repertory, many of which he first developed as director of Ballet de Monterrey in Mexico.
In addition to providing comfort and healing to people during a difficult time, the company hopes to give audiences a broader sense of what ballet can be, and who it's for. "Some people view ballet as an exclusive art form, only for a select few people, and when they think of a ballet company they only think of dancers in Swan Lake costumes on pointe," says Jewell. "I think our goal for this is breaking down barriers and perceptions of the ballet world, and truly showing a celebration of a culture and a celebration of dance within that culture."
"I tell people, 'You don't need to know a thing about ballet,' " adds Hill. " 'Just come and I promise you're going to enjoy it.' "