Storytelling at its best transcends time. Tales about the past can illuminate our lives and change how people understand themselves and each other.
With “NuYoRiCan,” the Latin Ballet tells the stories of Puerto Ricans living in New York who are descended from those who left the island during the migration of the 1940s and ’50s.
The ballet’s director, Ana Ines King, created “NuYoRiCan” in 2003 in response to stories told to her by then board-member Julia Torres Barden, who has since written a book, “Newyoricangirl: Surviving My Spanglish Life.” For two company dancers, these stories weave in and out of their 21st-century lives in fascinating ways.
In the show’s premiere in 2003, Marisol Betancourt-Sotolongo played the role little girl whose family left home in Puerto Rico for a life in New York. She was 5 or 6 years old at the time.
“My father’s from Cuba,” she says. “When I first did the show, I put myself in his shoes. I imagined how it could be, being a child coming to a different country. Having to leave your family, everything you know, all of that is hard for a child. It’s not my life, but I could relate.”
She also could relate to the family struggles in her character’s story, finding parallels in her own life. Before that first performance, she says, she was “super nervous and excited.”
Fast forward to 2017. Betancourt-Sotolongo is a dancer with the company. And in this iteration of “NuYoRiCan,” her role is flipped from that of a young Nuyorican to an American, a sassy girl who gives a Puerto Rican girl a hard time.
“It’s kind of hard,” she says, “because I don’t like to be mean.”
Despite the challenge, Betancourt-Sotolongo says that this is one of her favorite Latin Ballet shows: “I think it’s very important for people to know what immigrants had to go through.”
Dancer Aero da Avatar will perform in “NuYoRiCan” for the first time, as Uncle Alonso. He says that throughout the rehearsal process, he’s been learning family history from his father and abuela, or grandmother, which he’d never known before.
His grandmother moved to New York from Puerto Rico and had his father in her new home in the Bronx. In an attempt to assimilate, she didn’t teach da Avatar’s father to speak Spanish. Da Avatar now feels much closer to his father’s history growing up in New York with a Puerto Rican background that marked him as different, but from which he felt separated.
“I can feel his story and background through this project, this story,” da Avatar says.
On a recent visit that paid to his grandmother, “she told me a lot about her struggles.”
The stories in “NuYoRiCan” echo her own life stories to such an extent that da Avatar says she’s incredibly eager to see the show, “to see her grandchild perform her life on stage.” S
Latin Ballet of Virginia presents “NuYoRiCan” at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen from March 16-19 with various performance times. Tickets are $15-$20, free for children younger than 6. Discounted group rates are available. latinballet.com.