Flemish Dancing

by wjw on June 18, 2007

“Flemish dancing” doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? But call it flamenco and it’s a whole other story.

Albuquerque is one of the top locations in North America for flamenco, largely as a result of the Festival Flamenco Internacional that’s been running there for the last 20-odd years. The festival is largely the work of Eva Encinias-Sandoval, who also started the National Institute of Flamenco, which is also in Albuquerque, and who is also the head of the flamenco program in UNM’s Department of Fine Arts, the only undergraduate flamenco program in the U.S. In other words, she’s one of the best contemporary examples of the Great Woman Theory of History.

The festival includes eight days’ worth of performances, but mostly the festival takes place out of sight, in dozens of workshops and master classes running for over a week.
During the last performance, the teachers themselves come out for a night of performance. A night of world-class flamenco by some of the best artists in the world? We went.
We had intended to go with our friends Pat and Scott and visitors Esther Friesner and her husband (known hereabouts as The Other Walter), but an illness in the family forced them to cancel their vacation early, and so their tickets were given to Mike and Yvonne.
Beforehand we met at La Isla, a Mexican seafood joint. By which I mean Mexican, not New Mexican or Tex-Mex or Yuppie Mexican or Sonoran or whatever. This is a place run by immigrants, where your waitress very likely will not speak English, and which serves hearty, rich dishes with wonderful, complex, fresh flavors. And not only that, but they serve Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, made with white sugar, in beautify frosty half-liter bottles. My guess is El Patron can’t stand Standard American Crap Coke with Shitty Corn Syrup any more than I can. (Those of you who live outside the U.S.A., be thankful your government isn’t subsidizing Midwestern corn growers while simultaneously giving price supports to Cuban exile sugar farmers, so when you order The Real Thing (TM) you actually get the real thing.)
Normally I find seafood Veracruzana insipid, but not here. I also envied Scott his whole fish with onion and garlic sauce, and Pat her camarones with queso. (Seafood+cheese=kiss of death normally, but not at La Isla.) I envied them, that is, until I got my Caldo para El Patron, a wonderfully complex broth filled with oysters, shrimp, and scallops, brightened with the addition of raw cilantro and finely-chopped raw onion, and served with homemade corn tortillas. Aiee!
It’s the sort of glorious rich down-home cooking you can get in practically any Mexican port town, but it’s awfully rare in this part of the world.
So I was perfectly set up to travel half a mile down the road and see flamenco at the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Roy Disney Theater (Good on you, Roy!), which is swiftly becoming Albuquerque’s premiere concert theater.
I should make a series of disclaimers at this point.
I don’t speak Spanish.
I know jack about dance.
I know jack about flamenco.
I know jack about music. (I know that flamenco is in the ancient Phrygian mode, as opposed to modern Gregorian modes, but I otherwise wouldn’t know a Phrygian mode if it bit me.)
I know jack about flamenco history. (It sounds Moroccan as hell to my untutored ears, but as Byron remarked, to be even slightly Arabic in Spain is “a kind of a sin.”)
(I’m sure Ned could explain it all to me, though.)
I know jack about any of this stuff, but I’m still prepared to give you my opinion. Because, by God, this is America!, where even ignorant peckerwoods are allowed to rant for hours on publically-regulated media and are encouraged to run for public office.
(An aside to Roy Disney: great theater, dude, but turn on the air conditioning. I know it was the first hot day of the year, but it was sweltering in there.)
So first up was Yjastros, otherwise known as the American Flamenco Repertory Company, who warmed up the audience very nicely with a kind of tag-team dance. Then came Ivan Vargas followed by “Vero La India” (flamenco artists tend to use assumed names, like kabuki stars). The contrast between the two stars pointed out the distinction between a showman and an artist.
Vargas was all over the place, with dramatic flying long hair and with virtuoso leaps and kicks. In Scott’s words, he was “more of a diva than the divas.” He was in his own world much of the time, and turned the orchestra and the audience into his pawns.
Vero La India, on the other hand, turned the orchestra and the audience into her partners. So violent was her movement that combs flew from her hair like plewds.* She was in perfect synch with the music and with los cantes. Dances should tell stories, even if you can’t tell for sure what the story is, and La India told a great story.
After the company finished— in fact after every company finished— the musicians stepped forward to mingle with the dancers, and engaged in good-natured parodies of the stars. I gather this is traditional. (I would like to see this in, say, grand opera, where the second oboist comes out to make fun of Maria Callas while she is forced to watch. Wouldn’t that be fun?)
After intermission, in which I went outside to gulp great amounts of 80-degree air before returning to the 90-degree air inside the theater, we had Compania Javier Baron. The musicians were unusual in that they included a violinist, who added an additional soulful note to the proceedings.
“Javier Baron” was first, dressed in an ordinary grey suit. Phenomenal. He followed his solo doing a duet with the violionist— the violinist would do increasingly complex glissandi on his instrument, which Baron would then duplicate with his steps. Splendid. Virtuosic. And very funny.
Next up was Isabel Bayon, who alone of the soloists was not dressed soberly— she had a brilliant red skirt, which she used very well. (It should be observed that flamencas have an advantage over their male counterparts, in that they have the ample skirt to use as a prop. The guys may have a jacket or a vest, but it’s not as versatile.) In addition to her splendid footwork, Bayon specialized in the elaborate, stylized hand and arm gestures that added an additional power and complexity to her performance.
Lastly came Juana Amaya, who performed dressed in black widow’s weeds. I don’t know what her character’s story was, but she was definitely not a happy woman. The audience had been beaten into a course paste by the heat and by over two hours of percussive performance, so it took her a while to win us over, but eventually she trampled her way into our hearts, and we gave her a standing ovation.
I don’t know whether it was the heat or the dancing, but I was wrung out. After downing a quart of orange juice in hopes of regaining some of my lost body mass, I got in the car and drove us home.
Flemish dancing. I like it.
*plewds. The beads of sweat that fly from the faces of cartoon characters.
Maureen McHugh June 18, 2007 at 3:34 am

Envy envy envy.

Except for the lack of air conditioning.

Responsible Artist June 18, 2007 at 7:43 pm

I covet the shoes…

dubjay June 18, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Mention of the shoes leads me to wonder how well they have to be constructed in order to preserve the podiatric health of the dancer. So much stamping would surely flatten the average foot unless some measures were taken to support it properly.

I wonder if, in Spain, there are common ailments that go by the name “flamenco knee” or “flamenca’s toes.”

Responsible Artist June 19, 2007 at 5:13 pm

I saw some cheap ones while in Taos. You can also mail order better quality. This would be a dumb thing for someone whose dog eats shoes to buy, but if I were buying, I’d check out: this shoe guy.

Dave Bishop June 19, 2007 at 6:32 pm

I sympathise with you about the air-con, Walter. I recently went to our newest theatre – ‘The Lowry’ at Salford Quays (yes, Manchester’s Dockland has been turned into a trendy waterfront district!). The theatre was very hot and stuffy. I overheard a bloke at the bar relate how he had complained and been told, “what do you expect with 2000 people”; to which he had replied, “I expect the air-con to work”!
I think Flamenco is wonderful – it is so passionate it always makes me cry.

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