Luis Javier Corrales turned a small wooden table inside his grandparents’ kitchen in Havana, Cuba into a kid-sized stage with space for one co-star — a singer from Parácuaro, México with a voice that inspired him to dance.
Whenever he heard the music of iconic singer Juan Gabriel, Luis Javier would jump onto the dining table and start moving to the emotion and melody that filled the room. He put on an imaginary show in his abuelos’ kitchen with dancing and singing that transcends worlds, languages and cultures.
There are generations of children of all ages, from all across Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S., who grew up listening to “El Divo de Juárez” sing “El Noa Noa,” “Amor Eterno” and “Querida.” It’s a rite of passage. Parents and grandparents singing Juan Gabriel’s songs like sacred hymns passed down by those who love us and those who came before us.
Luis Javier was only 8 back then. He could imagine almost anything a child can. But not that over time and across lands, his love of dance would deliver him to a grand stage with the same music and the same co-star, though under very different circumstances.
This time, in a country far from the small wooden table in his grandparents’ kitchen in Cuba, he’d stand in front of an audience of thousands as one of Ballet Arizona’s 25 dancers.
For the first time anywhere in the world, a ballet company, Luis Javier’s troupe, showcased choreography inspired by the music of El Divo. Ballet Arizona’s ”Juan Gabriel” is fashioned after the singer’s famous concert in 1990 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in México City.
Many organizers anticipated the performance in May would appeal to Mexican and Latino/a/x audiences in Arizona, but the resounding success took the arts world by surprise. It has shed light on the power of representation in arts like ballet, which in the U.S. has historically drawn a mostly White audience.
The “Juan Gabriel” performance broke attendance records, with more than 5,000 people in the audience, of whom 80% were Latino. The show is still leaving its mark for those who attended and want more diversity and inclusion in the arts scene.
Samantha Turner, who was the executive director of Ballet Arizona when the show premiered, said it’s the highest box office presentation after “The Nutcracker,” which is tied to holiday traditions and consistently the leader in annual sales.
Luis Javier, now 28, remembered the boy who dreamed of tables turning into stages, while dancing to the rhythm of “Amor del Alma” — his favorite Juan Gabriel song — in the renowned Symphony Hall in Phoenix..
“I couldn’t help but remember my mother, since she is my greatest love,” he says. “Since we started the choreographic process, her memory came to me when I heard ‘Amor del Alma’…”
Turner said that “Juan Gabriel” was “a huge success in all aspects. Artistically, patrons raved about the dancing, the costumes and the overall exciting spirit of the production.”
They weren’t only pleasantly surprised about sales; they were thrilled to see a wider audience experience ballet.
“We attracted more new patrons to the ballet — 70% of single ticket buyers had never attended a Ballet Arizona performance,” Turner said.
Those familiar with the music of the Mexican singer were able to experience it in a new way, while “patrons who had not yet heard Juan Gabriel’s music fell in love with his voice and passionate performance. Many called it the best ballet they’ve ever seen,” she said.
An idol is born
His real name was Alberto Aguilera Valadez, but he was known artistically as Juan Gabriel and he’s still commonly referred to as “El Divo de Juárez.” “El Divo de América.” “El Ídolo de Multitudes.” Or simply, “JuanGa.”
He was born on Jan. 7, 1950 in Parácuaro, a small municipality in the state of Michoacán, known for its vast vegetation and multiple springs, rivers, lakes and natural spas. In his hometown’s honor, he wrote the song “Parácuaro.”
He describes the beauty of his homeland and the humility of its people, turning it into a hymn for local residents, most of them ranchers and farmers.
After his father died, his mother moved the family to Juárez. Struggling to make it as a maid, she placed her son in an orphanage, where he met a music teacher who introduced him to songwriting.
His first foray into the world of music was defined by highs and lows, including a stint in jail, where he met a warden who took a shine to the inmate’s songs and introduced him to a famous folk singer. Once he was able to debut his compositions and his melodies in Mexico City, his career saw a meteoric rise, securing Juan Gabriel as one of the the top musical talents in the world.
He became the best-selling artist in Mexican history, writing more than 1,000 songs and selling more than 100 million albums. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the Billboard Latin Music Hall of Fame, nominated for six Grammys and won two Latin Grammys posthumously.
On August 28, 2016, at the age of 66, Juan Gabriel died of a heart attack in his home in Santa Mónica, California. He had a concert scheduled that day in El Paso, Texas, as part of his “Noa, Noa” tour in the U.S.
For millions of Latin Americans, it was a shocking tragedy. His death was shrouded in speculation since no autopsy was performed.
