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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013

Flamenco Vivo/Carlota Santana Returns to South Milwaukee PAC

What is Flamenco?

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Flamenco Vivo/Carlota Santana will perform “The Soul of Flamenco” Saturday evening, Nov. 16, at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. A shorter, family-oriented program, “Fiesta Flamenco,” will be presented Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17. This is the second visit to the SMPAC by the highly regarded 30-year-old troupe from New York City. The first, a sold-out performance in February 2012, demolished my misconceptions about flamenco and made me a fan.

“Flamenco is the best way for me to express all my emotions as a woman,” says founder and Artistic Director Carlota Santana. As a young art student in New York City, Santana took a workshop in flamenco. “It bit me,” she said, “like a disease. It’s the most feminine thing I can think of, alternately tender and giving and tough and demanding. What makes it important to other people is that they can see in it all the feelings they’ve had themselves.”

Flamenco scholar William Washabaugh, retired from his professions as flamenco guitarist and professor of anthropology at UW-Milwaukee, told me: “There are many debates about the history and meaning of flamenco. Flamenco Vivo brings all the beauty and all the questions. It’s hard to sit there and soak up the beauty without asking what it means and why these people pursue it as if it were a religion.”

The history involves Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator from 1939-1975. Franco promoted bull fighting and flamenco as primary markers of Spanish identity. Mid-20th-century politicians in southern Spain (Andalusia) had advanced for their own purposes the notion that flamenco is a holdover from their region’s medieval Moorish period. Around 1492, the story goes, it was taken up by Gypsies who, as permanent outsiders, preserved it under wraps for 500 years. Franco propagated that story but parted ways with Andalusia in his determination that Madrid should be flamenco’s capital.

“Few people today would accept the claim that flamenco is descended from Islamic street musicians and carried forward by Gypsies,” Washabaugh said. “Flamenco first appeared publicly in southern Spain in the mid-1800s, though debate about that exists, too. We tend to think of flamenco as a single art form, but in southern Spain people think first of their cities, their regional commitments.” He listed 18 distinct regional forms. “With Franco’s death in 1975, doors opened. Artists immediately incorporated sounds from rock, jazz and Latin American folk music. People were stunned but it was quickly absorbed. Today there’s pressure to know every style. Because of this, flamenco is changing rapidly.”

So flamenco is a contemporary experiment? “Each generation inflects the art form to meet its own political needs,” Washabaugh agreed. For example, flamenco was always about poverty and pain but never pointed fingers. That’s changing today in Spain as flamenco flash mobs erupt in national banks to decry the profits of the financial industry in the face of massive unemployment.

“If you don’t experiment in an art form, it dies in a museum,” said Santana. “Today the dancers study tap, jazz, modern. You have all these kinds of movement. In the past, women didn’t do the footwork. Now males and females are much more equal in the dancing. The stereotypes are gone.”

“The Soul of Flamenco” presents a more serious style than the program two years ago, Santana added. Anyone who saw the earlier show will be delighted to know that the thrilling singer Francisco Orozco “Yiyi” is returning. Santana noted the similarities to Islamic chanting and Jewish cantorial singing. Whatever the history, flamenco music is heart-piercing.

Flamenco Vivo is committed to new works and the development of young dancers and choreographers. Half of the company is Spanish, half is American. Santana was recently accorded high honor by the Spanish government “for all the years of passion, excellence and dedication to the flamenco art.”

SMPAC director Chad Piechocki’s love for flamenco started with films by Pedro Almodóvar and Carlos Saura. Against the advice of some who felt it wouldn’t play in South Milwaukee, he brought Flamenco Vivo during his first year as the center’s programmer. “I took a risk,” he said, “which is what I’m told we’re supposed to do in this business.” The risk this year is adding the 60-minute show on Sunday at a low ticket price, but both he and Santana are committed to building real relationships. Arrive at 7 p.m. on Saturday for a casual preshow conversation with the performers.

“The Soul of Flamenco” (Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m.) and “Fiesta Flamenco” (Nov. 17, 2 p.m.) play at South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, 901 15th Ave. Call 414-766-5049 or visit southmilwaukeepac.org. for tickets.

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