Haunting Rhythms

Noche Flamenca offers exuberant dance and music—with serious ambitions

After six people perished in Tucson's deadly shootings, Noche Flamenca changed the program for its concert this Friday night at UA Centennial Hall.

The troupe added an elegiac dance, "Esta Noche No Es Mi Día," composed by artistic director Martín Santangelo in honor of late company member Antonio Vizarraga.

"He was a gifted singer, and this is a simple goodbye," Santangelo said by phone from Hawaii last week. "It's happy, though; he was a joyful person. We'll do it in Tucson, because the city will need it now."

The piece will be danced by the whole company, which is small as far as flamenco troupes go. Its much-praised star, Soledad Barrio, who recently won a New York Bessie Award, is the troupe's only female dancer. She's joined by two male dancers, two guitarists and two singers.

The witty title of the piece—Spanish for "tonight just wasn't my day"—is what Vizarraga would say if a show didn't go well, Santangelo said.

The dance is meant to celebrate Vizarraga's life—and, by extension, the lives of the six Tucsonans we lost. This flamenco lament for the dead is typical of the serious subjects Noche Flamenca tackles.

One of its most recent dances, "ALBA," honors the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the young American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Historians calculate that some 2,800 Americans—many of them socialists and communists—went to Spain to battle Franco and fascism. Perhaps 1,000 died.

"They went to fight against Franco and his regime," Santangelo said. "They were kids, not soldiers. Their blood replenished Spain." Their efforts failed; Franco triumphed and ruled until his death in 1975.

This complicated history is evoked through a song based on a poem written by Miguel Hernandez, Santangelo said, and through a dance in which the "guys beat out the rhythm with canes, and they fall to the ground."

Nowadays, flamenco is often seen as tourist entertainment, but the haunting rhythms of true flamenco have their roots in tragedy. The wails of its singers can be traced to the plaintive songs of Jews, Moors and gypsies in Andalucía, in southern Spain. Five centuries ago, all three groups were persecuted; many were expelled, and some were executed.

Its serious ambitions notwithstanding, Noche Flamenca delivers exuberant dance and music. Guitar solos alternate with the six dances.

"Alegría" is "performed to a song that's happy," Santangelo said. "There's always a song. The text is crucial in flamenco. Everything else—the guitar and the dance—is interpretative."

All seven of the performers are "dynamic professionals," he added. "I choose people who are the best in the field. Barrio, a native of Madrid, "has been dancing since she could walk. She's a powerhouse, a natural."

Barrio recently won raves from New York Times critic Gia Kourlas. "(J)ust about every show leads to fireworks in the form of Soledad Barrio," Kourlas wrote in a Dec. 3 review of Noche Flamenca. "No matter how many times you've seen Ms. Barrio dance, the experience is strangely intimate; there's something voyeuristic and cathartic about watching a woman pry open her soul, scatter it on the floor and put it back together again."

Santangelo and Barrio, a married couple, formed the troupe in 1993. A son of modern dancer Luly Santangelo, an Argentine who danced with Alwin Nikolais and others, Santangelo grew up in New York. He originally danced jazz and ballet, but traveled to Spain in 1987 to learn flamenco. At one time, he danced, but now serves principally as artistic director and choreographer.

Kourlas singled out his "Siguiriya" as a dance that "astounds." Barrio dances the solo to a "profound song," Santangelo said. "It's like a Greek tragedy. You try to escape your fate, then you see your fate and finally accept it. It's about trying to hope when there's no hope left."

Bill T. Jones is one of the masters of modern dance, a respected choreographer who emerged in New York in the 1970s and '80s as an artist eager to mix his media—text, video, movement—and unafraid to tackle verboten subjects like terminal illness.

So what's an avant-garde artist doing in a Broadway musical?

Jones created the choreography for Spring Awakening, the unusual, critically acclaimed Broadway hit that has 19th-century German youths singing their erotic angst in rock 'n' roll tunes. The show, opening in Tucson next week for a six-day run, was different enough, and smart enough, that Jones signed on to create its dances.

Jones conceded at the time that the show's actor-singer-dancers were not the equals of the primo pro dancers he normally worked with. But he simplified his gestures—oppressed Latin students rocket out of their desks; a young girl delicately moves her arms in front of a mirror—to serve the story and align with the skills of the actors. And the dances even won him the 2007 Tony Award for choreography.

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