Rafael Ramírez breaks the macho mold in GALA’s Fuego Flamenco Festival XIX

He gives his all in the service of sharing the quest of the human spirit.

In its 19th Fuego Flamenco Festival, GALA Hispanic Theatre has once again assembled in Washington companies and programs of high-definition artistry to demonstrate the breadth and variety that make up both traditional and boundary-shattering contemporary flamenco. The second program in this fall’s lineup, Lo preciso, features multi-award-winning dancer Rafael Ramírez, and the program, only 70 minutes in length, is stunning.

What made his artistry so exceptional? In Ramírez we get a dancer, choreographer, and stage director who is at once both bold and pure, who wastes not a single gesture or percussive footwork as exclamation points, and whose vision never waivers from delivering human emotions in the stories and relationships with his fellow artists on stage.

Rafael Ramírez in ‘Lo preciso.’ Photo courtesy of Spain Flamenco Arts.

It began with the piece “Origen” in silence. Ramírez enters in darkness, but for a rectangular shaft of light. His upper torso is bare, a black hat pulled at such a rakish angle his face is totally eclipsed. He lifts a leg and slowly, slowly plants one foot, followed by the other, like a long-legged bird picking its way along a water’s edge. The suspension. The control. Four other bodies stand stark still on stage. He moves to each one and slowly animates them. Perhaps this is the dawn of creation, and we are witnessing the artist-as-god in the process of conjuring exactness. He seems to invite us into his quest for what is essential in his storytelling through dance.

I watch the man’s technical use of extensions, going much further than the lifted chest and high-aloft arms we associate with flamenco dancing. Borrowing from modern dance, he incorporates elongated low diagonals in his choreography and then keeps the energy moving in oppositional suspension, and, just when one thinks he can’t extricate himself, he releases and arcs his arm or torques his body.

Perhaps more than anything, for me Ramírez breaks the mold of the macho pride and whiff of arrogance I so often associate with male flamenco. In one of the dances, I watch the man in what seems an existential crisis. “Which way to turn? What choices do I even have?” His face is pitiable, his expression vulnerable. He performs near-impossibly low lunges, pulls up taut, lunges again, then retreats covering the stage in a long diagonal, his feet sliding along the floor, specifically not stomping. He reaches to the sky, poised in some kind of cry of silent communion. In most un-flamenco style, his body contracts and collapses. ¡Guapo!

Don’t misunderstand, when the feet need to rat-a-tat-tat clatter, he has all the technique and fire one expects. But he doesn’t make that the focus of his choreography. Rather, he gives his all in the sharp focus shifts, the wrist and arm rotations, the exquisite hanging suspension in a pose on an inhalation. And all in the service of sharing the exacting effort needed to attain perfection that is the quest of the human spirit.

Rafael Ramírez directs, choreographs, and performs in ‘Lo preciso.’ Photo courtesy of Spain Flamenco Arts.

The four others in the ensemble most ably add to the evening, changing the tone, adding song and instrumental music, and even taking on dramatic characters.

Singers Rosa Linero and Fabiola Santiago are delightfully giddy and soulful by turns. Their throaty voices convey the passion and sustained hiccoughing vocalise runs of the style. In one whole number, they speak rhythmically, freshening the ancient genre with a contemporary pulse. There’s even a most comical girl “dissing” scene, where, with much fanning business and flouncing, they sit, stand, turn their backs on each other, and then wheel around to dish it to each other again, including hurling comparisons about their breasts. Hilarious. It’s lovely to see the range and theatrical capacity of these two singers.

There is more than one magical moment, defined by simple choreographed means. I recall one where Ramírez holds up what looks like a solid backdrop behind a singer with her wild long red hair, standing as if for a portrait. He folds the “backdrop’ so it becomes a tunnel and, dominating her, draws the woman inside upstage. But then he appears behind her and the cloth is revealed as a classic tablao or manton (the large square fringed shawl used in flamenco.) She takes the lead, floating her arms up and down, and he as partner follows, his arms flicking in response to hers, unfurling, so that the long fringes flutter like feathers of a single bird taking wing.

Isaac Muñoz plays flamenco-style guitar beautifully. In solos, this fine musician captured the hearts of everyone in the room. Similarly, percussionist Alex Otero added much to the spare style of the choreography. He and Ramírez conveyed a special bond, listening closely to each other and complementing each one’s intricate rhythmic patterns, fusing in Ramírez’s desired preciso to distill into true collaborative perfection.

There might be just one element missing. In any full traditional tablao experience, the audience participation is integral. While we had a few scattered flamenco aficionados in the theater opening night, most Americans are woefully unprepared to leap in and interact. My friend Cecília and I have wondered how to assist the audience to participate and if GALA and its presenting collaborators might offer a short pre-show “workshop” to introduce the audience to the clapping rhythms. It would serve as cultural education and enliven the evening further.

There are two performances left, November 11 at 8 p.m. and November 12 at 2 p.m. Starting November 16 as part of the festival, Edwin Aparicio and his local Flamenco Aparicio Dance Co. will be presenting a new work entitled Enredo.

Flamenco is a treasure and available to us all in DC, thanks in great part to GALA’s commitment to revel in the art form presented festival style.

Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Fuego Flamenco Festival XIX – Lo preciso plays Saturday, November 11, 2023, at 8:00 pm and Sunday, November 12 at 2:00 pm at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Single tickets are $25–$48. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 202-234-7174 or visit galatheatre.org.

COVID Safety:  Wearing masks is optional.

SEE ALSO:
Flamenco Aparicio Dance Co. feels family ties in GALA’s Fuego Flamenco Festival XIX (review by Susan Galbraith, November 19, 2023)

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Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.

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