Flamenco is not, necessarily, to dance flamenco. It is an attitude, a way of being. It is to walk through life with a heart full of feeling and a free spirit, and yes, to carry around every day a little bit of death. Most of all it is resistance and fire in the belly. It is the opposite of payo, that is non-gypsies or gitanos, those unfortunates who bind themselves to work, to owning property, and submitting to orderly sameness.
I had not realized before I went to this festival that the world is in need now of all that flamenco offers. We all need to embrace uncertainty and chaos, resist greed, tyranny, and usurpation of others. We need courage and discipline, passion and tenderness in equal measure. We need to heal through the cathartic immersion into flamenco.
While Part 1 of this year’s Fuego Flamenco Festival featured storytelling and mixed media to show the growing diaspora of flamenco (see my review below), for Part 2, Sara Pérez and company stripped GALA’s theater back to bare walls and floor, to give us the authentic experience of pure flamenco.
Lights go down and in a tight circle of light Pérez stands facing upstage; her fingers held like sticks behind her back are the only things lit. Fingers and palms open and close, animate like extraordinary deep-sea creatures. This opening is a signal: watch the hands throughout.
Pérez begins to dance with one of the traditional Spanish embroidered and fringed mantoncillos. It becomes her living partner as she drapes, snaps, and twirls it, encircles herself within its embrace, and then unfurls it and seems to fly as on wings. At that moment it feels as if she is transported in a Navajo eagle dance and that animal spirit is with her. Her countenance is pure Andalusian, proud, austere, and defiant, that of a woman every bit in control of her own life’s decisions. This choreographer-dancer is gorgeous.
Her duet work with fellow dancer Rubén Puertas is exquisitely synchronized with their tight turns, snap-focus shifts, and scooping toward and away from each other. They rise up off their heels and suspend themselves like raptors riding air currents. At one point Puertas stands in front of her and masks a complete costume change for Pérez as they continue the fast sharp staccato footwork, twirling, and his spraying beads of sweat.
Jaime González, both music director and composer of the original music, delivers Bulerías, the fast 12-count rhythm with fellow guitarist Alejandro González with gorgeous clarity and feeling. Cries of appreciative “Olés” come from the two female singers sharing the stage and the knowing ones in the audience. Jaime also performs an extended guitar solo taking us with him in something of a soulful meditation as if he discovers in the instance notes, chord changes, and original figures.
In the second half of the show, Puertas performs his own extended solo, teasing audience members as he “fakes” ending time after time then launches again, each time clattering a new, more complicated rhythm and accelerating the Alegrías. What a dancer he is!
Singers Cristina Soler and Ana Polanco added much richness to the evening. Their voices offer different colors and timbre.
The company brings it all to the close with the tradition of everyone getting a turn improvising some dance steps, strutting their stuff, each their own style. They dance off stage and are gone. Whew! But wait a minute —
Do you have any idea how hard it was to get these people here? Spain has endured its own terrible ordeal with COVID. These dancers have suffered solitude and silence just as dancers in our own country. Then there were restrictions and a ban on international travel. The Sara Pérez Company was in jeopardy of never making this engagement.
GALA is nothing if not a class act. Executive Director Rebecca Medrano went into high diplomatic negotiations with partners at the Spanish Embassy. Finally, a way was found: flamenco, it turns out, is in the national interest of the U.S.
And is that so wrong? How could it not be? Visas duly stamped.
These supremely talented dancers — who from the first time they experienced flamenco, saw it, and heard it, “could feel the hairs stand up on their skin,” as Puertas confided — must not be kept from doing what they have thirsted to do for so long. They and the company of singers and musicians need opportunities like this. And we most surely need the catharsis that is flamenco.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission.
GALA’s flamenco festival begins with a dramatic gem in ‘Salvador’
Choreographer/dancer Edwin Aparicio mines his own childhood memories of war and migration.
Review of Part 1, originally published November 6, 2021
A beauty of flamenco is how it can tell a story. I have seen many choreographers push flamenco into dance-theater, but no one has done it with more inventiveness and emotional truth while honoring the ancient dance form than has Edwin Aparicio in Salvador, which opened last night GALA Hispanic Theatre’s 17th-annual Fuego Flamenco Festival. This Salvadoran transplant is a cultural treasure in our local community and to the world of flamenco!
Aparicio is co-director of his own company, choreographer, and dancer in Salvador, and for this work, he has mined his own story. He presented some of the work in an earlier, more spare incarnation, but now has expanded, brought in multiple design elements, and polished it all to a fine gem.
In the darkness, a man walks alone into a pool of light, awash in memories. Behind him on a cyclorama are pictures of children, many big-eyed, looking hungry and terrified. Images follow of barren earth, automatic rifles, and leather magazine-belts of bullets. It is the El Salvador of his childhood, one where his parents left him in the care of his grandmother when they fled north to safety. Some of the most poignant moments of Salvador are when we see these two together, first her comforting him and then their tearful goodbye. His grandmother was his first salvation.
