Oakland — DOUGLAS C. RANKIN, producer of the New World Flamenco Festival, had a flash of inspiration as he watched Savion Glover in "Classical Savion," which had the 32-year-old dance star tapping to Vivaldi, Bach, Mendelssohn and other classical composers at New York's Joyce Theater last year. "I tell you, I was sitting in the audience, and within the first five minutes I'm thinking, 'My God, he'd make a terrific flamenco dancer, he's got the feet," says Rankin, who went on to present the classical show at the Irvine Barclay Theatre last November.
"And of course he's got the rhythm and is widely known for his improvisational genius. I thought it was a crazy idea -- but let's see what happens."
He mentioned the idea to Yaelisa, the flamenco festival's artistic director and a flamenco artist herself, and approached Glover about appearing, sealing the deal by sending off a photo of Yaelisa in performance.
"When they sent me the picture, I said yes," Glover observed from his New York studio. "The picture was saying: 'Come dance with me.' "
The Tony Award-winning tap dance superstar will appear with Yaelisa -- he'll tap, she'll provide flamenco moves, and both will improvise -- in the fifth incarnation of the festival, coming Friday through Aug. 13 to the Irvine Barclay. The festival is an intensive immersion course in the art form that includes performances, dance and music classes, lectures and open discussions with visiting artists. And, says Rankin, it's a signature presentation of the theater.
Although the festival took a one-year hiatus in 2004 so organizers could figure out how to cope with increasingly difficult -- and increasingly expensive -- security and immigration protocol involved in bringing in artists from Spain, Rankin says that three out of four editions of the festival have sold out all performances and the remaining festival operated at 95% capacity.
Rankin says immigration issues that have continued to intensify since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have added about $50,000 to the cost of the festival, including the need to hire two representatives in Spain to handle visa arrangements. In the first year of the festival, he says, immigration needs could be handled for about $8,000. "It's become a little more tenuous," he says. But the $350,000 Irvine festival is considered the second most prominent annual flamenco festival in the United States behind the 6-year-old New York Flamenco Festival. And it bears the distinctive stamp not just of the theater but also of Yaelisa.
What makes this festival different from other such events, Rankin and Yaelisa say, is that each annual festival has been organized around a theme rather than around a star search for the most famous flamenco artists. Those themes, Rankin says, begin with Yaelisa.
This year's festival, "Fronteras," will include a tribute to the artists of the tiny Spanish town of Moron de la Frontera, which boasts a singular flamenco style created and handed down by the Del Gastor family. Juana Amaya's company includes her uncle, guitarist Juan del Gastor, as well as her daughter, Nazaret Reyes. The performances mark the first time that Juana Amaya will perform with her uncle.
"It's hard to describe, but their style is quite distinguished by a sound," says Yaelisa, who often finds herself explaining to flamenco newbies that the art form started with the music, not the dance. "It's a guitar sound, a musical sound distinguished not only by its simplicity but by its profound heart." She adds that multigenerational flamenco families are becoming increasingly rare.
And while this company celebrates tradition, the company of Rafaela Carrasco of Seville, a young choreographer who is a champion of contemporary flamenco, will push the boundaries of flamenco dance as will two performances by Yaelisa and Glover on Aug. 8 and 9. While the two are working together to select the music, they will not get together in the studio until two days before the performance, which will be largely improvised and therefore different each night. Appropriately, the dance will be called "Sin Fronteras" -- "Without Borders."
"People have said to me over the years: 'How can you go out there and improvise? That's so risky,' " Yaelisa says. "But I'm not scared, and I don't have stage fright. How can I make a mistake if I don't know what I'm going to do?"
Glover says he feels the same way. He is not going to attempt to perform flamenco but expects that something new will be created when he pairs his style with Yaelisa's flamenco dance. "Our main goal is just to interpret joy through dance and the coming together of the two art forms," he says. "It's a dialogue that we will look to establish during performance."