That gave rise to a rumor that the composer of “Querida” is still alive. Those rumors are stoked by his friend Joaquín Muñoz, who was his personal secretary during the 1980s and insists to this day: Juan Gabriel is not dead and he will reappear to explain why he faked his death.
The enchantment of Juan Gabriel
The heartfelt emotions awakened by the Mexican musical phenomenon, combined with the star’s talent, enchanted Ib Andersen, Ballet Arizona’s artistic director.
Upon learning of his death and the profound grief it provoked during the frenzied media coverage across international outlets, Andersen decided to learn more about his body of work.
“He was so moved by Juan Gabriel’s passionate artistry, voice and music that he wanted to create a ballet inspired by the icon’s work,” Turner said.
The staging of “Juan Gabriel” was produced by Ballet Arizona supporters Jacquie and Bennett Dorrance, known for their community service and philanthropy in Phoenix.
The nature of Juan Gabriel’s lyrics and melodies touch listeners who speak Spanish, as well as those who can only connect viscerally to the emotions they convey.
Declarations of love. Heartbreak. Even tragic themes, as is the case in one of his most often-sung compositions, performed by beloved Spanish singer Rocío Dúrcal, “Amor Eterno.” Juan Gabriel’s music reaches the community with a connection that can only be understood deep within the heart.
His lyrics, compositions, rhythmic verses and depth of his themes make Juan Gabriel much more than a pop singer. Rather, they position the Mexican soloist as one of the great musical composers, with a musical acuity that has transcended generations. His melodies continue to be sung today by young people with the same enthusiasm that their grandparents and parents showed for his music.
Musician and guitar player Delfino Rodríguez examines the Juan Gabriel phenomenon from an academic perspective. To evaluate his work, Rodríguez places Juan Gabriel in the same vein as another great Mexican composer, José Alfredo Jiménez.
“In his bio he is described as a singer and composer, but in reality he was also a poet, as the verses of his songs have a deep connection to the psyche of the Mexican people,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez teaches classical guitar at la Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. He believes “El Divo de Juárez” is one of the greatest composers in the history of Mexican music and argues that Juan Gabriel’s songs owe their popularity to his skill at crafting tunes.
“Many people connect with his music throughout Latin America because his songs are melodious. They have a tonality that is easy for people to pick up on,” Rodríguez said. “You may think they are simple, but that’s not the case. To compose them and to have them stick in people’s minds, you have to be a genius.”
He noted that the combination of pop ballad and country folklore allow people to fall in love with Juan Gabriel’s music and hum certain verses. The first song that came to mind because of its composition is the popular, “Se me olvido otra vez”.
He repeated a verse:
“Probablemente ya/De mí te has olvidado/Y, mientras tanto, yo/Te seguiré esperando/No me he querido ir/ Para ver si algún día/Que tú quieras volver/Me encuentres todavía…”
It’s that unique intonation “that motivates people to sing,” Rodríguez said.
The “Juan Gabriel” performance in one word: “Wow”
That urge to sing aloud surprised the dancers and producers during the first and subsequent performances.
Luis Javier says that on opening night for the “Juan Gabriel” show, the audience would not stop singing and clapping. That is not common for ballet performances, during which making noise is avoided and expressions of jubilation and applause are reserved for the end of each act.
“All of us in the ballet company were in shock when the first show ended,” he says.
The audience participation is considered unprecedented in the history of Ballet Arizona performances.
“The people felt like they were part of the show,” he says. “At the end, they were on their feet, clapping for so long that we looked at each other and went, ‘Wow.’ We understood that what we did represented something really important and had enormous value for these people.”
He remembered that they began the choreographic process in August 2021 without thinking of the effect the public’s reaction would have on opening night.
“That was the best part. This show was meant to be something different, but we never imagined that the audience would have that reaction,” he says. “That was the fuel that we needed to give our all. It was worth it. Everyone was happy, from the dancers to the staff…”
Jami Kozemczak, director of development and now executive director of Ballet Arizona, thinks of Juan Gabriel’s opening night as a historic moment.
“I’ve never witnessed an audience that was so engaged with applause and singing along,” she said. “I felt as if the audience was the most important character of the ballet. Before the curtain call had even officially begun the audience leapt to their feet in ovation for the dancers and I had never been more proud to be a part of Ballet Arizona.”
Latino pride on display
Maybe it was magic. Or maybe it was Juan Gabriel making magic.
