Carlos Moreno, Jr. started studying the fundamentals of Mexican folkdance at the age of three, when his father began to pass along his knowledge of the history, culture and artistic expressions of his native artform. His father, Carlos Moreno Samaniego, is one of the pioneers of traditional Mexican dance and established his dance company, Ballet Folklórico Mexicano (BFM), in 1967. His mother, Angelina Garcia, designed the costumes, sets and props for the dancers’ performances, and to this day, both of his parents, now in their mid-70s, remain involved in the company.
“My Dad does a lot of the media stuff,” says Moreno. “He likes to be out there. Me, I’m more of a behind-the-scenes person. Now, I only dance as emergency-emergency backup,” he laughs, “and hopefully we’ll never have to use me.”
Moreno is artistic director and choreographer for BFM, and his renowned dance troupe will perform with Los Lobos on Saturday night at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) as part of a nationwide tour. This evening of song, dance, music and film will celebrate the achievements and contributions of Mexican-Americans – and, though they’ll perform their own music too, of course, this multimedia tour is the first time that Los Lobos has ever performed with a folkloric dance company.
By the time Moreno was a teenager, he was learning choreography from his father. He continued his education in Mexican folkdance, music and costuming at the Academia de Danza Tizoc in Mexico City and became a corps dancer with the Ballet Folclórico de Mexico of Amalia Hernandez when he was in his early 20s. From 1989 to 1992, he toured North and Central America, Europe and Asia with Hernandez’s company. “I got a lot of touring experience with that opportunity to dance professionally,” recalls Moreno. “I was already involved with my Dad’s company, and went into it with the mentality of learning as much as I possibly could on the road.”
He returned to San Francisco to devote himself to the family business of dance and dance education, and has been the company’s primary choreographer since the late 1980s. Today, Moreno trains dancers and creates their artistic repertoire, and also teaches at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga and offers private and public workshops in area schools, to dance groups and at civic organizations. BFM has a repertoire of more than 120 dances to showcase the artistic variety of Mexico’s vibrant regional cultures.
This tour with Los Lobos started in January in California and, for many of the 13 dancers, who range in age from 18 to their early 30s, it’s their first time on the road. “It’s pretty exciting for them,” says Moreno, “and of course, performing with Los Lobos is a wonderful experience in itself.”
Touring with Los Lobos is not like touring with Just another Band from East LA, per the title of their debut album. The multiple Grammy Award-winning band transcends definition with their fluid embrace of both traditional music from every region of Mexico and original rock – and their music has attracted millions of fans all over the world.
The idea to tour together came from Los Lobos’ agent, and Moreno developed the program in collaboration with them. They selected musical pieces from the band’s original repertoire that would transition well to dance, along with an array of traditional and contemporary Mexican songs. Moreno says that there’s a great diversity in the show, and though at first it was somewhat of a challenge to get feedback from the band members because they’re so busy, “eventually they trusted my expertise. It’s gone well from Day One for the dancers and the musicians working together. Los Lobos are very humble, down-to-earth people, and they’re very easy to work with. And,” he adds, “the show has been progressing while we’re on the road, too. Last night we were able to do two new choreographies – Los Lobos keeps asking for more! Previously, the musicians we’ve worked with were a little more traditional, so this is unique. Los Lobos plays accordion, guitars, mandolin and many other instruments, and they do it all well. We can showcase a lot of different regions of Mexico in our dancing because of their versatility.”
Audience reaction has been unsurprisingly enthusiastic. “There’s a mix of hardcore Los Lobos fans, who sometimes are expecting more of a rock ‘n’ roll show, and a lot of people who are really intrigued by the program, not really sure what to expect,” says Moreno. “By the end, everyone’s really feeling the excitement and getting up and dancing.”
“I’m first-generation Mexican-American, and it was a struggle being born here to embrace both [cultures] equally,” says Moreno. “Los Lobos has taken a similar path. Most of them were born here, and grew up listening and playing to the music of the times: jazz and rock. These young dancers I work with now…they’ve missed out on the struggle of finding their identity. Feeling respected and acknowledged today is more of the norm, and it’s a good thing. The tradition of folkdances is a respected artform now. In the past, it was seen as ‘a little dance, dancing around the hat,’ but the level of respect has evolved. These are very exciting times, and dance is highlighted as a cultural part of diversity.”
Moreno collaborates with other folkdance schools throughout the states and, through his community work in the Bay Area, he helps to keep a positive focus on the artform and its Mexican origins. The BFM is involved with several festivals, performances and its own self-produced shows, and the dance studio has about 100 students of all ages. School residencies are another important facet of his work. “We offer them to children who may not otherwise be exposed to dance and theater, and our workshops include history, culture and costumes. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to do this, and every day I wake up excited to go to work.”
“This is a great show, for families too. People who are familiar with Mexico and who are Mexican-American will hear a lot of music that they heard growing up. And, for those in the general public who aren’t as familiar, they’ll enjoy their first exposure to this music. We’re really excited to be doing this tour.”
Fiesta Mexico-Americana: Los Lobos with Ballet Folklórico Mexicano, Saturday, March 12, 8 p.m., $29-$64, UPAC, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 339-6088, www.bardavon.org.