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Tuesday, April 24

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Detour

On a cold night in January, in the intimate environs of the Old Town School of Folk Music, David Perez and his ensemble heated up the room with an explosive, fiery yet absolutely stunningly meticulous dance performance, transcending the warmth and passion of Spain into the room.

The month-long Chicago Flamenco Festival — a series of dance and music events, lectures and films — demonstrated that the art of flamenco is very much thriving in Chicago. What stood out were the dance performances, exhibiting passion and powerful expression, and for the most part, the essence of pure flamenco. Small, intimate performances where the focus was on the individual artists themselves, rather than on the costumes, scenery or overall choreography — the collective experience of a concert performance.

Flamenco is an individualized yet structured art form that combines the elements of song, dance and guitar. Its tragic lyrics and melancholy tones reflect the sufferings and persecution of the Gitanos (gypsies) who settled in Andalusia in the fifteenth century. Their music was influenced by other groups living in Southern Spain at that time, particularly the Sephardic Jews and the Moors. The unique blending of these cultures, coupled with the turbulent events of that period — namely the persecution and expulsion of all three of these groups by the Inquisition of 1492 — helped shape the element of persecution and passion — the fight for survival — found in flamenco. Although the Gitanos were at first tolerated when they entered Spain, during the Inquisition they were placed in ghettos — their isolation helping to retain the purity of their music and dance.

In the eighteenth century, the flamenco fiesta came into existence. In the fiesta format it is considered crowded if more than 20 people are present. Time has no bearing, as there is no telling when it will begin or when it will end, and there is an overarching feeling of improvisation and spontaneity. In stark contrast to the fiesta are the music cafés — the café cantantes, which developed during what is known as the Golden Age of flamenco, 1869-1910. The cafes cantantes were a new type of venue, with ticketed public performances in which flamenco dancers became major public attractions, and the guitar player came into focus, creating a separate art — the art of the flamenco guitar. Flamenco traditionalists describe this period as the start of the commercial debasement of flamenco. This debate over what constitutes traditional and the modern flamenco continues to this day.

In Chicago, the flamenco festival opened with a very pure and traditional flamenco performance, a local version of "Cante de las Minas," the oldest running flamenco festival in Spain. Led by the gifted young dancer David Perez, along with dancer Rocio Palacios, singer Inmaculada Rivero and guitarist Jose Acedo, this sold-out show turned out to be one of the best. An observation about Perez — he's a dancing wonder. Impressive were his dramatic gestures, his almost ballet-like, yet explosive movements, the build-up and frenzy of his footwork. Not to go unnoticed was the supremely feminine presence of Palacios, a tall blonde woman who sensually whipped her shawl over her shoulder in the manner of a diva, sauntering offstage and leaving the audience dying for more. Watching these two, you can't help but get caught up in the emotions — the mournful, yearning singing of Rivero, the gentle yet stirring sound of Acedo on guitar. As an encore, Rivero took to the floor to demonstrate that her dancing was no less spectacular than her singing — an improvised ending that was fitting for a performance that showcased the pure essence of flamenco — the dancers and musicians were the highlight, not just one of the elements of the show.

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In contrast to the very traditional performance led by David Perez were Oscar Valero and his ensemble of musicians, in another sold-out performance. One man dancing is enough, especially when it's the soulful, impassioned Valero who keeps the audience in the palm of his hand. Valero's expressiveness, combined with an almost trance-like intensity and continuous fervor made this performance outstanding. Yet the musicians — with an electric guitar — provided a bit of the New Flamenco component that did not in any way take away from the unadulterated flamenco experience of Valero and his company. The music was a fusion between modern and traditional — yet retaining the core pure element of flamenco — more of a street "fiesta" you have walked into than a ticketed concert. Completely unselfconscious and confident Valero communicates with the audience with little smiles — like when he took off his jacket or when he counted in time to the music with his fingers. By providing a bit of comic relief Valero breaks the flamenco seriousness for a moment, wrapping the entranced audience more tightly around his finger. The dancer and the music blend seamlessly together as one. Seeing a man dance with such raw, unabashed emotion reminds you what good dance is — something that draws you into its orbit, in this case into the world of the masterfully combined mixture of passion, fluidity and flawlessness.

Performing to yet another sold-out crowd, the next dance event of interest was Las Guitarras de Espana — the Chicago-based, nine-piece ensemble that fuses together flamenco, world music and jazz elements. The addition of local dancer Wendy Clinard and singer Alfonso Cid as guest performing artists made this a dizzyingly good show. The music was jazzy and brassy, flavorful — with elements of klezmer a bit melancholy but with high-spirited jazz that rounded it out into a delicious blend of flamenco fusion. Clinard demonstrated that flamenco is not something one can do without a lot of feeling involved — so intense and vividly poignant was her performance. Once again, performing in to a small audience, the focus was on the dancers and guitarists, the singer providing a backdrop of melody and mood.

The performance by Ensemble Español, at the grandiose Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, very much represented what modern flamenco is today: performed in a large concert venue, with multiple dancers and musicians, drop-dead gorgeous costumes, breathtaking choreography, stunning scenery and a magnificent ensemble of musicians. There were definitely dance numbers worth remembering: the one featuring Irma Suarez Ruiz and Jorge Perez, for example. Yet despite all the glamour and the glory, there lacked in this performance the essence of pure flamenco, which is best experienced at a smaller venue, with a small number of dancers and musicians, where the focus is on the dance and music, not all the pretty perks found in a big concert-style performance.

The finale of the Ensemble Español performance was a splendid display of artistry that made for a good ending for the entire festival. The women dancers in red, the men in black, with Picasso paintings as a backdrop, displayed the inherent characteristics of both flamenco and Spain: vibrantly colorful, paradoxical — emotional yet in control — supremely expressive, and ultimately, never for one second boring.

 

About the Author(s)

Marla Seidell is a local freelance writer. She has studied flamenco in Amsterdam and at the Old Town School of Music.

Photos by Adrian Nastase, courtesy of the Instituto Cervantes.

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