Juan Siddi Flamenco Theatre Company, Santa Fe

Juan Siddi performing: “For me, flamenco is universal.”
Photo courtesy of Juan Siddi Flamenco Theatre Company

Flamenco: Body and Music as One

Juan Siddi Flamenco Theatre Company
María Benítez Theatre at The Lodge at Santa Fe
Tuesday–Saturday, 8 p.m., through Aug. 14, 2011
(See video clip below.)

José Luis Valle Fajardo, also known as “Chuscales,” (a gypsy term referring to the crunchy end of a loaf of bread—and to a certain mastery on the guitar) was a boy in Antequera, Spain, when he first attended flamenco shows presented by gypsies from Granada who lived and performed in caves. María Benítez hired him to play guitar for her company’s summer season in Santa Fe 20 years ago, and he has been musical director, composer and guitarist for the Juan Siddi Flamenco Theatre Company since it was founded in 2007. After a recent rehearsal, when the singer Coral de los Reyes had just arrived from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, to join the group for this summer season, he sat down to talk and rolled his eyes. “When I hear her,” he said, gesturing to Reyes, “I go back to the caves. I’m there. It’s so nice to have a gypsy.”

Siddi has assembled an international cast of performers to join him onstage for the company’s eight-week season, the only engagement of this length by a flamenco group in the country. In addition to Reyes, there is a male singer, Cristo Cortes, who is from Marseilles; Alex Conde, from Valencia, Spain, who plays piano and cajón (an acoustically designed box that the player sits on top of and slaps-out rhythms with his hands) and Michael Kott, a cellist who is described in a program bio as an “angel/shaman/sage.” Kott is the only American.

Dancing with Siddi are Carola Zertuche, a Mexican flamenco artist who runs her own company in San Francisco, as well as a trio of younger semi-local dancers—Illeana Gomez, from New York via San Antonio via Albuquerque; Cynthia Sanchez, an Albuquerque dancer who holds a BA in Elementary Education from UNM, and has recently returned from Spain, where she studied with some of the biggest names in flamenco; and Keyana Deaquero, a native of Española, N.M., who began as a ballet dancer before signing up for flamenco with Benítez locally, and at the Institute for Spanish Arts, in Albuquerque. Siddi himself grew up with a Spanish mother and Italian father in Germany, but began performing as a flamenco artist back in Spain when he was 18.

A lot of Americans don’t know about flamenco, and one major knowledge gap has to do with the primacy of music. The image of the grimacing female in red with her stomping heels, tight dress and castanets, would not exist except for the development of the songs of flamenco—they exist as the impetus for movement, not the accompaniment, according to Siddi. In flamenco, the songs and music evolved before the dance form was generated in the 16th century—which may be why performing to recorded music would be unthinkable. Siddi said, referring to the musicians around the table with him, “when I dance they are like the spirit.” On a darkly lit stage during the season-opening performance in June, it becomes fairly evident, as the singers began to sweat and gesture from their chairs, and even got up at various points to dance, that there is little separation between the body—with its lightning-quick feet, snaking arms and sudden, almost violent turns and freezes—and the music, which is full of plaintive singing and rhythmic, acoustically intense sounds, whether from the guitar, cello, piano (which serves much of the time as rhythm instrument) as well as the steady palm music, the clapping of several pairs of hands.

Juan’s big solo took on the siguiriya, a form of “cante jondo,” or deep song. “It’s the mother root of all flamenco (along with the soleá),” Siddi said. The musical rules of siguiriyas include a 12-count phrase, with accents on the first, third, fifth, eighth, and 11th beats.

“Juan listens to the words, the poetry,” said Justin Nadir, executive director of the company.

“It reminds me of what I’ve passed through,” said Siddi. “I’m dancing the deepest kinds of emotion. It has to do with death.”

Other forms celebrate love, sensuality and joy, although it’s not always easy to see the difference as dancers become drenched with effort, sending hair pins and decorative combs flying around the stage like missiles, as they whip their heads around, finishing the “tarantos,” (a traditional song of Spanish miners), the “Granaina” (a song from Granada) or the “Sevillanas,” a slower folk dance from Seville, in a much more disheveled state than when they started. That’s part of the allure of flamenco. It may begin, as Siddi says, deep inside, as an internal motivation, an expression of the “duende,” or soulful connection, a true flamenco artist must possess—but all that duende clearly works its way out to the surface, past the singers, the musicians, and into an audience that often gets carried along into the frenzy, unable to stop shouting “olé.”

And then there are the dresses. Siddi may appear in simple evening wear, a shirt, a vest, tight black pants and the all-important flamenco boots, but for the women of the company, each piece is an opportunity to bring out another gown. Forget about weddings, if dresses with trains carry a certain fascination for their purely impractical realities—all that material sliding along the walkway to the altar—the “colas” or tails in traditional flamenco gowns, can be downright dangerous, with three dancers simultaneously gliding, whipping around and covering the small stage at the María Benítez Theatre in fabric and gypsy love. “Guapa” (sexy) calls out the male singer before injecting a few verses of song that comes out like a cry for passion.

“We feel the moment,” the guitarist, “Chuscales” said. “We try and keep it emotional and spiritual. In Spain, we absorb it every second of every day,” he said, referring to the essence of flamenco, which the newly arrived singers were so deeply reminding him of. “Here in the United States, we explore. Flamenco can be in any music, hip hop, jazz, blues. You keep the rhythm, the timing and the voice, and it’s flamenco.”

Reyes opened the second act with a “zambra”, an opportunity for her to sing a gypsy song with roots in Moorish Anadalucia, and also a chance for her to get off her chair, leave the sidelines, and emote from center stage, wearing a pink “cola” with rose designs on the dress bodice. “I do it as I feel it,” she said. Zambra isn’t as traditional a flamenco form, but she makes the song flamenco in the manner she interprets and performs it. “It’s a home, but in different terms.”

“I’m very excited about the zambra,” said Siddi. “We’re using traditional forms, but everybody is expressing them in their own way.” Having a cello and piano onstage may not be everyone’s idea of traditional flamenco, but the theatricalization of the form allows for change, especially in Spain, he said. “We bring more colors out with the extra instruments,” said Chuscales. “The cello is a powerful, sweet, sexual sound.”

“The piano is elegant,” added Siddi.

“For me, flamenco is universal.” Siddi said. “It’s from Spain but it has no borders. It comes from before. Bringing artists in from far away is like a gift to Santa Fe.” He described the essence of being a performer, six nights a week, for the entire summer. “It’s like peeling away your skin each show. I want people to know where gypsies came from.”

Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For culturevulture.net, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."