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Letter from New York, 3-21: Mining the Lore, Planting the Seeds
Pasion Flamenca: Dance Globally, Produce Locally

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2008 Anna Arias Rubio

NEW YORK -- There's an element of the surreal in New York-based Pasion Flamenca's "Flamencolorico: Lore of the Miners," seen February 8 at the Helen Mills Theater. Produced by the New York Center for Flamenco Performing Arts, choreographed by Antony Hidalgo, with music by third generation flamenco guitarist Pedro Cortes Jr. based almost entirely on Flamenco mining songs from Jaen, Murcia, and Almeria and descended from the fandango, and directed by Jorge Navarro, the work is at once the story of a family of miners in Andalucia and of a family of artists who for 40 years have helped lay the foundry for Flamenco in Manhattan.

"Flamenclorico" attempts to portray one day in the brutal life of a three-generation family of Andalusian miners. The grandfather is played by Navarro, who in real life runs Alegrias en La Nacional, the only authentic tablao in New York. Hidalgo, a young dancer from Madrid (and a friend and colleague) who has become a regular visitor to New York represents the second generation. Raul Ortega portrays the grandson. The cast is rounded out by Sevillano guitarist Javier Navarro, New York-based dancer Leilah Broukhim and Spanish actress Puy Navarro. (The three Navarros are not related.)

The play begins with the awakening of the family, danced to the alborea, sung in turns by Maria Benjumeda and Sara Salado, both from Jerez de la Frontera, a.k.a. the cuna of flamenco. Being the Flamenco dance insider that I am, this is where I begin to notice the self-referencing surrealism. The men rise from their beds, the oldest, Navarro, getting up stiffly and solemnly before his wife, played by Puy Navarro, helps him dress. Jorge Navarro has been a flamenco dancer for nearly four decades, touring with Maria Alba in the '60s and '70s -- the golden age of flamenco in New York -- and performing with the legends of flamenco guitar, Sabicas and Mario Escudero, as well as the late Maestro Pedro Cortes Sr., father of this production's musical director. He is the only dancer formed in that epoch who is still regularly performing, still in the mines, chipping away.

Young Ortega twitches and squirms, resisting the morning before finally dressing himself energetically, while Hidalgo, a.k.a. the second generation, rises with determination, gently deflecting his wife's efforts to keep him home safe in bed. His movement is matter-of-fact, in contrast to the resigned cadence of the older Navarro. He will keep going, keep working to keep his family fed.

Hidalgo has toured world-wide as choreographer, teacher and performer. He has performed as a soloist in the Antonio Gades Dance Company. He has also mastered theater arts, designing lighting and soundscapes. He's based in Madrid, but has a special attachment to the Flamenco scene in the United States. He recognizes the commitment of artists here and regularly teaches, performs, and directs in New York, Atlanta, Washington, DC, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In other words, he is that middle generation work-horse, guiding and leading our American Flamenco family with the same attention and determination his "Flamenclorico" miner applies to taking care of his family.

In Scene II, the men take turns marking traditional fandangos in a tavern before being "lowered" into the mineshaft. They stand together downstage, lit from overlapping small spotlights. The menacing, metallic rumble of chains and pulleys creak and the men vibrate as they enter the mine. Sound in Flamenco performances is always problematic. The Flamenco guitar really isn't meant to be amplified, and mixing the sound of delicate nylon strings with loud, rough flamenco voices and percussive footwork is a constant issue in theaters. The mix achieved in this production was the very best I have ever heard in a Flamenco presentation in a theater. The guitars sounded brilliant and crisp, the voices full, and the footwork sharp and dry -- a perfect balance.

Carrying bastones, the wooden canes often used in Flamenco, they get to work. They tap the canes on the floor in unison to create the base rhythm and take turns creating overlapping footwork patterns suggesting the sound and energy of men swinging hammers, mining. This section is mesmerizing, the hypnotic rhythm of martinete entering your brain and pounding and pounding, "one and two and three, one-two-three one-two-three and" over and over.

Hidalgo masterfully creates sophisticated counter-rhythms over this pattern. His perfect technique is all efficiency. Even when his feet are moving at lighting fast speed, there is always a counterbalance in his body and long arms. His is an elegant and commanding presence.

