A year ago, John P. Westfall sat through a revolutionary ballet about Mexican musician and icon Juan Gabriel. After leaving the theater, he scoured the internet looking for more about what he’d witnessed on a Phoenix stage that brought “El Divo de Juárez” — his music and spirit — back to life.
John made a vow.
It didn’t matter where he was.
Nor what he was doing.
If Ballet Arizona revived the production with music by Juan Gabriel, John would be there. Even if it meant, he would have to travel more than 1,000 miles, again.
In May 2022, John visited Arizona from Portland, Oregon. By chance he found out about a ballet presentation honoring the historic performance of “El Divo de Juárez.” Gabriel’s electric 1990 concert at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in México City. would rise again in Arizona.
John remembers feeling the soul of Gabriel’s music meeting the heart of the ballet’s dancers, choreographers and costumes.
“The show’s magnificence has haunted me from that night,” John said. “I’ve told many a friend how I was tapping the woman next to me and telling her how incredible a show it was! I could not sit still in my seat.”
“Unfortunately it was the last show. Otherwise, I would have been back for as many performances as I could get! I so wanted to congratulate the dancers, the choreographer, the costume designer- everyone on what an incredible performance it was. It was perfection!”
His excitement grew when he found out that Juan Gabriel will return in the new season to Ballet Arizona from October 26-29 at Phoenix Symphony Hall.
Ib Andersen, Ballet Arizona’s artistic director, will bring the show to life, again.
The Ballet’s performance with Juan Gabriel’s music in May 2022 broke audience records with more than 5,000 attendees, 80% of whom were Latinos. Officials who’ve worked years to draw new audiences were stunned by the multitude of Mexicans in Arizona who bought tickets for the first time to see a ballet in their home state.
‘They would not stop clapping:’ Arizona ballet spotlighting Mexican icon Juan Gabriel breaks records
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…Keep reading
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.
Andersen is the genius behind the success of Juan Gabriel with Ballet Arizona. Upon learning of the death of the Mexican singer-songwriter and realizing the deep outpouring and mourning of his devoted followers, as well as the media explosion that shook even the international media, Andersen decided to adapt the icon’s famous concert and music for the ballet stage.
The show is setting a new path for the trailblazing legacy that JuanGa set as an unlikely artist who fought to make his way from foster care to an international best-selling musician.
The Ballet Arizona Juan Gabriel performance showed that people who speak Spanish and people who speak English can celebrate and unite around a universal language.
John gushed over the chance to see it again.
“No matter where I was, what I was doing or who I was with, I was going to be there with my partner, my best friend!” he said.
The excitement also reached the dancers from Ballet Arizona. Many of whom had never witnessed an audience move to their feet in song and dance until they saw Mexican people watching and listening to a ballet about “Juanga.”
“I hope that this time the scope is greater, that many more people come, that the word spreads even more, that it is even bigger than the first time,” said Ballet Arizona dancer Luis Javier Corrales. “Because we are going to enjoy it twice as much and we hope that the audience enjoys it twice as much.”
Luis Javier said that the “energy is going to be different.”
He promised that everyone on stage would dance with even “more enthusiasm.”
Not only that, Luis Javier imagines that Juan Gabriel’s ballet could be taken to a national and international level.
“I wish I could have an answer. I wish the answer was yes. Because we would also like to travel and take the production to other places, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York … México,” he says.
Luis Javier was born in Havana, Cuba. He knows how important Juan Gabriel is to Latinos in the U.S. and across the world. Since childhood, Luis Javier has danced to JuanGa’s songs and lived with the musical influence of the Mexican singer passed down from generation to generation.
“Latin culture, and especially Mexican culture, is everywhere in the United States, wherever it goes, whatever shape it takes, it will be a great success,” said the 29-year-old Cuban dancer.
Luis Javier’s dreams for JuanGa’s legacy translated into ballet aren’t far from the hopes of others.
Jami Kozemczak, executive director of Ballet Arizona, said they would “love to tour this fabulous production in México.”
“Yes, it is definitely part of our big dream for the future,” she said.
Kozemczak said that the production dedicated to the Mexican idol’s music only returned to Arizona because of the enduring demand of the public.
“We brought more than 3,000 new ballet-goers who were able to become immersed in this beautiful art form. Never before have we been asked so much to present a show again,” she said.
Among the purposes for producing the Juan Gabriel performance again, she said, is Ballet Arizona seeking to broaden its reach with the Latino community.
“We want to continue offering dance performances that resonate with the Latino population,” she said.
“Phoenix is a very diverse community and our goal is for our public demographics to reflect the community we serve,” Kozemczak said.
Gaby López is thrilled to return to Symphony Hall in October.
“It is the opportunity to continue promoting the music and culture of the teacher and singer-songwriter like Juan Gabriel was,” she said.
She paused, to hold her emotions inside.
“We are privileged to be the first to receive this historic presentation, and I say it now, because perhaps it will become international or other copy-cat shows will pop-up,” Gaby said.
Asked what audiences can expect this year, Kozemczak said that new dancers have joined the company. The production will be staged in the same way, with the same costumes designed by Mexican fashion artist Carla Fernández, whose styles honor Indigenous and mixed-race communities of México
“The most important character in this ballet was the audience,” she said. “So we need them to come back with the same enthusiasm and energy as the first time.”
“That was the key ingredient that made the presentation so special,” she said.
John was one of the people in the debut audience last year who jumped from his seat in Phoenix.
This time, he jumped from Portland, learning of Juan Gabriel’s return to Ballet Arizona.
“I knew at that moment that I had to tell everyone I knew that they couldn’t miss this show,” he said. “The perfect fusion of ballet and Mexican pop music, with costume design that was beyond superb, has returned!”
And “El Divo de Juárez”? What would he think? How would he feel?
Who knows …
The divine celebrate in ways unknown.
But we have their legacy to rely on. For JuanGa, we have his lyrics to keep.
“Tú cuando mires para el cielo/Por cada estrella que aparezca amor es un ‘te quiero’/Abrázame que el tiempo hiere y el cielo es testigo/Que el tiempo es cruel y a nadie quiere por eso te digo/Abrázame muy fuerte amor/mantenme así a tu lado/Yo quiero agradecerte, amor, todo lo que me has dado…”
Translation by Dianna M. Náñez
Corrections and Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misgendered Jami Kozemczak, executive director of Ballet Arizona.