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Queens Chronicle

Celebrating Mexican culture through dance

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Posted: Thursday, May 6, 2010 12:00 am

Long after most Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the borough have ended, the fiesta continues at the Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside with a limited return engagement of Ballet Fiesta Mexicana.

Running through May 9, the 75-minute, intermissionless show is so infectious that it will definitely put those in attendance in the mood to don a sombrero and raise a glass of tequila.

For 33 years, the Thalia’s mission has been to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of Latin-American culture through theater, dance and musical productions. "We have a faithful audience. We always take risks, but they have a kind of trust in us," said Thalia artistic director, Angel Gil Orrios.

When the theater opened, Sunnyside was predominantly Irish, Gil Orrios said. A large population of Indians and Eastern Europeans have since moved to the area and surprisingly, Hispanics make up a relatively low percentage of the local population.

Still, estimates suggest that as the only bilingual Hispanic theater in the borough, the Thalia serves a community of more than 1 million Hispanics from every Spanish-speaking nation in the world. Its 150-plus productions have received a total of 147 awards for artistic excellence, including, most recently, the 2009 Mayor's Award for Arts & Culture.

The current performance not only celebrates Cinco de Mayo, a multinational holiday that commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but also Mexico's independence day bicentennial.

The show, featuring a group of musicians known as the Mariachi Flor de Toloache, guest vocalist Daniel Soberanes, from the famous Mexican band Zazhil, and a corps of dancers under the artistic direction of Yloy Ybarra, is a delight for the eyes and ears.Steeped in Mexican culture, the performance incorporates authentic instruments, costumes and sound effects. Many numbers are punctuated with shouts of "Viva Mexico!"

Themes include blessing, independence and revolution, with the evening’s centerpiece, “Juani Ballet,” performed as a colorful eruption of solo and group dance numbers.

Highlights of the performance include a dance in which lit candles are balanced precariously on performers’ heads and a number, to the tune of “La Bamba,” in which dancers ceremoniously tie a long ribbon into a bow using only their feet. Of course a minimalist version of the famous Mexican hat dance is also performed.

While Cinco de Mayo is scarcely recognized today in Mexico, the date has taken on worldwide popularity as a celebration of Mexico’s heritage and pride.In the U.S., carnivals, street fairs and multi-day festivals are held to commemorate the occasion.

èopular cultural references include Bob Dylan’s song, “Isis,” wherein the title character marries on the date, as well as recordings by such varied artists as Herb Alpert and Liz Phair who both have songs entitled “Cinco de Mayo.”

Mexico’s proclamation of independence from Spain took place on Sept. 16, 1810; the country achieved actual independence in 1821.

In the 2000 census, Mexicans comprised New York City’s fastest growing ethnic group.Latest estimates place the number of Mexicans living in the city at 300,000, the third largest Hispanic group in New York, after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.More than 60 percent of all Mexican New Yorkers reside in Queens and Brooklyn.

Still, the Thalia hosts audiences that are only about 50 percent Hispanic, according to Gil Orrios, who has lived in this country for 30 years, 10 of them as the theater’s artistic director.

At last Friday’s opening night performance, which attracted a relatively small audience, Robert and Sigrid Adler, a married couple from Port Washington, arrived with great anticipation.

Frequent patrons of the theater, they said that they always enjoy the “good music and dancing” that the shows offer.

Gil Orrios said that when he takes productions on the road, he is reminded of the wide appeal his programs have. Of the largely Russian community of Brighton Beach, he remarked, “They love tango.”

‘Ballet Fiesta Mexicana’

When: May 6-8, 8 p.m. and May 9 at 4 p.m.

Where: Thalia Spanish Theatre 41-17 Greenpoint Ave., Sunnyside

(718) 729-3880

Tickets: $30; $27 for seniors and students and $25 on Thursday and Friday.

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