Aparicio choreographs a chorus of six women draped in long black dresses and on their head lace mantillas, carrying candles, and swaying slightly in the wide-stepped traditional procession to church. It is formal, controlled, and eerily silent. Then a few moments later, the stage explodes. The pounding of flamenco footwork deafens all of us in the auditorium, conjuring the sound of flying bullets in the war-torn country of the boy where there was no place to hide.
Human migration through the plight of refugees is in the air and on our tongues, and so many artists and companies are building seasons around this current theme. For Aparicio, this is something he knows intimately, and he has poured himself into its telling.
The chorus is transformed into wraith-like figures, clawing at and attacking the young dancer (Ricardo “El Niño” Osorio Ruiz) who portrays Aparicio as a boy. The women take on the wide-legged lunged stances and masculine “weighted” use of arms and hands, aggressively wanting to hold the boy back and claim him in death. Ruiz dances as the one who reveals a self-premonition in his fluid arms and hands of flamenco’s feminine style and a self-acceptance and identity he is still seeking.
In so many subtle ways, Aparicio modifies flamenco to create dramatic tension.
Act II represents the journey of the boy Edwin who immigrates to America and finally settles in Mount Pleasant, in Northwest DC. In this act, Aparicio experiments even more boldly with the flamenco style. First young Edwin looks around and comes into contact with women who seem like window dressings, white-masked mannequins, in a society where pristine white figures dominate. He finds them curious, but clearly doesn’t feel he belongs. Then he meets black-hoody, “street” compadres. Arms pop, hips undulate — and is this still flamenco? — yes, this feels like a morphing of jostling communities and how a diaspora can take competing sounds and customs and transform them into a new cultural identity, richer than either alone. The boy is welcomed and, for a time, he feels taken in and that he belongs.
But then the rhythms on stage and the projected images above stage transform the world into another war zone. The streets of Mount Pleasant in the summer of 1992 exploded in violence, with looting and car burnings, and riots were met by police force and teargas.
Somewhere in the mixture, Aparicio also integrates a scene that incorporates classical ballet in a duet between a young Edwin and Washington Ballet guest-artist ballerina Noura Sander. Does she represent a longed-for romance, a dream of a certain kind of American woman, or a fascination/flirtation with stylistic expression of a certain kind of dance? Sander exhibits beautifully the high center of gravity, long-limbed line and extension, and high-arched point work of the esthetic that has dominated American ballet in the shadow of Balanchine’s legacy.
We learn in the story, however, Aparicio finds himself in flamenco, what he affectionately refers to as his “second salvation.” He, like all such dancers, must travel to the flamenco mecca in Spain and study with the teachers and holders of the flame.
Act III takes us there, to the classes and grueling hours of practice and immersion where acceptance and respect must be earned. For aficionados and other lovers of traditional flamenco, the act will be the highlight of the evening. The intensity builds. The length and complexity of sequenced choreography of footwork, rapid change of focus, twirling, and, yes, the emerging of personal expression within the form becomes apparent.
Ruiz now as the young adult is splendid. His footwork is as rapid and insistent as a piece of road machinery drilling. It’s as if he could “drill” for hours and never cry “uncle.” His coiled, lithe body wraps around itself, spins, and stops on a dime. All the while his arms and hand move like liquid. In one dance sequence, we come to understand he is finally exploring, working only against the limits he has placed on himself.
Aparicio follows, entering into the equivalent of “dueling banjos.” His body is bigger, his personal style stronger, filled with more bravado, and his energy eats up the stage and hits the back wall of the auditorium. This is evident, even when at rest. When he lifts his head, and his arms open wide, we are given to understand this is a man who not only survived trauma and tragedy in his past, but he has lifted himself up, found his true identity, and now celebrates this, sharing with us both his art and humanity.
The troupe made up of Cosima Amelang, Mariana Gatto-Durán, Catherina Irwin, Sara Jerez Marlow, Dana Schoenberg, and Kyoko Terada are simply fearless and execute every style and choreographic challenge thrown at them with commitment and artistry.
The musicians, ever-present on stage, lift the whole evening to an exceptionally powerful level. Amparo “La Repompilla” Heredia and Francisco “Yiyi” Orozco tear up the air with their throaty, emotion-filled singing and driving percussive attacks. Guitarist Richard Marlow brings out the fragrance of Spanish flamenco culture with every strum. Gonzalo Grau, two-time Grammy nominee, brings the whole flamenco diaspora together as music director, and serves as both musical and crosscultural glue of the evening as both composer and musician on keyboard and cello.
Aparicio has founded and been partnered by GALA Theatre in the Fuego Flamenco Festival since its inception. He and his husband, Aleksey Kulikov, have co-directed the production with dramatic surety. Salvador is a winner!
It’s just criminal that it will only play this weekend! Mas, por favor.
Performances of Salvador continue but only through this weekend on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets ($25–$48 plus fees) call 202-234-7174 or go online to www.galatheatre.org. Next weekend the festival continues with De paso from Sara Pérez Dance Company.
GALA’s COVID Safety Policy is here.