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American-Born, Flamenco-Bred

Maria Bermudez's art inflames aficionados around the world. Not bad for an americana from Southern California.

August 24, 1997|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In the flamenco world, nothing is debated quite so hotly as the topic of authenticity. Being a Gypsy--or at least a lifelong resident of Spain--will clear a dancer for takeoff into the emotion-drenched flamenco stratosphere.

So when Maria Bermudez brings tears into eyes and hearts into throats as she dances on the stages of Spain, Brazil, Sweden and Japan (or California, where she returns Friday through next Sunday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood), audiences pretty much assume she's the real thing.

"I never say where I'm from before they see me perform," Bermudez says on the phone from her home of seven years in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the "cradles of flamenco" in Spain's province of Andalucia. "After a concert in London once, people came backstage saying, 'Oh, you were great. I can really tell you're from Jerez because there's that special something, that rhythm, that feeling.' And I told them, 'To be honest, I'm not from Jerez originally.' So they say, 'Oh, well, you must have been there all your life.' And I said, 'No, I'm americana.'

"The look on people's faces usually changes at this point--sometimes they're impressed, sometimes they're offended. But always surprised--like, 'You're not supposed to dance that way; only people from Jerez are supposed to dance that way.' "

That way means the wildly immediate balance of technique and passion that lies at the heart of the flamenco art form. Bermudez, 35, has never let geography or ethnicity stand in the way of embracing such a goal, even though she got a relatively late start. She was born into a Mexican American household in Los Angeles and grew up in Santa Paula, in Ventura County, without taking any dance classes.

"My forte was theater and singing, but I did have flamenco in my background because my brother was a flamenco dancer. When I was about 20, I studied theater arts at Los Angeles City College, but then I began taking flamenco from Linda Vega, a very well-known dancer in Los Angeles, and a kind of obsession took me over."

The obsession served her well, because within a few months, Bermudez was making her debut on an East Coast tour with Boston Flamenco Ballet, where her brother also had danced.

"I picked it up pretty quickly," she says simply. "Maybe it was in my subconscious."

But Bermudez didn't depend on her natural talent alone to support her career. She decided to sell all her earthly goods and investigate the roots of flamenco in Spain.

After six months in Madrid, taking up to eight classes a day to strengthen her technique, Bermudez returned home to California for a while, working "like an animal," both at flamenco and part-time jobs, such as editorial assistant at a magazine. After one more training trip to Spain, she made her Los Angeles debut at El Cid restaurant, and not long after that she moved to Spain for good.

"I went to live in Sevilla for a while, working in a tablao, a flamenco nightclub. You don't make a lot of money there, but it's absolutely the best training. You dance from about 9 o'clock to 2 or 3 in the morning with maybe five to seven other dancers. You have your own solos, but you also learn from watching and playing palmas"--hand-clapping rhythmically--"that's when you're actually an instrument accompanying other dancers."

It was one thing to be an outsider in Madrid and Seville, where many foreigners go to study flamenco dance, Bermudez explains, but she encountered more opposition when she went south to Jerez, where cante, or flamenco song, was king.

"The reaction was 'Why are you not in Madrid or Sevilla? They are the capitals of baile, the dance.' And I'd say, 'Yes, but I'm an aficionada of cante.' This made them open their eyes and their doors, because so many dancers considered cante just the background for the choreography. I didn't just want to do steps; I wanted to know what was behind the steps."

In Jerez, flamenco songs, with their deeply melancholy lyrics and mournfully rough vocal intonations, are the focal point at private flamenco social clubs called penas. These are not ordinary watering holes; here the cognoscenti pool their money to bring in guest artists, and woe betide the audience member who chats during a performance. This suited Bermudez fine--she had come to listen and learn.

"I came to find out what the cante was all about," she says. "It's like finding out what the blues is all about--you would go to New Orleans or the Deep South to find out how these people live and why they sang those words. You find out here that, in a similar way, flamenco was the Gypsies' only form of liberation from the suffering or depression they were going through--or [the way they expressed] the joy that they felt at certain moments. The Gypsies lived a very hard life, and the only way to express that was to say, 'Ay,' which literally means 'ouch.' When I hear a singer sing, 'Ay, ay, ay,' I want to know why, and I want to feel that in my dance."

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