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ON THE SCENE: Flamenco in residence at the LPCA

Lake Placid has been a center for nurturing athletic excellence for well over a hundred years. This past week, this commitment to helping others perform at their very best took place at the Lake Placid Center the Arts. This time, the training was in Flamenco dancing. Participating in a Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana residency, eight women had come to improve their skills under the guidance of world-class musicians and coaches.

The dancers’ final test took place two days after they left Lake Placid for New York City. There, during the company’s annual Flamenco Certamen, one amateur and one semi-professional were crowned. All eight were already winners in many respects, as just being invited to participate in the Lake Placid residency required besting hundreds of others from across the country.

Flamenco is a very intense and physical art form. What we watched Wednesday evening on the art center’s main stage was similar to watching the Olympic trials in a figure skating short program. Like figure skating, a series of required elements are combined with the athlete’s interpretation and creativity while keeping time with and expressing the music.

Flamenco is an art form with deep roots within the Andalusian Roma (Gypsies) of southern Spain, roots that go back to their 9th – 14th Century migration from northwest India. The Gypsies brought with them a variety of percussive instruments and a rich body dance and songs. Over time their artistic traditions were influenced by those of the Moors and Sephardic Jews. Flamenco is the outcome of the influence and marriage of these three traditions coming together.

That marriage, in many respects, can be heard and felt in the cante, the song. Listen to the songs of northwest India, the music of the Sahara, and the Islamic call to prayer, and you’ll hear influences that have come together in Flamenco. Cante expresses deep emotion connected with anguish, death, pain, and religious turmoil. At the same time, it can express joy, humor, and love.

The cante is married to the music by the guitar and such percussive instruments as the drum, sticks, and wooden castanets. The dancer’s task is to express and interpret the cante and music with a mix of choreographed and improvised movements. It’s all very stylized; the angle of the head, the expressiveness of the hands, the movement of the body that at times is fluid and other times deadly still.

All that and more was on display Wednesday evening as the dancers expressed the culmination of their training and mentoring to an invited audience of friends and sponsors of the art center.

“Hosting residencies are part of who we are,” said Lemons. “The residency program harkens back to the seventies and such luminaries as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. We do six or seven a year now. They are a way that we can affect the field, add to the canon of dance in particular, even though we’ve branched out having had a puppet residency and a circus residency; we don’t discriminate amongst the genres.”

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, one of the premier Flamenco companies in the United States, was founded in 1983 and is based in New York City and Durham, North Carolina. Through their educational programs, like the residency in Lake Placid and performances, they bring the art of Flamenco to over 40,000 people a year. Their goal is to promote Flamenco as a living art form and a rich aspect of Hispanic culture, with influences from African, Arab, Jewish, Latin-American, Roma, and Spanish cultures.

The Lake Placid residency came as a bit of a godsend as their normal site in the Catskills couldn’t take them this year. Lemons, who knew their founder, Carlota Santana, stepped in, offering space at the art center.

“These Flamenco competitions are widespread in Spain,” said program director Leslie Roybal. “They present some of the best upcoming artists in Flamenco. This competition brings dancers from across the United States to compete for cash and scholarships to study in Spain. The dancers went through a rigorous application process back in June before being selected to come to Lake Placid. Here their time is very intense. Every day they are having classes, meeting with their mentor, and working with the musicians.”

The singer and percussionist Jose Moreno began his Flamenco career at age six under the guidance of his parents, both famous Flamenco artists. Moreno has had a successful career performing internationally and here with the New World Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center, with the Panama Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall, and dancing in Carmen for the Metropolitan Opera.

Master Flamenco guitarist Pedro Cortes’s roots are in the Spanish Gypsy tradition. Since age seventeen, he’s performed professionally worldwide, including with the St. Louis Opera, New York Grand Opera, and the Guthrie Theater’s production of Lorca’s “Blood Wedding.” Like Moreno, he too was born into Flamenco with guitarists on his father’s side and singers and dancers on his mother’s.

“We have worked very hard to make the numbers danceable,” said Cortes. “When the students got here, for probably eighty percent of them, the numbers weren’t danceable. Jose and I coached them, and their mentors coached them further using the notes we provided and what they saw in them. The difference between when they first got here and now is day and night. We’re here because we want to help the new generation keep our art form alive and correct and because there are so many people dancing incorrectly.”

“The mentors, both world-class dancers, and choreographers worked with the students one on one,” said Moreno. “They coached them on what they needed including in their thought process. For us, Flamenco is a lifestyle. It’s the way we live. It doesn’t matter, rain, sunshine or snow, this is what we do. I love all aspects of Flamenco and the diversity it has in its forms and how difficult and challenging each form is.”

“For the girls, what an opportunity they’ve had to spend a week getting coached,” said Cortes. “Not only were we fixing their numbers, but in the little idiosyncrasies they have; maybe their shoulders were up too high, how they hold their head and fingers, these little tiny details that nobody usually helps them address. For the students, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Internationally renowned choreographer, performer, and instructor, one of the two mentors, Fanny Ara, agreed. “The students have grown so much as a performer while they have been here. It’s wonderful we’ve been able to get a residency in this beautiful space. You wake up, and you have the forest in front of you. I don’t think you can ask for more.”

The good news is that Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana will be back next April, this time for two days of performances and in-school arts education activities as well as master classes for the adults in Flamenco.

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(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)