Flamenco's a cultural expression born of poverty, sex and violence in the medieval merchant ports of southern Spain. Culturally it's Spanish, Jewish, Moorish, Romani. As an art form it has churned for centuries on the rocks of politics and fashion. Flamenco's run the gamut of venues from street corners to taverns and proscenium arch theaters.
Today there's a substantial scene in the States, led largely by descendants of Spanish Civil War refugees who settled in New York in the late 1930s. Here's your chance to check it out. On Thursday, Nov. 12, a prominent performance company with Manhattan roots, Carlota Santana's Flamenco Vivo, brings an utterly theatrical form of flamenco to Overture's Capitol Theater, with presenting partner Madison Ballet.
Santana, mentored in Madrid by celeb bailaora Carmen Mora in the '70s, founded Flamenco Vivo in 1983 with New York maestro of Spanish dance Roberto Lorca, a victim of AIDS in '87. "Lorca and I wanted to take flamenco out of the nightclub scene and make it as theatrical as we could," Santana says. "We created storyline ballets for American audiences unfamiliar with flamenco."
That tradition continues. Santana and her current company, a mix of dancers from Spain and the U.S., try to create a new story ballet every two years. There are several in the current repertory, including Carmen: El Baile, a 2008 premiere commissioned by Manhattan's Terpsichorean castle, the Joyce Theater, for its 25th season. Flamenco Vivo's Carmen has a new twist, Santana says. "In our version Carmen's the epitome of a flamenco dancer. There's lots of jealousy and conflict, of course. That's what's at the heart of most flamenco."
Carmen's not on the bill Thursday night. Traveling with a full company's too expensive these days. The company for El Corazón del Flamenco, as this tour's called, consists of five dancers, two guitarists and a singer. The program is mostly traditional, Santana says, though the troupe's dance vocabulary has a modern edge. "In orthodox flamenco the upper body's totally rigid; the elbows are lifted. But now dancers can break the upper back line and drop their elbows. Sometimes, especially in the story ballets, we use lifts, deep pliés or other movements from modern dance."
On the program are nine palos - pieces that fit flamenco genres, defined on rhythmic and emotional grounds. "Jaleos" - the word means "raise a ruckus" - demand audience encouragement. "Soleares" stem from solitude. Most classic palos rest on typical 12-beat phrasing. But two of the works are very contemporary: "Tangos," a tango flamenco, like the tune the Gipsy Kings made famous, and "Rumba Flamenca," the finale.
I'd rather see flamenco straight up, in a club. But you can pretend you're in a tablao. Jumpstart your jaleos by filling up your sippy cup before you head for your seat. During the show, applaud flashy passages. And don't forget to shout "Olé!"