What began as a grassroots dance school that emphasized performances for the community has since grown into a world-class institution, acclaimed for its facilities and programs. Ballet Hispanico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez, a Venezuelan dancer with Puerto Rican and Mexican parentage. Her career included performing in the Federico Rey Dance Company as well as in Broadway productions of Kismet and Lute Song.
Eduardo Vilaro took over from Tina Ramirez as Artistic Director in 2009. Eduardo, who grew up in the Bronx, has been part of the Ballet Hispanico family since 1985 and spent many years helping to expand the company and to create new programming. In chatting with Eduardo, I was able to learn more of the company's origin, beginning with the purpose for its inception: to provide a place where Latinos could “follow a dream in the performing arts.” Before the company, there were no places in the city that truly embraced Latino dancers and enabled them to practice their talents and excel in the arts.
Initially, students from the school danced everywhere, including at street fairs and in parks, to expose the community to Latino dances and choreography and to show that there was “more than just West Side Story.” They took the folkloric roots of dance and ran with them, creating modern, carefully honed dance forms. In Eduardo’s words, “We are not a folkloric company. We take culture and investigate it through the lens of artists in contemporary culture.” Where folkloric dance can tend to feel like a museum piece, Ballet Hispanico is “relevant forever.”
Though students at Ballet Hispanico are trained in ballet, what sets the school apart is that by enrolling in the various programs, dancers are expected to become proficient in three main forms: flamenco, Cuban classical, and contemporary. Eduardo explained that Ballet Hispanico is “one of the few places in New York City where a child can train in flamenco.” Though Ballet Hispanico offers classes to both children and adults, Eduardo especially appreciates his interactions with young people. “These programs keep me fresh - working with youth is so refreshing.”
I was able to witness a class full of those young students. On one of their upper floors, children age ten to twelve were arrayed around the room, holding onto the ballet barres as they rehearsed for their spring production. The teacher walked through the space, meticulously correcting their stances and declaring ballet terminology that the very serious dancers recognized and followed. The class was incredibly diverse, including three young boys. At the end, most of the children excitedly headed upstairs for a second class, this one focusing on flamenco. As I chatted with a few of these precious children, I found the difference between the concentrated, disciplined faces in the class and the excited, eager expressions in the hallway both heart-warming and impressive. A few told me that they had been dancing since they were two years old.
An unexpected, yet exciting moment was when I was invited to step inside Ballet Hispanico’s costume room where Diana, known to everyone as “D,” has worked for eight years, creating the outfits that the students and company members wear for performances. The room was filled with a variety of costumes in all shapes and sizes. As I stood in awe, D pointed to a flamenco outfit hanging on a high shelf, sharing with me that it was one of Tina Ramirez’s original costumes. When I looked at her and said what an amazing job she has, she simply responded, “I love designing for the company.”
In addition to the school and the company, Ballet Hispanico is involved in "social justice," of which Eduardo is very proud. They work with youths in shelters, providing the children both with a creative outlet and food. Eduardo also mentioned that the company has worked with incarcerated youth, saying “It changes us more than it changes them.” Additionally, after the travel ban was lifted in 2014, Ballet Hispanico was the first Latino company to travel to Cuba.
On a more personal level, Ballet Hispanico helps Latinos to find their place in the world. “When you are a ‘ripped from my land’ immigrant, it changes you,” Eduardo said, asking, “Who are we as Latinos in America?” The arts, Eduardo insisted, are the best way to create a dialogue about “who we are.” If dance is, as Eduardo suggests, a language all to itself, Ballet Hispanico is proficient in many different dialects. Like the Latino cultures that it aims to represent in the dance world, Ballet Hispanico’s programs are incredibly varied and far-reaching. As Eduardo so nicely phrased it, “Ballet Hispanico is a metaphor for culture.”
The Church of Saint Thomas More has only been known by that name since 1950. However, the church that it resides in is much older. The religious structure on 89th Street was built in 1870 using sandstone from Nova Scotia. It was inhabited by the Episcopalians and a Dutch Reformed congregation before it became a Roman Catholic church and was rededicated to Saint Thomas More. In the summer of 2015, the parish merged with Our Lady of Good Counsel on 90th Street.
With velvet curtains, old art, and gilded mirrors, the Auction House resembles a centuries-old salon. Although regal and classic, I found it to be very approachable. The exposed brick walls – now a common feature of New York City bars – and warm, low lighting makes the space seem more like someone’s living room than a museum. The cozy drape-enclosed rooms attract locals who enjoy huddling around the fireplaces in the cooler months. The bar calls itself a “diamond in the rough, ” a term with which I heartily agree. I spoke to Johnny B. Barounis, who explained that when he first opened the bar in 1993, it was the only one of its kind. Johnny got his start in 1978 working the door at places like the China Club. He prided himself on being “the first person somebody sees on the way in, and the last on the way out. ” After a while, he became tired of the “big, loud, schmaltz-filled nightclubs” and wanted to open a place where people could have conversations and escape the chaos of the city. He opened the Auction House, which earned its name because most of its furniture and art came from the auction houses that Johnny scoured throughout the Northeast. The reproductions of old paintings, especially by Rembrandt and De Goya, fit very well in the space, which, being an old carriage house, has fifteen foot ceilings. As for the furniture, “the turn of the century motif will never go out of style, ” Johnny said while discussing the timelessness of his design choices. At the time, the only real bars were traditional Irish ones, so Johnny was a true innovator in creating something more like a drawing room or a parlor – “a lounge. ” “We were one of the first lounges in the city. Now everyone has a lounge, ” Johnny stated, adding that many policies that are now commonplace were first set into motion by the Auction House. For example, after spending many years running the doors of nightclubs and seeing the damage that people fresh out of college (“In their fifth year of college, ” as he put it) could do, Johnny implemented an over-25-only rule, which was enforced with ID checks at the door. He also did not allow baseball hats: “It’s always the kid with the baseball cap that causes problems. ” As a big animal rights activist, he does not allow fur to be worn in his establishment. The Auction House also has never had any signage. When the lounge first opened, not having a sign was a very risky move. It soon leant the place a sense of mystery and privacy, however, suggesting that patrons of the bar “had to know about it. ” The policy attracted quite a few celebrities, including many SNL cast members. These days, however, many bars opt to have no sign. Johnny suggested that he has considered adding a sign to the auction house, just because the idea of having no marking on a bar has become so mainstream. Johnny is very proud to have been continually running a bar for over twenty years. “In this city, four years is considered a long run. ” More specifically, however, Johnny is happy to have designed a space where people can make connections. “Five different people met their spouse here in our first year, ” he said, proudly. “We’re putting people together. ”
Some of the most beautiful tulips in the city can be found between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue at the West Side Community Garden. The small green patch of urban wildlife was begun in a vacant lot in 1987. It is entirely run by volunteers. Along with the impressive flower garden, which is the center of a neighborhood Tulip Festival each April, the space features a vegetable garden and a small amphitheater. The public is invited to help plant bulbs each November and watch them blossom in an array of dazzling colors in the spring. The Garden boasted 13, 000 bulbs in the spring of 2016. And oh what an exquisite display they make. My first time stopping by the garden was in February. The gates were shut tight; however, even in the heart of winter, this charming park was filled with chirping birds. (There is an entrance to the park on both 89th and 90th Streets. )
A breathtaking cylindrical monument sits on the edge of Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River. On Memorial Day in 1902, it was dedicated to the soldiers and sailors who fought with the Union Army during the American Civil War. President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the ceremony, after which veterans paraded up Riverside Drive. Though now locked, the large bronze door at its base was originally left open for visitors. The monument was given landmark status in 1976.