writers on dancing


A Flamenco Schubertiade: Farewell to La Tania

La Tania and Company
La Peña Cultural Center,
Berkeley, California
January 8, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright © 2004 by by Paul Parish

The hall at La Peña, a Latino cultural center in Berkeley, was filled way beyond capacity for the last of three farewell concerts given by la Tania. She is the West Coast's finest flamenco dancer. Born in Andalucia, she was an important dancer in Madrid at 17, dancing with Mario Maya and Paco Peña. She joined the Spanish community in the Bay area about 15 years ago and immediately entered the front ranks of flamenco performers here (and we have many good ones, foremost being Rosa Montoya, who had already moved to the US in Franco's days).

This is the West Coast, and we have of course got a huge Hispanic community (La Peña was founded by Chilean refugees to keep their Andean culture and their radical politics alive); but we also have a lot of Spaniards from Spain in our midst, and there's been flamenco in the Bay Area for a long time.

I'd rather see flamenco at la Peña (which holds maybe 450 people sitting and standing) than at a cushier theater—despite the fact that I had to stand on my chair in the back row to see the feet even some of the time, the atmosphere and even the set-up are a lot like those of Chateau Flamenco, the bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans where the great expatriate Ciro performed his astounding Soleares until Franco died and it was cool for him to move back to Madrid.The crowd was tight, responsive, noisy ("Ole! " is pronounced "UHH-lly!" we heard it a lot).They had drinks in their hands, and when Tania entered a roar went up that lasted quite a while.

The show was classic "cuadro flamenco"—three dancers (2 solos each), a guitarist, a singer/percussionist) on a small boxy stage: black curtains, stiff wooden chairs with straight backs set foursquare to us, and the first to come onstage is the guitarist, who played a moody solo all by his lonesome—in this case, the Gypsy virtuoso "Chuscales," whose first stormy flurries of sound contained so many discordant 7ths and minor 9ths the speakers nearly went out from the dissonance. It reminded me of the last cadence of the Matthew Passion, a groaning, throbbing sound, beyond melancholy—only active grieving sounds and feels like that. It set the keynote—and yet the show was really a festival of flamenco, a gift to Tania's fans, and its temper was full of wit and good feeling.

The performers were Tania, Carola Zertuche, Juanaire, the guitarist Jose Valle "Chuscales," and Yiyi Orozco, who sat on a box that he pounded with his hands and sang like a genius.

It was a fitting end to a wonderful residency: Tania has not just been a dancer of note, it was she who showed us what contemporary Spain is like. She's not the tight-bodied, gnarly flamenco dancer of old. She's an elegant young modern woman, cosmopolitan and cool, who dances flamenco. As a dancer she fits the Suzanne Farrell type, extremely fluid, rhetorically overwhelming, and capable of extreme conversions of plastique. She can swing her pelvis like a bucket and then execute footwork of extreme delicacy and austerity. She has attracted young audiences to her shows, and as a teacher she drew crowds to her classes at the Lines Ballet school, where she certainly influenced everything from the dancers' nerviness of phrasing up to the choreography of Alonzo King, the artistic director of Lines, who's the principal proponent of contemporary ballet in the Bay Area. Last but not least, she imported a steady stream of young performers from Spain to perform in her shows, and exposed us to the fusion of flamenco with modern dance, jazz, Almodovar, etc - the welter of influences Franco had so strictly kept out. Which was good for us, and a veritable lifeline to the dancers in the flamenco community.

It was an accident but it was fitting that Tania's last show was performed where she made her first appearance in the Bay Area. That was at La Peña with Isa Mura (who's since died) and her young daughter Yaelisa (who's grown up now, a powerhouse dancer in the old style). Yaelisa was in the house Saturday night, standing against the wall, and came up onstage in her jeans and down jacket to dance in the show's finale.

It was in some ways more a party than a performance. Though the dancing was serious, it was a little like a Schubertiade, artists performing with and for each other and their students and friends. There was no printed program identifying the numbers or the performers. On the other hand, there was no need for one.

Flamenco is one of those arts like Bulgarian folk-song that appeals to people who have NO direct knowledge of the culture it comes from, because of the intense sensuality and heady, even intoxicating focus its practitioners bring to their work. It's not really an esoteric interest—anybody who saw it would be fascinated. There is of course a great deal you could learn—starting with Spanish, since it's always danced to songs, and sometimes it's clear that there's something about the song that's affecting the dance, even though you can't tell how it does that, exactly.

