Kicking Off the Holidays - Salsa Style!


It’s no surprise that Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s upcoming show Salsa Navidad at theValley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) will inspire plenty of dancing. Oscar Hernández, band leader of the two-time Grammy-winning group, expects people to be dancing in the aisles by the end of the show. SHO’s 13 world-class musicians and vocalists are masters of New York-style salsa dura—a genre that’s inextricably linked with dance.  (Hernández himself has been especially immersed in dance, having just completed the dance orchestrations for the new Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet!, which opened on Broadway earlier this month). What may seem surprising, at least at first glance, is SHO’s collaboration with LA-based Ballet RED.

Ballet RED isn’t your typical ballet company. Founded in 2000 by Josie Walsh, the company prides itself in transcending artistic boundaries – working with musicians, visual and multimedia artists, and fashion designers to fuse various styles and genres. For their collaboration with SHO, Walsh and her dancers have been combining salsa with traditional ballet. In one number, a dancer will be wearing one salsa/ballroom shoe and one pointe shoe. Walsh and her dancer have been exploring the way wearing two very different shoes affects movement. “It’s comical, when she’s not dancing,” Walsh says, describing how her dancer almost looks like she’s limping between numbers. (It’s a concept Walsh has played with before—in her work “Get Ur Ballet On,” her dancers paired a pointe shoe with a stiletto.) Walsh is also preparing two more traditional salsa pieces sure to dazzle salsa purists and more adventurous dance fans alike.

Both Hernández and Walsh note that collaborating cross country has been quite an experience. The two have met a few times and have been emailing regularly back and forth, but the orchestra and ballerinas won’t actually be in the same room together until the morning of the show. SHO’s musicians regularly improvise during their shows. Improvisational breaks feature the musicianship of the individual players and “give them the space to create as artists,” says Hernández. As band leader, he provides the group with great orchestrations, then “within that framework, lets the band loose.” In order to work with Ballet RED, Hernández will be reining the riffs in just a bit to accommodate the dancers’ choreography. With the limited rehearsal time and improvisational surprises, the performance promises to be as exciting for the performers as it is for the audience. “It will be quite a visceral evening, that’s for sure,” notes Walsh. Hernández, too, is inspired by the possibilities. “I’m looking forward to the chemistry [the collaboration] will create. It will be a beautiful thing.”

In addition to salsa influences, the show will also showcase SHO’s renowned jazz chops. Of the evening’s selections, Hernández’s particular favorite is the Latin jazz instrumental “Rumba Urbana.” The piece features SHO’s percussion section, which Hernández calls “one of the best of its kind in the world.”

Both directors are also delighted to be performing at VPAC–“an incredible venue and beautiful stage,” according to Hernández. Walsh notes that the show will give dance fans, in particular, a rare opportunity to see dancers perform with live music. “The collaboration of dance and live music—that in itself is so special, and something that doesn’t happen that often.”  In short, for dance and Latin jazz fans, alike, Salsa Navidad will be a must-see for the holiday season.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Salsa Navidad with Ballet RED performs Saturday December 5 at 8 p.m. at the Valley Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $30-60.
The Ford Signature Series is made possible through the generous support of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Original program created with support from former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.