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Moderno or puro, it's still flamenco

August 07, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

Haughty faces, stamping feet, strumming guitars, clicking castanets. Probably most people think they know what flamenco is. But in the 21st century, this art form that originated with Spanish Gypsies is being presented more and more outside the box. Male dancers are shedding their shirts and growing their hair rock-star long, and one -- Israel Galvan, who has been called the Nijinsky of flamenco -- revels in provoking audiences. He says he wants to be seen as "a piece of rubbish onstage."

But the debate about who's got duende -- soul -- is perennial, and purists and so-called modernists are duking it out on Southern California stages this month as flamenco busts out all over. "Ay! Flamenco" is scheduled for two nights at the Ford Amphitheatre; the ongoing weekly series "Forever Flamenco" has been running since November at the Fountain Theatre and shows no sign of hanging up its shoes; and the New World Flamenco Festival, perhaps the mother of all local flamenco events, has once again landed in Irvine.

Now in its third year, the festival is big and bold. Having expanded from 10 days to two weeks, it is offering a virtual flamenco omnibus: nine performances, 15 workshops, outreach activities and a first -- the screening of a film, "Vengo," starring Antonio Canales, who will also close the series with three appearances by his company, Ballet Flamenco de Antonio Canales.

The festival's artistic director is a dancer-choreographer, the single-named Yaelisa. (Think a retro Cher, albeit one with filigree fingers, whipping turns and fire-breathing duende.) Yaelisa heads her own San Francisco-based company, Caminos Flamencos (it will perform on the Ford bill with the Spanish sensation Domingo Ortega), and is married to Jason McGuire, a guitarist known as El Rubio (the Blond One) and the festival's music director.

"The festival has grown in the sense of stature and prestige in the kinds of artists we're bringing from Spain, but essentially in the level of artists," she says from the couple's Bay Area home. "When we talk about Canales, we're really talking about a legend. We needed to bring him this year because we wanted one of the artists who is responsible for innovation in dance for 20 years."

Innovation, envelope-pushing. That's the stuff of nuevo that keeps fanning the flames of opposing flamenco camps. Take 42-year-old Canales, who comes from a family of flamenco artists. He says he doesn't believe in the new.

"I perceive flamenco as something timeless. No one knows exactly where it came from, how it came about, where it's going and in what direction," he says. "There are infinite theories about any art form. 'New flamenco' is a meaningless term to me."

As a performer, Yaelisa leans more toward the traditional, but in order to keep building flamenco audiences, she believes in mixing things up. That's why she sought the heat of Galvan, for example, who is making his West Coast debut with a pair of concerts at the festival. It seems unlikely that half the audience will walk out during his performances, as many spectators did at a 1998 flamenco festival in Seville where he performed "Los Zapatos Rojos" (The Red Shoes).

"The audience had come to see something billed as flamenco," says Galvan, "and felt deceived. I used puppets, industrial noise, heavy metal effects and all sorts of weird stuff. It was later shown at a non-flamenco-themed festival and was well received."

Galvan, 30, believes the ongoing debate between the puro and the improvisatory will never end.

"Pure to me is something that's sincere, whether improvised or not. Many artists conserve the style of their birthplace -- Utrera, Jerez, whatever. All that is fine," he adds, "because there's room for all viewpoints."

Yaelisa points out that many artists in Spain look to Fred Astaire, hip-hop, contemporary dance and ballet as possible sources of inspiration.

"More and more young people have become involved in searching for ways of communicating their art," she says. "So this 'traditional,' quote unquote, art form has brought in many influences from other music and dance forms."

At 63, Juan Talavera has been around the flamenco block more than a few times. Still performing, he can be seen this month at the Fountain Theatre. Talavera, in fact, studied with Galvan's father, Jose, in Seville three years ago. And though Talavera considers himself a traditionalist, he's tolerant of change.

"I'm in either camp, as long as it's done well professionally," he says. "And every now and then, I'll do a shoulder or arm movement that I think is very modern, but for my age, I would look silly dancing moderno. Of course outside influences are affecting styles. The music is changing, the singing is changing. Artists see things, they hear things, and they see if they can stick it into flamenco.

"When 'A Chorus Line' was popular, all the dancers had mirrors. And I saw one company doing lifts like in ballet. That didn't work for me, because flamenco doesn't leave the ground."

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