Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre at the Ritz

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a way of life, flamenco chafes at the inimical strictures of the concert stage. That its art is known at all within the United States owes much to its expression by a handful of American Spanish dance ensembles, the Twin Cities-based Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre among them. Since its founding by Susana di Palma in 1982, Zorongo has presented traditional flamenco programs as well as its original and signature theater flamenco works that explore contemporary themes and issues.

Although traditionally associated with Spanish Gypsies, flamenco evolved from the mash-up of Muslim, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani, and Byzantine cultures in the Andalusian provinces of southern Spain: Almeria, Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Huelva, Joen, Molega, and Sevilla. The form is distinguished by its four elements of singing (cante), dancing (baile), guitar playing (toque), and rhythm (jaleo). In adapting flamenco to the theater, its practitioners seek to maintain the passionate soul of flamenco that may be found in the night-long juergas of the Spanish countryside.

Following an engagement at North Dakota State University, di Palma brought her troupe's Retratos – portraits – program to a weekend of performances at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, Sept. 18-20. The program featured a range of traditional and thematic flamenco, delivered with a satisfying cohesion and strong, technical consistency.

Two opening segments nicely introduced the personalities and performance quirks of four accomplished dancers. A trio of Deborah Elias Morse, Sachiko Nishiuchi, and Laura Horn danced to recorded cante by Carmen Linares. Attired in contemporary garb, the women rushed about the stage as though in a downtown street scene, cell phones pressed to their ears, before preparing to throw off the frenzy and fashion of modern times for the traditional, floor-length gowns of traditional bailaoras. As they departed, Julia Altenbach arrived to deliver a commanding alegrias.

For many years, di Palma has drawn on the lives and art of women for inspiration in creating her theatrical works. A solo for herself to the recorded voice of El Pele, singing "Alfonina y El Mar" by Felix Luna, drew from the final poem by Alfonsina Storni, a 20th century feminist and suffragette. Beset by breast cancer and a broken love affair, Storni, a Latin American writer, penned the poem in 1938, the night before her suicide by walking into the sea. A videographic seascape created by di Palma provided a panoramic backdrop for the dance and song.

Pedro Cortés, Jr., who represents the third generation in a family of Spanish Gypsy guitarists, has served as Zorongo's music director since 1993. A panoramic sound journey across his strings in the program's third section earned him a rousing audience ovation.

Then, depending on one's perspective, Cortés and singer Felix de Lola either accompanied – or were accompanied by – Altenbach, Morse, Nishiuchi, and Horn in "Maja" (Solea por Buleria), a fast-paced closer for the first act.

In "Memorial for Neda," di Palma and company, joined by dancer Andrea Plevan, paid tribute to a student, Neda Agha Soltan, 22, who was shot and killed on June 20, 2009, while attending a protest in Tehran against the fraudulent Iranian election results that defeated the reformist candidates for president. Neda's murder made her an instant martyr and symbol of the Iranian people's longing for freedom. In poetry, music, and dance, backed by a video collage of Iranian protests, the company maintained a focus on the experiences of Neda the individual and those of the individuals around her, while depicting what became a singular event for a global mass audience.

A fiery, traditional flamenco finale ended the show with solo dance turns for Morse and Nishiuchi, followed by an exquisite display of solo cante by de Lola, who would have been welcome to sing all night. A bubbling, Bulerias free-for-all brought the proceedings to a satisfying conclusion.

A notable, if more subtle, success for the Zorongo program may be found in the performing presence of five, solid flamenco dancers in addition to di Palma. In the best of times, even in Spain, "flamenco's greatest deficiency is the shortage of good dancers" (Pohren, 1984, p. 59).

From her earliest days dancing solo in Twin Cities night clubs, di Palma found herself bedeviled by the shortage of flamenco artists in Minnesota. The expensive conundrum of hiring performers from Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico, and Spain for short-run productions limited creation time, stressed rehearsals, and restricted touring opportunities. The current company represents the fulfillment of a long-held dream, and results from the founding of Zorongo Flamenco's school more than a decade ago.

That, alone, is a singular achievement of no small consequence.

Pohren, D. E. (1984). The art of flamenco. Dorset, England: Musical New Services Limited.

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