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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.