A moving vision of Spain

The jota section from “Sorolla”
The jota section from “Sorolla”

Early 20th century Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida was a painter of light, beauty and brilliant color. The Ballet Nacional de España’s Miami debut of the full-length production Sorolla, based on his work, promises just such qualities, adding passion, Real Madrid-level athleticism and a large dollop of pure Iberian soul.

Miami is the first city outside Spain to host this homage to one of that nation’s great artists, a no-holds-barred spectacle of dance, music, costume and art.

Sorolla (1863-1923) was wildly popular in his day. He painted presidents and royalty, met with enthusiastic critical acclaim in art capitals from Paris to New York and was worshiped by throngs of art lovers. Nearly 167,000 lined up for his month-long exposition at New York’s Hispanic Society in 1909.

“He was able to paint light better than anyone has ever done, but without destroying form,” says Sorolla’s great-granddaughter Blanca Pons-Sorolla, the foremost authority on his work. She says American audiences identified with the unabashedly positive outlook of his paintings.

But after his death, Sorolla’s joyous vision of humanity was set aside as Europe faced global economic meltdown and wars. Today, his flawless technique and optimism have been rediscovered, and there is a renaissance of interest in his work.

Sorolla, the dance, is based on “Vision of Spain,” a series of 14 works commissioned by the Hispanic Society in 1911 to document the regional dress and customs of provinces from Seville to the Basque Country. Painting in the open air, Sorolla traveled the entire country to capture these scenes.

Antonio Najarro, the Ballet Nacional de España’s young director, says “Vision of Spain” was an ideal touchstone for a recreation of “all the folkloric, escuela bolera and flamenco dances of our country.” It was a quixotic proposition. The barriers ranged from financial — the costume budget alone would have been high even in good times, and Spain is still mired in economic crisis — to the artistic. How would the troupe’s dancers, trained in flamenco, classical and contemporary dance, learn the myriad styles?

“Every folkloric dance has a totally different style,” says Najarro — “from the execution of the steps to the character, to the position of the arms, the hands, the use of the castanets. It was a very complex project.”

The piece’s four choreographers each concentrated on different styles: Arantxa Carmona and Miguel Fuente tackled folkloric dances, Manuel Liñán focused on flamenco and Najarro handled the classical pieces. And for a year the troupe’s 40 dancers devoted themselves to mastering the folkloric forms.

The section of Sorolla devoted to Andalucian flamenco will be most familiar to local audiences. The other styles are seldom presented at such a high artistic and technical level, even in Spain.

One of them is the jota, from Aragón in the north, an athletic, exuberant dance that celebrates the bonds of community and physical prowess of youth. Groups of couples weave intricate patterns across the space. The men charge forward and leap into the air, one leg extended forward and the other folding up to touch their rears. They shout, urging each other on, castanets flapping and arms outstretched.

The escuela bolera is a classical style born in the Spanish court in the 18th century. This elegant, refined form will remind balletomanes of the Bournonville school, only with castanets. Najarro uses this choreography to show off the prowess of his male dancers as they bring to life Sorolla’s painting Sevilla: Los Toreros, which depicts a group of bullfighters.

Najarro emphasizes that Sorolla is a seamless work, with lights, costuming and backdrop projections working in harmony: “I didn’t want to just do an exposition of the paintings in dance,” he says. “I wanted a production that would be totally integrated.”

Production designer and Cirque du Soleil veteran Franco Dragone used projected details of the paintings to bring them to life. “They aren’t projections of the paintings,” Najarro says. “But motifs — an object, a color, a texture from a painting.” Combined with costumes by Nicolás Vaudelet, these details transform the dancers into the protagonists of the paintings.

Najarro says he also found himself drawn into Sorolla’s spirit. “I identify with him very much,” Najarro says. “As a choreographer, I like to capture the brightness of the dancers, light, color, dynamics — positive energy.”

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What: Ballet Nacional de España in “Sorolla.”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

Info: $25 to $90, arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.