California-based flamenco dancer/choreographer La Tania, pictured… (Sari Makki Photography )
In the recently completed documentary "Kumpanía: Flamenco Los Angeles," narrator Bruce Bisenz opens the film by saying, "Flamenco is a fragile art. It exists on the verges of society, just as the Gypsies once existed in the same way."
But the film, along with this weekend's second Los Angeles International Flamenco Festival in Redondo Beach, may help bring L.A.'s flamenco scene out of the shadows. Both are shining the spotlight on Los Angeles as a hub of vibrant flamenco talent.
"Kumpanía" — directed by Katina Dunn and now on the festival circuit — explores how the tight-knit flamenco community in L.A. has coalesced at the margins, albeit for reasons very different from the persecution the Gypsy (Romani) people suffered in 18th century Spain.
Although showy versions of flamenco have made a splash in Hollywood films, dinner theaters and cabarets over the years, displays of "flamenco puro" — a hard-to-define term that signifies an "honest" or "authentic" style of flamenco closely aligned with its Gypsy origins — have often struggled to find an audience. For example, at the Fountain Theatre's Forever Flamenco series (a nucleus of the community since 2003) almost every show loses money.
Dunn was inspired to turn her camera on the local flamenco dancers, singers, musicians, and producers who pursue it as a labor of love after attending a show at Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill in February 2010.
"I couldn't believe how talented these people were," said Dunn. "They danced with so much hunger. It just seemed so noble to me, and there was nobody in the audience."
The festival, which began in 2010, will feature Latin Grammy-winning guitarist Vicente Amigo and dancer Nino de Los Reyes, both from Spain, alongside artists from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Organizers hope that audience members drawn in by the high-profile Spanish performers will become fans of hometown artists.
"I want to continue that tradition that I started in 2010 of showcasing U.S. and local talent," festival producer Mitchell Chang said. "Once Vicente Amigo leaves, you can't go see him at Cafe Sevilla," he said, in reference to the club with locations in Riverside, San Diego and Long Beach, which features flamenco dancing.
Adam del Monte, a Los Angeles-based guitarist and USC Thornton School of Music professor who will appear at the festival for the second time, said that any flamenco community operating outside of Spain can be considered marginal. "They're always trying to feed off the resonance from the homeland of flamenco," he explained. Yet he added that flamenco is becoming more universal, and that L.A. is emerging as one of the "very powerful satellites of flamenco" in the United States.
A native of Israel who studied flamenco in Spain and lived throughout Europe, Del Monte moved to Los Angeles nearly two decades ago for the opportunity to develop his unique brand of flamenco, which is informed by musical styles from different cultures. The original compositions he'll be performing Sunday night are infused with Middle Eastern, jazz, and classical influences.
Diversity is also a theme in "Kumpanía," as the dozen-plus performers featured in the film hail from varied backgrounds. Singer Antonio de Jerez is Spanish Romani, dancer Mizuho Sato and guitarist José Tanaka are Japanese, and dancer Briseyda Zarate and percussionist Joey Heredia are of Mexican descent.
But that's not to say the cultural mixture is diluting flamenco puro. All of the artists in "Kumpanía" are dedicated to authentic flamenco in form and substance. And as Del Monte pointed out, flamenco itself has diversity "in its DNA," influenced as it was by Arabic, Jewish and Romani musical traditions that mingled in southern Spain.
"Kumpanía" will have a Spanish audience when it shows in June at the Madrid International Film Festival. Dunn also submitted it to Los Angeles Film Festival happening that same month, when she hopes the performers will have a long-awaited moment in the L.A. limelight.
"They're authentic, they're heartfelt, and they do it with no glory and not much financial compensation," she said. "I want them to walk the red carpet."
Los Angeles International Flamenco Festival
Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach
When: 8 p.m. Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun.
Info: (800) 595-4849; http://www.laflamencofestival.com
Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Sun.
Info: (323) 663-1525; http://fountaintheatre.com/perform.html#Flamenco
'Kumpanía: Flamenco Los Angeles'