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Flash Review Journal, 11-25: Duende
Dancing from the Sole and Soil in Montpellier and Antwerp

"These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art. . . . Thus duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: 'Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.' Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action."

-- Federica Garcia Lorca

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance insider

MONTPELLIER, France -- Tuesday night, in a renovated church just up the road from the Cite Gely, Etienne Schwarcz, with the aid of the Gypsy Catalan l'association des Femmes Gitanes, realizes a dream. The City Gely is a gypsy enclave in this Southern town, and when Schwarcz, an avant-garde composer, and his team took over La Chapelle two years ago, they weren't content to just turn the space into a laboratory for performance art. Schwarcz also wanted it to be a place where the neighbors would feel welcome, both as audience for events like this past summer's After Shave salon, and as performers. Tomorrow's Soiree Gitane, "Soy Gitanos_01," is advertised as a music event, but if what I witnessed at La Chapelle this past summer is any hint, there will be dancing aplenty afoot as well, unadorned and rare.

One late July evening, I wandered into La Chapelle, a sloping building that seems sunken into its square -- you descend a short staircase to enter -- to find a gypsy jam in full flight. The concert, with guitars, synthesizer, and a singer crying out from a long bench, was fine. But what intrigued me was the children, several of whom, from ages 3 to maybe 11, were off to the side, on a small rug of space, dancing to their elders' playing. This was no mock play dance; each girl watching the other to make sure it was right, they lifted and dropped their heels, fingers curling above straightened spines. A three-year-old in whose expression and form I couldn't see anything off was confidently corrected by a five-year-old. None of the dancers moved tentatively. It struck me then that while these dancers may evolve with training, they are dancers by birth, the duende their heritage.

Whether they consecrated the ground, I don't know, but this gypsy dance wasn't the only authenticity to be found at La Chapelle that week. Fresh off Jennifer Lacey's posing amidst a sea of video monitors at the Montpellier Danse festival a ways down the road, I was invigorated to find Muriel Pique and crew holding forth with "It Requires Improvisations" one late weekday afternoon, as the Sun filtered through La Chapelle's stained glass windows to form squares of light in front of the performers.

A process ("'It Requires Improvisations' n'est pas un spectacle," warned the program notes) for five interpreters -- three dancers and two actors -- "It Requires Improvisations" was that rare work in which text and dance are integrated to the detriment of neither. The stunner was Mathilde Gautry -- no bunhead this one, as she held an impossibly contorted position and delivered a droll monologue with perfect poise and command. Also a marvel was the generosity of the performers. Drawn from Pique's "It Requires Performances" (English titles are as romantic to the French as French titles are to the Americans), this work indeed did entail improvisation, but the spotlight was shared, each performer sensing when it was time to commence, to eclipse, or to keep on while another commenced, to effect an overlap. The music also set the fantasy mood, with mixmaster Francois Ceccaldi spinning more versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (Ray Charles the winner) than you probably knew existed.

Later in the evening is when La Chapelle, with the After Shave salon, really became a scene. Seating -- ranging from severe backless benches to comfy chairs -- is deployed in nooks around the triangular space. The interpreters are likely to commence in any arena, and an audience member is likely to turn out to be an interpreter, waiting for her moment to join in. Young Mo Nam must have sat for an hour, jawing with friends or watching others, before she ditched her jacket, ambled on to the floor, and turned into a tasmanian devil whirling around and over the entire terrain. When she'd run herself out, Compagnie de la Mentira -- Leonardo Montecchia and Ayelen Parolin -- took the stage with Montecchia's gritty form of dance-wrassling, which never fails to engage. What I remember most, though, is the way a squatting lighting technician, lamp in one hand and colored filters in the other, took his cues entirely from the performers, watching them intently.

What Schwarcz and company have created here, perhaps uniquely, is an island of collaborative invention and community investment in creation. What needs to happen next, I think, is for the Montpellier Danse Festival, the kingmaker in town, and a festival which casts its net broadly for dance from all over the world, to pay more attention to creation happening in its own backyard. Not just attention, but facilitation is called for, I think. This past summer the festival included the After Shave flyer in its press kits. Next summer, perhaps, it can run a bus from the late-night festival venues to La Chapelle.

"Soy Gitanos_01," featuring Jose le gitan, Chabo Vila, Reyes Sourisso, Antonio Vila and guest musicians, commences at 9 p.m. Tuesday at La Chapelle, 170, rue Joachim du Bellay in the quartier Gely-Figuerolles of Montpellier. Phone from within France: 04 67 42 08 95. Admission is free.

....Antwerp is an island of many things, a ginger-bread land where one can dine on frites and moules, wash them down with triple-fermented beer, and finish up with home-made chocolate. Dancers can afford to live in castles there, too, our Belgium bureau chief Rosa Mei has discovered. On a recent trip, Rosa took me and visiting colleagues Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio of Troika Ranch to the TapaBar just down the street for another discovery.

If watching the gypsy girls dance to their elders' music made me feel I had found the duende close to one of its sources -- Southern France -- then watching the Flamenco known as Antonio take command of a 6 x 12 foot stage and an entire restaurant made me feel I was watching someone for whom duende was portable. When Antonio sets his foot on a stage, it is christened with duende.

Sure, Antonio -- dressed in a simple untucked black shirt, slacks, and boots, under wet black hair -- has feet with the force of pile-driver and can muster a jumping attack. And, technically speaking, he is able to isolate. But really, watching him -- and watching him at a distance of less than 10 feet, any faking would be detected -- you know he is charged from foot to head and, particularly, his torso, whether it is moving or not. He is patient. Just as we watch him wondering what's coming next, and the guitarist Jose Luis Dominguez and singer Inma look to him for their next musical cue, so Antonio seems to be looking to Mother Earth for his next step. You get the feeling he could do that Flamenco thing where the foot shakes at an increasing tempo, the pants flare out trembling, and the rest of the body is still, a study in control. But Antonio's control manifests in different ways: A hip suddenly and sharply juts out. Or, in the midst of a flurry of stamping, both feet suddenly tip to the sides, balancing on the sides of the shoes -- a move reminiscent, my colleagues informed me, of tap.

This is a performer who knows how to speak both grandly and intimately. He uses the full extent of the small stage, traversing every corner and in between. But the most taut moment, for me, comes when Antonio pulls his shirt out, clinging to the fabric with the tips of thumb and forefinger, as if airing himself out.

I think it's his patience, though, that most indicates Antonio is in another world, that to which the duende can transport a performer and an audience. If you've seen a lot of Flamenco, you know that the soloist isn't finished until he's sat down, his body's released, and, perhaps, he's smiled. Here there were several 'false' bravura 'finishes,' with only Antonio -- not the audience, not his colleagues -- knowing when the dance would finish.

Antonio's partner, Vanessa, had improved in focus since the last time I saw her, but she still needs work before she can hope to match, at least in design, Antonio.

You can catch Antonio most nights at the TapaBar, 21 Pelgrimstraat, Antwerp. The show is free, and for $8 you can also get a heaping plate of Spanish Style mussels, with bread to savor the sauce. The sangria is so-so; if you drink, stick with the beer. Be advised they charge for water in Belgium, and after seeing Antonio, you're going to need a lot of it. Info and reservations, dialing from within Antwerp: 01 234 01 22.

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