Raquel Heredia "La Repompa". Photo

36th Annual Flamenco Festival de Alburquerque

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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The Festival Flamenco Alburquerque (using the original spelling of the city) has been running for 36 years. It’s the largest gathering of Spanish flamenco singers, dancers, and musicians outside of Spain—an annual flamenco convention, with top artists settling in for ten days together in New Mexico. This is no fly-in, one-night-stand—the visitors teach, they perform, they collaborate, and they have a chance to hang-out with each other half-way around the world. Their lives in Spain are undoubtedly more hectic, with gigs taking them every which way, criss-crossing Europe, rarely having the opportunity to spend time together. This, as the director of the festival, Marisol Encinias says, is like flamenco summer camp.

I saw three performances. Solo acts (with musicians) by Olga Pericet and Andrés Marín, and the closing night Festival Flamenco, where Marín, Sergio Aranda, Raquel Heredia (“La Repompa”), Patricia Guerrero and the American Flamenco Repertory Company, Yjastros performed.

The solo evenings by Pericet and Marín were examples of the theatrical evolution of the art, where lighting, music and dance are molded into an idiosyncratic exploration informed by flamenco, but definitely not limited by the form. On the final evening, a showcase, there were examples of traditional, gypsy flamenco alongside the more cutting-edge interpretations.

No matter which version of flamenco was on display, one thing that was never lost was the cohesion of artist with musicians, who justifiably hover in the spotlight along with the dancers. Also, there was an inward focus and always at least a few moments demonstrating the virtuosic use of percussive footwork. This is a dance form which generally revolves around itself, whether the dancer is wrapped in a voluminous skirt, or a pool of light draws everyone on stage into an intimate semi-circle. The cliché of the form is that it demonstrates duende , the soul of the oft-suffering Spanish lower classes. That only goes so far in a country that has been more recently been defined by cutting-edge architecture at the Guggenheim Bilbao, the movies of Pedro Almodóvar and the electric dance music and party scene on Ibiza. For an older art form—also the marketing symbol for Spanish tourism— staying relevant requires some reinvention. It is interesting to witness these attempts.

Pericet’s “La Leona” loosely tells a story about the prototype for the original flamenco-style guitar by Antonio de Torres with that name. In the program notes, she writes “it is not about dancing to the guitar, but rather transfiguring it into a body.” Starting with a naked roll around the floor enveloped in a fluffy dress, the journey she takes in “La Leona” is full of humor, sensuality, flamenco rhythms and footwork, and music that includes electric guitar and pairs of scissors. Her singer, Israel Moro, is young, and offers a sound that is more lyrical that guttural. There are elements of Brazilian jazz, mime, Michael Jackson and ballet in the mix. At one point, she becomes a human guitar dressed in a 10-foot pink chiffon gown. If all this play with traditional forms and theatrics could easily go off into a muddle, Pericet keeps the narrative flowing with logic as much as surprise. The work clicks because of her dancing, her commitment, and her ideas.

On the other hand, “Jardín Impuro,” by Andrés Marín, is more of a playlist—dance sections united with experimental sound effects and aggressive lighting and theatrical techniques, but without the sense of narrative cohesion offered by Pericet. “A window into the personal universe” of Marín seems like a collection of ideas without the same kinds of impactful moments seen in “La Leona.” Considered one of the leading flamenco artists of his time, and winner of the 2022 Spanish National Dance Award, Marín declares he is “a rooted dancer…(who) neither breaks from tradition for its own sake, more clings to it out of a stupefying and sterile notion of its consecration.” His work employs a smoke machine, exposed lighting, military drums and cymbals, an electric guitar playing heavy reverb and amplified scraping sounds from being dragged on the floor, a plastic shroud, copper bells worn with a sheepskin fur, Arabic influence, and wild bouts of footwork connecting with a restless, circular roaming of the stage. Although he impresses with his dancing, the theatrical accumulation of all this is not something unified, instead, it is something to be cast off, along with the dancer’s clothes, leaving a skinny, middle-aged man covered in sweat, depleted by noise guitar and headlights.

When Raquel Heredia (“La Repompa”), came onstage during the festival’s final evening, a showcase for several of the headliners, a voice screamed, “Flamenco Puro!” (Pure flamenco!).
Perhaps this was a comment on much of the other more experimental performances highlighted at the festival. Heredia, is a stout, middle-aged woman with an earthy, traditional presentation—a contrast to all the high-art on display—just straightforward flamenco by a veteran artist. Here were “cantes” from the textbook: tangos, tarantos, martinetes and a soleá. There was no nudity or smoke machine, just a dress, shoes and a rose in her hair. Her weighty, powerful approach to the steps seemed to connect authentically to the music—after all she is the daughter of a guitarist father Luis Heredia, and the singer Rafaela Reyes, all descendants of Spanish Roma artists. It was the kind of authority and simplicity that challenged the need for all the “high art” seen elsewhere.

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