Calpulli Mexican Dance Company gives folklórico innovative spin

Its name means “large house” in Nahuatl, informally known as Aztec, and refers to divisions of society in the former empire.

For Calpulli Mexican Dance Company, the idea also translates to a different spin on the conventions of folklórico.

The New York troupe makes its Houston debut Friday, presented by the Indo-
American Association as part of an initiative to broaden cultural perspectives.

With 12 dancers and six musicians, Calpulli is small by folklórico standards.

“That gives us an opportunity to focus more on individual performers and stories,” said managing director and dancer Juan Castaño, who co-founded the company 12 years ago with creative director Alberto
Lopez and musical director George Sáenz. “It feels fast-paced.”

While the company maintains some classics – Mexican folk dance from Jalisco, with mariachi music, for example – its programs also are infused with original choreography and music that transcends time and cultures.

Calpulli Mexican Dance Company makes its Houston debut Friday at the Wortham Theater Center.

Its opening dance, the ritualistic “Mexica Tiawi,” is based on a symbolic, high-
energy dance celebrating Aztec beliefs about harmony and balance in nature. But the title also means “Mexicans Onward.”

Sometimes a message is implicitly understood in the music, Castaño said. But works such as a new suite of dances based on the Dia de los Muertos character La Catarina emphasize a universal theme, he added: “In life, we’re all different, based on classes, but in the end we’re all the same.”

Calpulli’s La Catarina – who might be an Aztec goddess – wakes up in “the other world” and must come to terms with it. The dance’s marimba score is influenced by music from the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Calpulli’s founders met as dancers with other American folklórico companies, which often incorporate student performers. They wanted a more “unwavering commitment to professionalism,” Castaño said.

Early on, their repertoire skewed traditional and focused on education.

While Calpulli continues to embrace “all the different textures that infuse folklórico,” Castaño said, “audiences don’t always understand the nuances of ethnic dance.” That’s where the Calpulli directors saw a window for creating work that might strike more people as relevant.

Lopez, a native of Puebla who began studying folklórico at age 12 in his native
country, also developed a passion for theatricality and garment design. His dance-theater influences give the work its oomph – including animation as well as contemporary choreography and meticulously designed costumes.

Castaño grew up in El Paso but took his first folklórico lessons at Grinnell College in Iowa while he was earning a degree in chemistry. He continued performing in New York while he added a master’s in business administration to his résumé.

That’s where he met Lopez and Sáenz, who’s from Laredo.

“Growing up in border cities, George and I had such a strong influence of the culture in our world,” Castaño said. His family is still spread across South Texas, and many of them have never seen him perform.

“It’s really exciting for us to come back home. It’s going to be an emotional reunion,” he said.

This article Appeared in the Houston Chronicle on September 9, 2015.
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