June 7, 2010
Hola from tropical Cali, Colombia!  I am Diablo Ballet dancer, Erika Johnson, and I’m thrilled to be here at the fourth annual Festival Internacional de Ballet!

The house was full at the historic Teatro Municipal this evening, and Jekyns Peláez, Tina Kay Bohnstedt, Jenna McClintock, and Mayo Sugano shined on the 19th century stage.  I felt chills as Stravinsky’s score to George Balanchine’s Apollo surged throughout the auditorium’s gilded balconies, chandeliers, and painted cherubs.  Besides Diablo Ballet, the bill included artists from Ballet de Santiago (Chile), Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Milwaukee Ballet.

Diablo Ballet pulled off a flawless performance, even after spending the previous day on planes and buses.  Rehearsing backstage at Teatro Municipal is like stepping back in time: creaking staircases, zero electrical communication from the wings to sound booth, and a downward slope from the back of the stage to the orchestra! In the custom of past centuries, the stage is raked, or tilted, for a better audience view.  My stomach jumped every time a dancer pirouetted closer and closer to the pit, under the influence of gravity.  Thankfully, no accidents to report!

This was an important Apollo, as Balanchine’s work has not been seen in Cali since the 1940’s.  The crowd cheered generously, and one group clapped especially for Jekyns, who was born and raised locally before departing to dance in the United States.  Stretching backstage before the show, Jekyns whispered, “I’m excited!  My family is here!”  He added, “I’m already warm enough to perform!”  No kidding – the humid climate is great for keeping muscles loose and ready to move.

After a celebratory midnight dinner of traditional South American beef, plantains, and corazon de pollo, (yes – chicken hearts), we exchanged many hugs with Jekyns’ family before heading to our hotel for beauty sleep before tomorrow’s big event… shopping!

June 8, 2010
Each morning in Cali begins with strong Colombian coffee.  After that, I can take on anything – even the heart-stopping taxis.  Cabs drift in and out of lanes, and traffic lights are just a suggestion, so if the intersection looks clear, we zoom through reds!  Initially I was near panic, but now I’ve surrendered, as our cab squeezes between a horse-and-wagon and a commuter bus.  This driving style seems to work for the city’s three-million people.

Back to my morning coffee – the beans are grown in the fertile mountains, and are Colombia’s number one export, along with sugarcane and petroleum, making Cali a fast-developing industrial hub.  Today, the Diablo Ballet dancers explore café-lined streets, public universities, and futbol stadiums.  Soccer decorations and t-shirts confirm widespread FIFA fever!

Jenna McClintock and Tina Kay Bohnstedt wander through the colonial San Antonio neighborhood to visit Iglesia de la Merced, with its ornate, gilded altar.  A former convent houses the Museo Arqueologico, boasting pre-Colombian, Indian pottery.  Jenna views ancient animal-shaped kettles, while Tina describes the skulls, bound and stretched to enlarge the head, believed to bring wisdom.  In the busy plaza, the dancers buy maracas and an Ecuadorian painting, before relaxing over beers and borojo fruit, (claimed to be an aphrodisiac)!  Nearby, they notice a row of old-fashioned typewriters, and learn that here, locals come to have their official documents typed up.

Later, we spot a well-known symbol of rural community – the chiva, a colorful bus, loaded with farmers and cargo nearly to the tipping point.  Chivas pack mountain folks down bumpy roads to sell plantains and vegetables in town.  As we lounge in the afternoon heat, observing the beautiful citizens of Cali, I think about this evening’s Festival Internacional: Hong Kong Ballet, Australian Ballet, and Ballett Magdeburg of Germany – another great night of dance.

June 9, 2010

Cali, Colombia is famous for its busy nightlife, but Diablo Ballet was scheduled to fly home at 4:30am, next morning.  This meant that we did not sleep that last evening in the “World’s Salsa Capital”.  Was it worth it?  As the clock ticked past midnight at our jumpin’ dance club, ballerina Jenna McClintock smiled, “I’m so glad we’re here!”

Our final day was jam-packed.  The brother of Cali-born Diablo dancer Jekyns Peláez, kindly escorted us into the green mountains above Valle de Cauca.  We piled into the car and zoomed beyond city traffic, ascending onto a single bumpy road, past coffee farms and livestock, to arrive at La Chorrera del Indio, a lush oasis off a splashing river.

We scattered through palms and bamboo like kids!  A misty hundred-foot waterfall careened onto a pool, dotted with butterflies.  After gulping aguapanela, sugarcane in lemonwater, we hiked through hibiscus and banana trees to reach a second, hidden cascade.  Jenna sipped honeysuckle stems and watched giant ants hauling leaves.  Lunch silenced our constant chatter as we slurped sancocho – soup of yucca, corn, plantain, and cilantro.  Our host commented, “La Virgen paso”, (The Virgin passes), a Colombian colloquialism for a sudden hush.

An afternoon siesta gave us the juice we needed for nighttime salsa!  The crowd rolled to Afro-Cuban beats, Boogaloo rhythm, and the ratchet sound of a stick rubbing the notches of a güiro gourd.  Rum-&-Cokes in hand, we rocked Colombian style: upper body still, intricate feet below.  Jekyns’ brother and his wife partnered like experts!  “Of course”, she agreed “I danced with him for twenty-three years!”  Diablo dancer Mayo Sugano was tutored by a white-suited master who whispered, “Easy, easy, follow me!” before flaunting smooth Michael Jackson spins.  We could have shaken maracas all night!  Diablo Ballet says, “¡Cali, te queremos mucho!”

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