Imagine a ballerina en pointe, arms floating above the waist, swaying her hips to jazzy Latin rhythms while her toe shoes tap in sync with a pulsing drum beat.
Though unconventional in the classic sense, it illustrates the way that, throughout its history, ballet parallels our changing ideas about art, culture and what speaks to our lives.
Perhaps that is why San Diego Ballet’s “Ritmos Latinos,” staged Friday through Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre downtown, has become a repeating program during the company’s season.
It’s an event with a triple-threat reputation, drawing fans of dance, jazz and Latin music.
San Diego Ballet’s artistic director, Javier Velasco, says that many have a preconceived idea about ballet and that his challenge is to educate people about seeing ballet in a “larger scope” and about what makes his company different.
One difference is that San Diego Ballet has two resident composers: saxophonist Charles McPherson (his daughter, Camille, is a company dancer) and trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.
They are both notable jazz musicians and recording artists who work collaboratively with Velasco each season, writing original songs and often accompanying the dancers with live performances.
“I encourage Charles and Gilbert to write what they love,” Velasco says.
“I want them to write the best work they can, and when they feel excited about it, I’ll listen and get as much information as I can. Sometimes, a piece will start with movement first, but not with these particular collaborations. Concept comes before movement, and usually I’m close to what they are thinking.”
At this weekend’s event, Castellanos will premiere a new work for the ballet performed by a five-piece ensemble that includes horns and percussion.
Titled “Por los Muertos,” the composition is a selection of songs that pay tribute to jazz musicians who have inspired Castellanos, including the late artists Mundell Lowe (guitar), Daniel Jackson (saxophone) and Snooky Young (trumpet).
Velasco also will bring back last year’s “Noche de Ronda,” a series of dances performed to “The Originals: Agustin Lara Sings His Songs,” an album by one of Mexico’s most soulful and celebrated songwriters.
Velasco describes the choreography as a group piece in that a dancer is added with each song, building tension.
“I enjoy doing a Latin show because dancers can take things so seriously,” Velasco says.
“The dancing is still complex, but in their minds they know that Latin dancing is supposed to be pleasurable, and I want to bring that out in them. I have always liked my dancers to feel superhuman. When you are dancing, you become more of yourself; you become larger.”
Choreographing a ballet to Latin jazz, Velasco says, is about structure, but with a physical understanding of the emotional nuances of the music. Ballet has an established technique, and what is “tricky,” Velasco says, is allowing dancers to adjust to the improvisational component of jazz music.
Castellanos champions San Diego’s jazz scene, and his commanding trumpet solos, which can be sweet or achingly sad, are known for making an impact on audiences.
“When I’m choreographing, I want the dancers to get that sense of freedom in their bodies and move freely to the music,” Velasco says.
“Dancers tend to not want to improvise, but a lot of the time, when I’m teaching, I won’t give them counts so they can stretch out if they want. I want to see the intelligence working. I want them to relate to that trumpet.”
San Diego Ballet’s “Ritmos Latinos”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Tickets: $35-$50 (The Movida Artistica Champagne Reception after the Saturday performance is offered in the Lyceum’s lobby for an additional $20.)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
Manna is a freelance writer.