There's clearly an inside and an outside to Flamenco: an "inside" of passion, a burning sense of injustice that can never be undone, and a "dark' sense of humor. And an "outside" comprised of mesmerizing rhythmic footwork and of arched backs, searing glances, writhing hands and arms, and sudden abrupt swiveling into extravagant postures. The flourishes are extravagantly appealing, but what holds me enthralled is the rhythm. It's no more necessary to know the exact back-story of a Soleares than it is to know what Balanchine told the ballerina was going on in the adagio of "Symphony in C."  What is going on is that the dancer "gives it up," reveals something of enormous importance and great intimacy.

Tania danced twice. The first solo had some of this quality of drawn-out, slow, profound feeling. Indeed, she spread her arms like wings in a way that reminded me of Ciro's swan-like soleares, where he could seem as lonely as a crane flying through the rain. Tania's dance had some of this quality of transcendence. Or rather it began in suffering and yearned towards an exalted state. (Indeed the singer—a wonderful Spanish artist, new to the Bay Area, named Yiyi Orozco, was wailing in that ancient Spanish way that sounds almost Jewish.) But her dance was changeable, mercurial. It had flashes of wit, and indeed, she did the bucket-thing with her pelvis, stood up on the other leg, and then turned the corner with her head down and shoulders mantled, like a bull. The whole thing was like a cadenza, ideas developed and then were abruptly intruded onto by a new emotion—something that required a storm of footwork, or rapid half turns with the arms saying "NO! No! NO!"

I have to confess that I don't always find her complaints convincing; they're like those of a poor-little-rich girl. She's too glamorous, somehow. How far behind can you leave the earth and fire of flamenco and still make these claims? Of course, it's not up to me to tell modern Spain to go back to the hardships of old to keep their art pure, but it's hard to see how to develop a tradition like flamenco. It seems so like the blues: with Ma Rainey or Janis Joplin, you have no trouble believing they have problems keeping a man ("you ain't looking for a woman, you just looking for a home: you ain't nothing but a hound dog!"). But when Elvis sang that, it really didn't make sense: it was a wonderful noise, but it didn't stand to reason.

The best part of the show for me was the astounding hand-work of the young Spanish man on the show. Juanaire, making his first appearance in the U.S., has the most beautiful hands I've seen on any dancer in a long time, and they are unbelievably articulate. In flamenco, the hands are "flowers". Juanaire's curled into and back on themselves, starting with the little finger and rotating inward in fabulous corkscrews as the whole lower arm circled backwards under the elbows, and the arms twisted back from the shoulders behind the body.

Like many of the younger dancers Tania has brought over, Juanaire danced in street-clothes - a dark (velvet?) jacket, dark tight-fitting pants, with his belt buckle close to his right hip, and a long-sleeved print shirt with the tail hanging out. And black suede boots with a short elegant heel. So it was his face and hands that stood out against he black background—and his hands were like rose petals, unbelievably soft and articulate. Each joint of the fingers had a creamy ease of movement, and his hands moved through more significant configurations than I've seen on anyone except a signer-for-the-deaf or a Kathak dancer. He worked the old spiraling plastique—so old, Petipa used it in "Don Quixote"—with the left hand curling into the small of the back and the right hand coming round front and pulling the lapel of the jacket tight against the body, to heighten the arch in his back as he swung his hips lightly like a buoy high above very feathery footwork. In the second act he came back wearing roughly the same gear, but with rose-colored suede boots this time, and showed us some of the prettiest footwork I've seen in a LONG time. It was like Gene Krupa's famous drum solo in the famous Benny Goodman hit "Sing Sing Sing"—rhythm heaven, virtuosity to make your jaw drop. The musicians took the sound down to just palmas and toneless strumming on the guitar, and he did the kind of zapateado that diminuendos down to the quietest rustling, then picks back up in sound, and amidst rhythms changing from twelves to eights, hit stunning accents on the off-off beats, while carving beautiful curves with his knees. Big leg gestures came only at the end, and seemed to open up new dimensions in his dancing just as he was about to stop. To my mind, there was no separate posturing in his dancing—the plastique was always a part of a move, and the way he saved the beauty of his lines for the most exciting parts of his dance showed a fine economy in his choreography, and obeyed that old theatrical rule—leave them screaming for more.

Juanaire has "studied with some of Spain's most sought-after dancers such as Manolete, Ciro, and El Guito. He has (I'm quoting the press release) performed with the companies of Rafael Cortes, Rebecca Carmona, Ursula Moreno, Antonio Andrade, Fiesta Flamenca and Flamenca Alhama. He was one of the specially selected soloists for the gala for Herzogin Von Wurttenburg in Germany which was also attended by His Majesty Juan Carlos of Spain."

I felt like a crowned head of Europe watching him dance.

Photo by Amy Melous.

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish


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