Flamenco in the Pink

Antonio Márquez keeps flamenco dance healthy, although its habitat is changing.

Antonio Márquez performs in concert halls, but his heart is in the tavern. That's largely where the art of flamenco music and dance developed, and Márquez vows never to forsake the traditions of his art.

His troupe, Compañia Española de Antonio Márquez, will present an evening of flamenco-centered footwork and song Friday, March 8, at Centennial Hall. That's a far cry from the venues in which flamenco developed. It started as a 15th-century cultural frottage between wandering gypsies and the settled inhabitants of southern Spain, who were already involved in a long-term affair with the music of their Moorish overlords.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, Spanish playboys were hiring gypsy flamenco groups to entertain at their orgies, the gypsies singing of poverty and violence to members of the privileged class. In the mid-19th century, flamenco started going mainstream, with more refined acts showing up in cafés and theaters. Connoisseurs complained that flamenco was losing its raw truthfulness, and aficionados have feared for flamenco's integrity ever since.

Today, flamenco is a matter of high art. Competing companies tour the world with shows that run the gamut from bare-boned traditionalism to self-conscious innovation.

The Márquez Compañia Española leans toward traditionalism, but that doesn't mean it's trapped in a glorious if sweaty past.

"I want to maintain the tradition but evolve in my work," he said recently through a translator in an e-mail interview. "We should not learn a tradition that is 60, 70, 80 years old only to forget it."

Márquez was alluding to such dancers as Israel Galván, the Pina Bausch of flamenco-gone-modern, and María Pagés, who is trying to do for flamenco what Riverdance did for the Irish jig.

"There are people who are modernizers who try to introduce things that I do not think belong within flamenco," he noted, diplomatically avoiding specific names. "This is modern dance, but it leaves behind the tradition. I am more interested in doing new things, but always within the tradition."

Márquez began dancing at age 12, completing his training at the school of the Ballet Nacional de España. He graduated from the school into the professional company in 1982, soon becoming a principal dancer.

"We danced both Spanish classical dance and flamenco, equal to what we do now in my company," he said. The first category includes such familiar works as The Three-Cornered Hat and treatments of Ravel's Bolero.

He formed his own company in 1995, starring in his own version of The Three-Cornered Hat and choreographing Carmen for European opera houses. However balletic some of these projects are, it's the flamenco aspect of his work that will attract most Americans.

"All dance forms of course have completely different styles," he pointed out. "In flamenco, there is a more visceral spirit, and a different way of working to convey the most emotion.

"The feet are the dancer's instrument, but interpretation is fundamental: what to do with the hands, the arms, the expression on the face. The feet pass the energy to the rest of the body. People who meet me after a performance remark that I appear taller on stage than in person; that all comes from interpretation."

What's especially critical in flamenco the way Márquez does it is the interaction of the dancers and musicians. "The musicians and dancers find mutual feelings that they can express somewhat differently every day. That is why it is important to have both dancers and musicians who have worked together for a long time; so they can read their feelings from day to day. I do not know about other companies, but in our company the ability to read each others' emotions and to transfer these feelings to the audience is very important."

This raises an important point: Flamenco was originally a spontaneous outburst of dance with song, but as it has penetrated the higher reaches of art it has become more structured, more choreographed. Márquez warns that one may move too far away from the soul of flamenco by working things out too closely in advance.

"We always leave some room for inspiration, for the dancer's feelings to come through every day," he said. "The trick is how to evolve without losing the tradition. We are always on the border between preserving the tradition and risking too much change by trying to evolve the dance form."

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