Raul Ortega, like many of the male dancers here in his 20s and hailing from Madrid, pushes and forces so many sounds into each rhythm that he is on the very edge of every measure. Wild and loose in his gangly long-limbed body, he exuberantly and forcefully portrays the inexperience of youth. Neither his character in the play nor Ortega himself have yet learned to use technique to reserve energy for the long haul, but he is exciting to watch.

Navarro takes his turn last. I can't separate his stage persona with the Jorge I have known for many years. He doesn't have the speed of Ortega, or the sophistication of Hidalgo, and he knows this, but he dances with dignity. He is aware of the limits time puts on our bodies, and with the guidance of master choreographer -- and close friend -- Hidalgo, he gives an honorable performance. Ortega and Hidalgo pound their bastones, keeping the rhythm for him, and I feel their energy holding him up. They express their respect for the grandfather/Navarro, for all he has done to keep his family going -- his character's family in the play, and, presumably, his flamenco family in New York.

Included in this mining section of the piece is Puy Navarro's recitation of "Dad and the Drill and the Blue Tatoo," a poem by Andy Young written in the voice of a grandson describing his grandfather's wounding in a mine accident. Navarro recites in English, with a thick -- but not distracting -- Spanish accent. The lights begin to fade and soften. Hidalgo and Jorge Navarro dance the story in a tender duet in which the younger man lifts the older until Navarro's body encircles his own and he is carried to safety. Though the expression of the letras (lyrics) in Flamenco is not a literal one, here the dancers literally expressing a poem recited on stage does not feel inappropriate or trite. The program states that the artists' intention was to show the commonality in the themes of mining songs in Flamenco and the mining songs of North America. Thus the dancing here is a graceful tool to explain the lyrics of the cantes de las minas form without breaking the rhythm of the work.

The second half of the performance represents the workers and their wives in front of the fire, relaxing and celebrating the survival of another day, very much Flamenco in it's original form -- at home and in family with song and dance. The focus on the individual solos instead of the story gave me a chance to really appreciate Cortes's astounding original music, as he performs it with Javier Navarro. The sparkling, delicate falseta (melodic interlude) Cortes created for the bambera danced by Raul Ortega is the perfect compliment to both Ortega's hard and fast, wild footwork and the raspy-but-sweet voice of Sara Salado. Both falsetas he created for the farruca danced by Jorge Navarro -- later joined by the other two men -- are especially poignant. The first has a melancholy and dignity totally appropriate to the masculine farruca rhythm and to Navarro's dancing. I detected in the second a faint reference to the tones of a country-western song, again evoking the culture of the American miners -- a subtle but brilliant touch.

"Flamenclorico" was put together in an eight-day marathon of all-day rehearsals, on a very restricted budget of small grants and personal investments. It was presented in a small theater -- at the same time as the well-attended annual "Flamenco Festival of New York." I didn't ask Antonio Hidalgo or Jorge Navarro if they were able to break even on their financial investment in this production, but the evening I attended the house was only about two-thirds full, and I recognized family members of some of the cast in the audience. When Hidalgo first described the show to me, I asked him "Why, why, would you want to present this show -- that you have so much money invested in -- at this time, when all the Flamenco fans of New York are so wrapped up in attending the New York Flamenco Festival?" "The NEW YORK Flamenco Festival?" he answered ironically, his point being that this Flamenco Festival may be for New York audiences, but it does nothing to recognize, honor or include the hardworking dedication of the flamenco artists who make New York their home -- and who thus fertilize local Flamenco interest year-round. Flamenco festivals are able to be presented and draw audiences the world over, he explained, because there are Flamenco communities the world over. Even if the central and laudable aim of these festivals is to expose local audiences to Spanish-based artists they would not otherwise be able to see, unlike the New York festival most of these events also give thanks and pay respect by offering a night devoted to local talent. After all, without the neighborhood teachers, performers, and sometimes even a tablao, where would the audience for Flamenco come from?

This production of "Flamenclorico: Lore of the Miners" represents for me the struggle and commitment of Flamenco artists who live and work outside of Spain. With very little money and very little time, for no reason that they can explain to non-artists, they persevere. And sometimes, they succeed.

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