In 17th-century Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a nun, a poet, an intellectual, a composer and a defender of women’s rights to education and the pursuit of knowledge. While not obscure, especially not in Mexico, she is something of an enigma, her life and work subject to many interpretations. It’s too bad that “Sor Juana,” a new creation by the choreographer Michelle Manzanales, doesn’t bring her into sharper focus.
The work, which Ballet Hispánico debuted as part of its performances at New York City Center Thursday through Saturday, is set in a generalized past. The dancers wear courtly Baroque attire (by Sam Ratelle). The music is mostly Baroque, secular and sacred, some of it by Sor Juana herself. But there is little attempt to engage with the particularities of the period or with Sor Juana’s ideas.
Instead, there are scenes of generic struggle. Most of the dancers start sprawled on the floor, and the first thing they do upon rising is collapse. Then they keep collapsing, writhing on the floor in their fancy clothes. Gabrielle Sprauve, who plays Sor Juana, steps over them, but her identifying motion is also a collapsing, painful implosion — just more articulated and staccato. Later, the dancers leap, often sequentially, but they spend an awful lot of time on the ground.
After a while, we hear the scratching sound of writing, and Sprauve’s writhing solo hints at some interiority, the absorption, euphoria and isolation of a poet. The solo also suggests a rationale for Sor Juana becoming a nun, finding a place for a woman of her time to have a life of the mind, a decision represented by a costume change from gown to habit. But most of the work’s drama is funneled into a duet for Sprauve and an unidentified woman played by Isabel Robles.
Set to one of Sor Juana’s instrumental compositions and a recitation of one of her love poems, the duet fleshes out scholarly speculation about forbidden desires. The women dance around each other hesitantly until, back to back, they clasp hands. Attendants strip them
down to undergarments and leave them alone, but the dance remains chaste: some floorbound nuzzling, a back-to-back lift. As Robles exits, Sprauve does her articulated collapse and starts scribbling on the ground. Suddenly, pages of from books fall from the sky like confetti.
This is as close as “Sor Juana” gets to addressing the sources of its subject’s art. The representation of her writing as scattered paper is telling. Yes, Sor Juana’s poem speaks of being undone by love, but it expresses that feeling in formal verse. Manazales’s dance shows almost no interest in 17th-century aesthetic form, whether poetic, musical or choreographic. More crucially, it fails to give any weight to the societal and religious forces that bound its heroine, the specifics that gave meaning to her struggles. Seeking to make this exceptional person relatable to contemporary viewers, the handsome and vague work ends up reducing her.
Vagueness isn’t the trouble with the season’s other premiere, Omar Román De Jesús’s “Papagayos” (“Parrots”). First Amanda del Valle, costumed (by Karen Young) in sparkly feathered fringe, manically assails the first few rows of the audience, searching for her missing hat. Then the curtain rises on a game of musical chairs in which the person left without a seat dies.
The hat is there, and it seems to invest its wearer with power over life and death. When del Valle retrieves the hat, she claps like a demented child as she makes the others dance like zombies. When she loses the hat, they turn on her. All this inanity is set to tracks by the Mexican big band La Sonora Santanera and the lounge music of Les Baxter, sounds that occasion some hip swaying amid the histrionics and hissing.
Fortunately, the Ballet Hispánico dancers, especially the terrific newcomer Fatima Andere, get better opportunities to show their skills in the recently acquired William Forsythe duet “New Sleep” and the straightforward Pedro Ruiz staple “Club Havana.” Riddled with clichés and cigar-smoking stereotypes, “Club Havana” lacks the ambition of “Sor Juana” and “Papagayos,” but it fulfills its simple intention — to entertain — through dance.