Friday, April 5, 2013

Ay ¡Flamenco!

  Flamenco! Flamenco! Flamenco! : Sevillanas from Christopher Michael Roybal on Vimeo.
Yjastros at the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque October 30, 2009, with Alma Flamenca and Niños Flamencos.

A couple of weeks ago, after we saw "West Side Story" at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque (located on the campus of UNM), we walked to a friend's house a few blocks away to visit for a bit. We passed by a number of posters promoting something called 'Encuentros' with a dance company called 'Yjastros.' ¡Flamenco!


The performance was coming up in a few weeks at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, part of the festivities leading up to the celebration of Cesar Chavez Day (which is tomorrow at the NHCC, featuring Dolores Huerta as honored guest -- and we might have to go. There's another long story involved... )

At any rate.

Flamenco is easily my favorite dance form. My introduction to it dates back some decades to St. Louis, specifically the Opera Theatre of St. Louis on the campus of Webster University. Maria Benitez and her company had been invited out from Santa Fe by Richard Gaddes, then artistic director of the Santa Fe Opera and the founder of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, to choreograph and perform in the dance segments of that summer's zarzuela, "La Verbena de la Paloma."

This was not my first encounter with opera by any means, in fact, I'd worked with a number of opera companies on the West Coast prior to heading out to St. Louis by car. It would mean my first -- and second -- encounter with New Mexico, however, since the Interstate passes right through both going and coming (who'dathunk!).

Sometimes when driving through Albuquerque, I pass by the motel where I spent the night back in 1982, (well, it wasn't actually the "night" as my arrival was at dawn, and don't think I got more than two hours' sleep before the cleaners began banging around, but that's another story, too.) That motel, the Crossroads, is apparently something of a landmark these days due to a television series I've never seen; it's something out of the 1950's, looking very much now as it did then, perched there on Central hard against I-25. You can't miss it.

But that aside...

The zarzuela  was the highlight of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis season. Everyone, including me, said so. Gaddes, for his part, was gushing about it constantly, deservedly, too. He'd never tried anything like it in St. Louis, and he was very uncertain how it would go over with a hard Missouri "Show Me" crowd. But they loved it.

Maria and company also did a special flamenco performance on their own during the run of "La Verbena," and that's where I saw flamenco for the first time in its purest, live form. It was -- for me at least -- thrilling.

I've been a fan and an admirer of Maria Benitez ever since. There's a extended story that goes along with that, but I'll skip it for now to get to Yjastros and 'Encuentros' last night.

Between the time of my first encounter with Maria Benitez and flamenco in St. Louis, a number of flamenco movies were made in Spain, featuring Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos. Eee! The first one I saw was "Carmen" -- a flamenco Carmen, imagine -- and it was stunning. I still have visions of some of the scenes in my head.  It was amazing. I'd never seen, or even thought of, anything like it. Strangely enough, or perhaps not so, the spareness of the production, the idea that it's a rehearsal for an upcoming production, the incredible discipline and skill of the performers, and the simplicity of the whole thing -- compared to Grand Opera, for heaven's sake -- was in line with my percolating notions of "poor theater" as delineated by the Becks and Grotowski and many others.

"El Amor Brujo" and "Bodas de Sangre" were not quite as spare and relevatory, at least to my reckoning, but they were in their own way just as astonishing. They can still take my breath away.

And so to Yjastros, the local-national-international flamenco company, that I'd barely been aware of prior to last night. Well, yes, I'd heard of them and knew of Joaquin and Marisol Encinias. But I'd never seen them, never thought I would until I noticed the poster after the performance of national tour of "West Side Story," and thought, "Why not?"

Yes, well.

Why not, indeed.

The show was... brilliant.

There's no other word for it. I'm sure a flamenco purist would criticize this or that dancer, dance, or the whole concept as being "not quite" something or other, and I would be the first to admit there were flaws here and there -- both technical and artistic -- but I don't care. It doesn't matter.

I couldn't get the silly grin off my face the whole time, nor could I keep myself from shouting a not infrequent ¡Olé! at a particularly intricate paso. These people were on. This was flamenco duro.

We don't see that very often, not even in New Mexico, where flamenco is one of the many cultural art forms that suffuse the place. I adore Maria and her company, and her artistry is unmatched as far as I'm concerned, but this, this Yjastros, was something else again.

It was hard, gorgeous, enthralling.

Oh, and there were standout performers. Oh my, yes. Particularly, in my view, Elena Osuna, whose every fiber of being, whose tension and passion, drew you in to a mysterious and compelling world as expressed with her feet and hands and arms and body. Even when she danced with a corps, you knew she was exceptional and she kept your attention no matter who else was onstage or what else was going on.

Carlos Menchaca was nearly -- not quite -- her match. There were only two men (besides the artistic director, Joaquin Encinias)  in the dance company. Male dancers seem to be as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth in New Mexico, so it's fairly easy for a man with reasonable talent to be a standout in dance productions, but Carlos was exceptional.

He danced "Jaleo" with Marisol Encinias, a co-director of the company (Joaquin is her brother), in a passionate duo that had the audience shouting and clapping at the audacity and spirit of the whole thing.

Marisol herself had a solo that brought the house down. It was long, intricate, emotional, and exuberant. Her stamina must be incredible. To say the least.

Joaquin performed with great vigor, not a lot of style, at the end of the show. He's got some weight on him, but that's never stopped a flamenco performer in my recollection, and he did his turn well. The crowd loved it, thought I heard one wag in the restroom afterwards saying he thought "that big dude was gonna get his heart attack right there on the stage."

Perhaps the most alluring performance was that of cantante Kina Mendez who sang through most of the show and sang and danced (in stiletto heels!) in her own solo segment.

The guitarists were nothing short of brilliant themselves.

All in all, it was a memorable evening, one of so many we've had since settling in New Mexico.


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