A survey of 300 people who attended the “Juan Gabriel” ballet showed that the wide majority agreed that the performance featuring music by the Mexican singer-songwriter made them feel a sense of pride in their community. The survey was conducted by Ballet Arizona vía WolfBrown.
They were asked to name the three main reasons why they attended the performance: “Experience something new. Feel emotional and inspired. See the work of Juan Gabriel.”
Spectators used a wide range of expressions to describe the show:
“Magic. Nostalgia. Inspiration. Passion. Feelings. Power. Emotion. Joy. Enchantment. Energy. Festive. Original. Vibrant. Visual. Elation. Shock. Satisfaction. Dreamer. Memories. Calm. Enjoyment. Beautiful. Memory. Enchanted. Charming. Different. Quality. Experience. Affection. Truly something. Culture. Childhood. Fascinating. Bold. Stimulating. Creative. Spectacular. Expressive. Extreme. Action. Full. Extravagance.”
Liza Román was one of thousands of people in attendance.
“I’m from El Salvador and they know who Juan Gabriel is there. He is an icon. I enjoy his songs because they are very emotional and speak to the soul. He seems to have been someone who suffered in life. I loved it when he sang with Rocío Dúrcal. They had great chemistry,” she said..
Liza found out about the show by coincidence. She had reached out to the theater to ask about changing tickets for “The Nutcracker” performance.
“They told me that they were going to offer a show featuring Juan Gabriel. I didn’t hesitate to go,” said Liza, who has lived in Arizona for more than 40 years. “It was beautiful, although I would have liked to hear it without the symphony orchestra.”
Gabriela López was another audience member. After the show, she said with a huge smile: “If Juan Gabriel were alive, he would have never imagined a ballet performance featuring his music. His musical legacy is enormous.”
For Gaby, as she is affectionately called, the music of “JuanGa” was never foreign: Her father, Ramón López, was a mariachi musician in Nogales, Sonora, so it was customary to hear him playing the melodies of the composer of “Me Nace del Corazón.”
She said the most requested song her dad would get at festivities was “Amor Eterno.”
“I have a lot of memories of Juan Gabriel from the time I was a kid,” she said. “We grew up with his music. My dad played with stars like Lola Beltrán, Javier Solís, Pedro Vargas, Eyde Gorme.”
Gaby lives in Phoenix and said it was gratifying to see White audience members enjoying the Spanish-language performance dedicated to a Mexican star.
“You wonder, how do they know this music? But they wanted to know who Juan Gabriel was,” she said. “That’s what’s beautiful, that they are paying attention to our culture and what we can offer.”
Also garnering attention during the performance were the stunning colorful and festive costumes designed by Mexican fashion artist Carla Fernández, whose styles honor Indigenous and mixed-race communities of México. Her website explains that Fernández’s work is done by Mexican artisans who specialize in the creation of textiles and handicrafts, and her methods are ancestral and apply centuries-old Indigenous techniques.
Born to Dance
After seeing his natural ability as a child, Luis Javier’s parents decided that he would become a dancer. Perhaps the fact that there was always Juan Gabriel music in the background and a small wooden table to serve as a stage also played a role.
“When I started to stomp my feet on the table, whether it was flamenco or folk dance, it was a ‘show’ that captured the family. My parents decided that they needed to encourage my artistic side,” Luis Javier says.
But his father, a car mechanic, and his mother, a chemistry professor, did not know how to develop a dancer. Still, they offered all of their support so that he could audition with 200 kids to join Cuba’s National Ballet School.
Luis Javier earned a spot.
“My parents Niurka Ceballos and Jorge Luis Corrales helped me do stretching exercises before the audition without having any knowledge,” he remembers. “To their astonishment, I was selected.”
From that point on, his career took off. The Cuba native was invited to be part of a production of “Don Quixote” on a tour in South Africa. After a year, he was asked to join Ecuador’s National Ballet Company as the lead dancer for three years.
In 2017, he joined Ballet San Antonio playing lead roles. His two-season engagement culminated with his rise to soloist in 2018. He joined Ballet Arizona in 2019.
Through all these years, with his career flourishing, the ballerina has lived many gratifying experiences across the world. Nothing compares to the joy he felt during the performance of “Juan Gabriel” in Arizona.
“The audience was completely invested,” he says.
“Amor del alma
En el silencio de mi obscuridad te veo…”
“They would not stop clapping, and all of them on their feet.”
That little boy from Havana, Cuba — dancing on a small wooden table for his grandparents, with background music from a singer from Parácuaro, México — is one note in the rhythm and international legacy of Juan Gabriel.
In the end…
El Divo de Juárez lives on in his people.
Translation by Nathalie Alonso