June 10, 2017
BAM Fisher is not the ideal space for flamenco. The large blackbox cuts off its guest contents with a proscenium fence. For an artform as social as flamenco at a venue with a demographic such as BAM’s, the primary danger is captivity of a folk form. Being a much worse scenario for an audience not used to flamenco to behave like a seasoned flamenco audience, there was thankfully one savvy woman in the audience, shouting the customary cheers the performers thrive on. Even without her, however, Flamenco Vivo would have felt far from captive. They reel viewers in, hold them tenderly by the collar, and do not let go until the final jam session.
This imperviousness to museum-ification is a testament to the duality of flamenco – at once so extremely of the people, but also requiring stage presence with a dictator’s command. It is probably the most democratic artform there is, incorporating seamless and open interplay between dancers and musicians, blessed with unworldly skill, presented without elitism.
The only limitation involves access. There is an incidental privilege of having been born into a “flamenco family.” There is of course no eugenics at work here, but an organic pathway of a tradition’s lineage. Founder Carlota Santana spoke of the company’s outreach program, and the need to share flamenco even if a career is not the goal. Packing its third BAM season with a multitude of choreographic voices, Flamenco Vivo repackages certain tenants of the form – empowerment, pride, teamwork, etc. – as broader life skills studying flamenco can hone. They additionally feature pieces that take on a more concert dance presentation, but simultaneously avoid the trap of losing flamenco’s essence in such fusion for the sake of palatability it already possesses.
Dancers keep a calm torso over raucous feet. Their hands touch their bodies as though to hold themselves together, preventing fiery energy from spilling out of their bellies. When soloing in Sentio, Charo Espino shamelessly holds herself by the back of her pelvis, hips swaying underneath her firmly pressed knuckles. The men wrap their suit jackets tight around their ribs; women, in form-fitting colorful dresses, cocoon themselves in large shawls. Through so much fabric, sensuality remains at the forefront, though sexuality is rarely expressed, just as aggression is rarely the point of rapid-fire feet. The primary emphasis is on the joy of physicality – awe at one’s own body’s ability. As such, there is never exact unison; each performer expresses their individual experience of a shared impulse.
Composition is kept simple as to keep a transparent lens to the complexity of the technique itself. In Andaluza: Tangos Flamencos, balletic presentation is borrowed with a chorus of women in black, using lush arm positions to create a series of bouquets to support percussive soloists. Soloists carry space with them, but groups will be set more architecturally. Structurally, there is a sense of not wanting to finish. Almost every piece ends with a strong button and an abrupt lighting change, followed by a brief epilogue, post-applause.
Expanded from the usual set up of guitar and voice, Flamenco Vivo additionally has percussion and wind instruments filling out the texture. Every player maintains a percussive approach, from fingernails tapping the body of a guitar, to powerful gusts sent through a flute. A harmonica player, rattling off flurries of pitches, is met with exact responses from the feet of a dancer, not dissimilar from the call-and-response sessions of a Bharatanatayam dancer and her tabla player.
Flamenco does not lump people into categories. Beyond clearly gendered costumes (leaving us wondering how many gallons of sweat is accumulating beneath), women are not fetishized with a special sort of shoe, nor is there any partnering that aggrandizes male strength.
Age is similarly not a discriminating factor. This is partly thanks to the technique being anatomically sustainable beyond middle age. There is an obvious reverence to seasoned performers, as seen in the extended solos of Espino and Angel Muñoz, though neither suggesting that older is better nor that older is expected to be watered down. In a program change, Espino actually joined the younger women of the company in A Solas, age disparity barely noticeable.
This reverence for older dancers does not mean youth is undervalued. It is, rather, nourished as the population invested with carrying on the tradition. Caminos has Isaac Tovar, a generation or two younger than Muñoz and Antonio Hidalgo, not competing, but coexisting. A surprise guest from the audience hopped on board for Fin De Fiesta, barely a teen, showing off her still forming body’s firm grasp of the vocabulary to cheers from the company.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews