Flamenco in Raw Form

Noche Flamenca's work reflects family and history

For Soledad Barrio and her troupe, Noche Flamenca, everything looked good for the kickoff of a winter tour of America and Canada.

The Spanish company was to premiere its concert La Noche Quebrada (Fiery Night) in the Big Apple, and it was booked into the prestigious Joe's Pub at the downtown Public Theater for a solid six-night gig.

Then a technical snafu threatened to derail opening night.

"The first show went well," artistic director and choreographer Martín Santangelo said by phone the next day. "It was amazing. But they lost the amplification for the second show."

The dancers —including acclaimed soloist Barrio —and the musicians performed anyway. The glitch turned into a gift: the percussive stamping of their feet and the melancholy cries of their voices and instruments came through to the audience unfiltered by mics.

The unplugged show turned out to be as close to raw flamenco as it could be in gilded New York. Raw is what they want, Santangelo said. "The first moment (of flamenco) is what we have to get back to."

The troupe, which plays Tucson's Centennial Hall this Sunday, Jan. 13, strives to practice an authentic version of the centuries-old art form.

"Ninety percent of flamenco is just a show," said Santangelo, a former dancer who now creates much of the choreography and works with the musicians on instrumentation. "They sell it like hotcakes to tourists."

But flamenco's plaintive dances and songs have their roots in real suffering. A wild amalgam of Arab, Jewish and Gypsy sounds, flamenco arose in Andalusia, in southern Spain, in the 15th century. Once welcome in Spain, the people who originated the art were being tortured, expelled or massacred.

"There is a reason people began to sing," Santangelo said. "They were being persecuted. Their screams became songs."

Noche Flamenca's 21st-century works still express that anguish. Barrio's solo dance, "Soledad," is "very desolate and emotional," Santangelo said. The title of the wrenching work plays both on her first name and its meaning —"solitude."

"It is a very solemn dance about loss," Santangelo said, "and the acceptance of loneliness."

Accompanied by two guitarists and two singers, Barrio dances the piece alone.

"She is extraordinary, a profound performer," Santangelo said.

Santangelo—her husband— is not the only one who thinks so. Alastair Macaulay, the prickly New York Times dance critic whose chief passion is ballet, wrote of Barrio, "I can think of no current ballet star in the world as marvelous as she." And the New York dance world gave her a Bessie award—the first time the prize went to a traditional flamenco dancer.

Likewise, Santangelo said, Barrio's partner, Antonio Jiménez, the troupe's only male dancer, is "like a poet. He's very strong and wild."

At the show in Tucson, Jiménez will perform one duet with Barrio, "La Mansa Lluvia (Gentle Rain)." Choreographed by Barrio herself, the dance is a "love story," Santangelo said. Jiménez also takes on one solo, "Encuentro (Meeting)."

Both dancers' biographies bear witness to the persistence of the tradition in the modern world. Jiménez learned flamenco not at a dance school but in the festivals and fairs of Andalusia, dancing at the side of masters. Barrio also performed in fiestas as a child, but at 16 took up formal dance training in Madrid.

The troupe's other two dancers, Sol La Argentinita (The Little Argentine) and Marina Elana, dance in the full company works, "Quebradas" and "La Plaza." La Argentinita conveys sweetness and Elana acidity, Santangelo said, making a "nice juxtaposition."

Both of the supporting dancers bring in outside influences. La Argentinita hails from Buenos Aires, better known for tango than flamenco, and Elana began studying flamenco in the Bay Area, where she picked up a degree in Spanish and film from Stanford.

Music is as important to the art of flamenco as the dancing, Santangelo said. Five of the seven numbers in the Centennial Hall concert are dance works, but two are purely musical.

The company has two singers, called cantaores, and two guitarists; all four have deep roots in flamenco.

Singer José Jímenez hails from a Gypsy family of flamenco performers. He started singing at age 14 in the tablaos—flamenco bars—of Madrid. The family of Manuel Gago, from the southern city of Cadiz, specialized in singing. Gago asserts that he began singing at 5.

The guitarristas are also from performing clans. Salva de María's mother was a flamenco dancer and singer from Madrid, and he began his career playing guitar for his grandfather's troupe. Eugenio Iglesias started out in the tablaos of Seville.

But Santangelo has a hybrid history. A native New Yorker, he is the son of Luly Santangelo, an Argentine modern dancer. She performed in the U.S. with the acclaimed Nikolais Dance Theater.

"I danced for many years," her son said, originally in ballet and jazz. But in 1987 he got a hankering for flamenco and went to Spain to study and perform. He met and married Barrio there, and in 1993 the couple founded Noche Flamenca. The troupe has since performed all over the world, but its roots remain in Spain.

In between their four or five annual tours, Barrio and Santangelo live in Madrid, where they are raising two daughters. Both girls travel with the company whenever possible, and seem destined to carry on the tradition—with a contemporary twist that demonstrates how durable and adaptable flamenco is.

The 17-year-old has a penchant for the typically male cante singing. At 11, the younger girl loves to dance. "She's a little corporal genius," her father said. But so far she's interested not in flamenco but in an up-to-the-minute dance form that also originated in the streets. "The little one wants to dance hip-hop."