Saturday, June 15, 2024

Ballet about the life of Sor Juana premieres in New York City

On Thursday, the New York City Center will be the stage for the premiere of “Sor Juana,” the latest work by Texan choreographer Michelle Manzanales inspired by the life of the 17th-century Mexican poet and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  

Performed by 14 dancers of the Ballet Hispánico, the ballet uses contemporary dance to tell “an abstracted version” of the life of Sor Juana, “considered by many to be the first feminist in the Americas,” Manzanales told news agency EFE. Ballet Hispánico is a leading U.S. dance company and describes itself as the “largest Latinx/Latine/Hispanic cultural organization” in the United States.

Ballet Hispánico
Members of Ballet Hispánico, based in New York City. (Ballet Hispánico/Twitter)

Sor Juana, an icon of Mexican culture whose face appears on the 100-peso bill, is not as well known in the U.S., although the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago does host an annual festival bearing her name. The piece, then, was a perfect fit with Ballet Hispanico’s mission to disseminate “the narratives of [the Latino] diaspora,” Manzanales said.  

Born Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in 1648, Sor Juana was the illegitimate child of a Spanish officer and a wealthy criolla woman. After spending her adolescence as a lady-in-waiting in the court of the Viceroy of New Spain, marriage or taking religious orders were the only options available to a woman of Inés’ social status. She chose the latter: “Given the total aversion I felt toward the idea of marriage,” she wrote in 1691 letter, convent life “was the least unreasonable and most decent choice I could make.” 

Largely self-taught, she devoted her life in the Convent of San Jerónimo to producing a body of literary and poetic work that covered subjects as varied as astronomy, music, religion and love. She studied the Greek and Roman classics as well as logic, rhetoric, physics, music, arithmetic, geometry, architecture, history, and law. 

Sor Juana is now seen as an important precursor of feminism before that concept even existed. In a public letter written to the bishop of Puebla, she argued that women had the right and ability to dedicate themselves to intellectual life, not just prayer or raising children. 

Though her bravery in criticizing a church superior would lead to her being admonished by the Archbishop of Mexico, a moment that marked the beginning of the end of her literary production, Sor Juana’s prolific work gained her the respect and admiration of viceroys, clergy and intellectuals of her time. Today, Sor Juana is regarded as one colonial Latin America’s of the most important writers and thinkers and an inspiration for those who seek to live “without shame or censorship,” Manzanares added. 

In an interview with The New York Times, Manzanares said that she “was intrigued by all the different things [Sor Juana] did, and the things she was fighting for at that time, and how relevant they are even today.”

One aspect of Sor Juana’s life that modern audiences have found is the possibility that she may have loved women, an idea explored in works like the 1990 film “I, the Worst of All,” which suggests a romantic relationship between Sor Juana and the Countess of Paredes, who in addition to being a patron of Sor Juana was Vicereine of New Spain from 1680 to 1686. This theme has also been explored in the 2016 Canal Once miniseries “Juana Inés” and Octavio Paz’s 1988 book “Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith,” a critical re-examination of Sor Juana’s work. 

Manzanares’s ballet explores this thesis in a passage for two women. In the scene, Sor Juana, danced by Gabrielle Sprauve, delicately emerges and begins a hypnotic dance with another woman, danced by Isabel Robles, as a voice recites one of Sor Juana’s love poems. This passage, described as the ballet’s central scene, invites the audience to question the connection between the two women.  

Tina Ramírez
The founder of Ballet Hispánico, Tina Ramírez, died in 2022 at 92 years old. (Ballet Hispánico)

Eduardo Vilaro, Artistic Director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico, emphasizes that “sor Juana”  is the result of “a woman creating for another woman,” which shows how the dance company is leading change in an industry dominated by men. 

“Sor Juana” will premier at the opening of a charity gala that remembers the legacy Tina Ramírez, Ballet Hispánico’s founder. 

With reports from López Dóriga and The New York Times

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