You may have heard of Eva Perón, also known as “Evita” — former First Lady of Argentina, who died tragically young at the age of 33 after rising from poverty into international fame — but your source was likely not Argentine. As Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director and CEO of the Ballet Hispánico estimates, 85 percent of Kennedy Center audience members seeing the Ballet Hispánico’s new ballet Doña Perón about the life of Eva Perón will have developed their view of her from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita rather than from scholarly sources and Argentine biographers and artists.
Shortly after I saw Doña Perón at the Kennedy Center, I had the chance to interview Vilaro over the phone. I asked him about the performance’s development, and why he feels so strongly about the social and political significance of this ballet.
If you are familiar with Eva Perón’s biography only through Evita (or that one time she was mentioned on Veep as a role model of Selina Meyer’s), here is an overview: She was born to an impoverished family and a middle-class father, who rejected her for his other, richer family (memorably, she was not permitted to attend his funeral). Perón eventually moved to Buenos Aires, where she rapidly climbed the social ladder. Historical proof does not exist that explicitly explains how she rose so quickly as an impoverished woman in Buenos Aires in the 1930s, so many theorize that she used sexual means to do so. Perón became a touring theater actress, model, and B-movie star. In 1944, she encountered then-Colonel Juan Perón at a fundraiser gala, and the two soon married. She helped him become the President of Argentina through her fiery, populist oratory, much of which was conducted on radio, and garnered major support from the Argentine working class — called the descamisados, or “shirtless ones” — through her philanthropic work for children and the poor. She then contracted cervical cancer from HPV-related complications and died at the age of 33.
Eva Perón remains a major figure in Argentine and Latin history, noted for her rags-to-riches story and path from entertainment into politics. During her life and since her death, she has even taken on the status of a saint to some Argentine people (in 2019, Argentina’s labor union unsuccessfully launched a campaign to the Vatican for her to be formally declared a saint by the Catholic Church — requests were made by Argentine unions shortly after her death in 1952 as well). Doña Perón hits on most of the major plot elements here, at least symbolically, through dance.
Vilaro says that Eva Perón’s story serves to publicize the challenges that women have dealt with for hundreds of years and continue to overcome. Dandara Viega plays Evita in Doña Perón and represents her, according to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s heartwrenching choreography, with profound humanity as she navigates rejection from her father, multiple romantic entanglements, and failing health. We see Perón strutting in front of the descamisados, who literally carry her, seeming to worship her, and seconds later collapsing, audibly hitting the floor as she writhes with the cancer that destroys her.
“This is a woman’s story,” Vilaro said. “What inspired me was the fact that there are not enough stories about women and female heroes. [Staging Doña Perón] is a way of decolonizing and deconstructing the field.”
Vilaro noted that much of female representation in media and art depicts not women who advocate for themselves and socio-political causes but “nymphs and precious princesses that are driven mad, like in Disney, there’s always a man that got away — this glamorizes oppressed women. How do you shift that? By getting a fantastically brilliant Latina choreographer to create a work about a woman. Which has never been done. Evita has always been depicted by male directors.”’
One element that surprised me about Doña Perón was that, like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, the ballet still suggests — albeit through nonverbal and motif-laden choreography rather than droll lyrics from Tim Rice, who relied on one documentary he saw about Perón once and a few anonymous sources to create the narrative in Evita — that she used sexual means to rise to the top of the Argentine social ladder.
I am currently studying Evita and a few other musicals about historical figures for my master’s thesis on the relationship between art — especially melodramatic popular art — and historical accuracy, and from my understanding, one primary reason that Evita is considered by scholars to be a historically irresponsible representation is that it accuses Perón of using these unsavory means of self-advancement. So I was surprised to see this element in Doña Perón — but Vilaro told me what he felt the key difference was between his show and Evita: Doña Perón depicts what its creative team believed women had to do to gain social power during Evita’s time, while Evita primarily seeks to condemn those means. Both Ballet Hispánico and Lloyd Webber and Rice filled the historical gap in Perón’s rise the same way — by asserting that “she must have slept her way to the top… how else could she have done it?” — but Evita omits key social and cultural context. It suggests that there were plenty of ways that Perón could have ascended the social ladder, but chose the seediest, potentially even out of a desire to avenge her mistreatment by the middle classes and her father. This connection is not directly made in Doña Perón.
“From what we know, there were no other options for women to climb the ladder, except to use their wiles,” Vilaro said, suggesting that this interpretation may be, in fact, a historically reasonable inference. “How do you manage being an immigrant from a poor family, given the history that’s been handed down to women? I’m talking from lived experience from myself and from those who came before me. There’s some very strong realities at play here.”
Vilaro explained to me that his issue with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita is not necessarily the claims it makes about how Perón rose to power, but the fact that these claims were being made by non-Argentine and non-Latino/Hispanic artists. Furthermore, the stage musical has been wildly successful, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, earning over $2 billion, starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas in its 1996 film adaptation, and having been performed on every continent except Antarctica.
“We should all be given the right [to create art],” said Vilaro. “Steven Spielberg did West Side Story, which continues to have bad scars for the Latinx community, and yet he went and did it. But it was three white guys again in the leadership on that movie. It’s beyond me… but I don’t take the right away from Steven Spielberg. He still had the power to shift that dynamic and didn’t. He could have said, ‘I’m not going to direct it, I’m going to mentor a Latino director.’”
Vilaro also expressed disappointment that the Lloyd Webber–Rice interpretation of Perón is the one that succeeded commercially.
“We’re a capitalist society here in America, and the consumerism is stronger in determining thought than it should be,” he said. “Evita became such a smash hit that everyone refers to that in one way or another, which is very dangerous. The conversation has shifted about the power dynamics of the past.”
Running Time: One hour 10 minutes with no intermission.
Doña Perón plays through December 3, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$129) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for Doña Perón is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.