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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At Flamenco festival, molting into a new idea of Spanish dance



Olga Pericet, whose “La Leona” will be a part of Flamenco Festival at City Center, photographed in Madrid, on Feb. 21, 2024. Pericet’s “La Leona” and a dance panorama by Ballet Nacional de España look to the past, with an eye to recovery and invention.(Jordi Terry/The New York Times)

By Marina Harss


For Olga Pericet, flamenco is an invitation: to play and to explore the limits of her imagination onstage. “I like to keep things spontaneous and alive,” she said in an interview from Madrid. Pericet, who comes from a family of flamenco dancers and teachers, has a deep respect for the traditions of the form. But she also finds inspiration in unexpected places, like Quentin Tarantino’s films or the dances of Martha Graham.


“I’m bipolar that way,” she said. “I like to mix it all.”


Flamenco — the music and dance — is steeped in history, its origins arising from the mingling of Roma culture with the cultural melting pot of southern Spain. It is also an art in constant flux, with a flair for reinvention. Over the years the Flamenco Festival, which arrives in New York each spring, has offered a window on its evolution.


This year the festival has three dance programs at City Center, beginning March 8, each invoking a range of associations: to past dance forms, to flamenco auteurs and to the central role of the flamenco guitar. Pericet’s “La Leona” takes its inspiration from a 19th-century guitar prototype that produced the rich, resonant sound we now associate with flamenco music.


The Ballet Nacional de España’s “Invocación” is a large-scale ensemble work that looks specifically to the past.


And the “Gala Flamenca” focuses — as it does every year — on the figure of the solo dancer as virtuoso and innovator, endlessly drawing from and adding to tradition. Two performers in the gala will wear the regal bata de cola — a colorful dress associated with traditional flamenco shows — but this time one of them, Manuel Liñán, is a man who has become a specialist in the handling of its voluminous folds. A symbol of tradition meets the fluidity of contemporary self-presentation.


“This year the festival includes the polar opposites within flamenco,” its creator and director, Miguel Marín, said in a video call from his home in Torrox, on the Costa del Sol. “The past is always a source of inspiration, but sometimes that inspiration is transformed into pure fantasy,” he said.


The festival’s programming — 22 shows scattered over theaters across town — emphasizes the role of the guitar in Spanish music and dance; most will include tributes to Paco de Lucía, the great guitarist, who died in 2014.


The guitar plays a central role in Pericet’s “La Leona,” an intimate show in which she dances alone, accompanied by four male musicians. The title, “La Leona,” or “the lioness,” has a double meaning. The lioness is clearly Pericet, whose potent imagination is revealed in every striking image.


It is also a reference to a guitar created in 1856 by luthier Antonio de Torres, who gave it the name “La Leona.” With its larger dimensions and more rounded shape, Torres’ guitar was able to project a more resonant, or leonine, sound. It became the prototype for the contemporary flamenco guitar.


“I wanted to become the body of that guitar,” Pericet, 48, said, “and to shed light on everything around it and its origins, which for me is the origin of flamenco.” Rising from a geyser of pink-hued ruffles, Pericet appears, guitar-shaped cutouts hanging from her limbs and obscuring her face, something like a cross between a popular saint and a surrealist painting.


By the end of the evening she has become one of the musicians, rapping out rhythms on a wooden guitar-shaped board with her hands while drumming with her feet in classic flamenco footwork, or zapateado.


The imagery in this highly personal evening is as fluid as Pericet’s exploration of gender and the body. At one moment she dances with bare breasts; at another, she wears a man’s suit and dances a farruca, a traditionally male dance. Later, she performs a dance with castanets, to 19th-century guitar music.


“I wanted to go forward and backward in time, to mix everything,” Pericet said. “All of these elements, from the past and present, are powerful, and I want to use them all.”


The Ballet Nacional’s “Invocación,” though sprawling and far less personal, also contains an impressive sampling of textures and moods.


The evening is like a living panorama of Spanish dance that begins with the 18th-century escuela bolera — a variant of ballet — and then moves on to the hybrid style developed for 20th-century audiences, and finally to the theatricalized flamenco dancing of choreographer Mario Maya, who died in 2008. The impression is one of profusion and richness.


The idea, Rubén Olmo, its creator, said on a video call from Madrid, was to “show all the different styles that exist within Spanish dance.”


This visit, the company’s first to New York in five years, is its first under the direction of Olmo, a flamenco dancer and choreographer who took the reins in 2019. (The company was established in 1978, as a repository for Spanish dance.) Olmo, 44, is in many ways a typical example of a contemporary flamenco artist, conservatory-trained, with a long trail of collaborations behind him and the experience of running his own company.


Like Pericet’s, his background goes beyond strict flamenco to other dance forms: from folkloric dances to ballet to the hybrid dance known as danza estilizada, which combines a bit of everything, including the handling of castanets and large, fringed shawls called mantones. “The flamenco dancers of today are dancers first and foremost,” Olmo said, “and then flamenco dancers.”


“A lot of these elements from the past,” he said, speaking of things like the bata de cola and castanets, “have been a little bit lost in presentations of contemporary flamenco, replaced by a more contemporary look and approach.”


Recent flamenco shows have tended to focus on footwork, on the virtuosity of a dancer or on an idea, and to favor dark palettes and moods. “I have no problem with that,” he said, “but at the same time it’s true that Spanish dance and flamenco have a special essence, and it’s important that that essence and identity not be lost.”


As different as these shows may be, they all spring from a sense of ownership of the tradition. The totality of Spanish music and dance lies before these dancers and choreographers, to do with what they like. Liñán re-imagines what a dance in a bata de cola can be; Olmo distills the various strands of Spanish dance in a single solo, which he transfers from his own body to that of a female dancer; Pericet turns herself into the embodiment of Antonio de Torres’ guitar.


This freedom and versatility constitute flamenco’s strength, both for artists like Pericet and for large institutions like the Ballet Nacional. “All the preconceived notions are disappearing,” Marín said. “Ten or 12 years ago, the word flamenco was associated with a series of strict parameters. But now, these artists feel free to use and explore whatever they like.”

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