A FLAMENCO DANCE CONCERT
at Angel Guardian Theatre
In the early days of postmodern dance, long before ex-Reader critic Sally Banes had even coined the term, Yvonne Rainer was just saying no to the spectacle of dance. By eliminating the traditional trappings--costumes, props, lighting, and the like--she was saying yes to what was most important to her: the essence of the movement.
In his own way, world-renowned Spanish dancer Edo was doing the same thing with this concert, in which he premiered his local pick-up company (Karen Stelling, Maria Cecilia, Maria Gitana, El Polaco, Catalina, and Maria Virginia). There were no elaborate sets designed to transport you to the sunny courtyards of Spain. There were no trailing ruffled trains (colas) on the women's dresses. There weren't even any castanets.
What there was was good solid dancing. By focusing our attention on the steps and on the nuances brought to them by each dancer, Edo in essence made the vestiges of spectacle seem incidental--a sideline rather than a highlight. There were hardly any group dances, and even when all the dancers appeared together onstage briefly, there was no sense of ensemble dancing: instead they looked like a number of people who'd simply come together to dance, almost as if this were a social occasion. This is not to say that they weren't dancing in step or didn't look competent as a group.
The brief Fandangos de Huelva, with six dancers, and the final Sevillanas with the full company seemed almost footnotes to the main agenda: a series of solos and duets. Essentially the Sevillanas is a couple dance, anyway. Coming at the end of the program, it served as an excuse to turn the finale into an exhibition dance, and each dancer got his or her few brief minutes in the spotlight, giving the steps the kind of flamboyant showmanship the dancers hadn't displayed in the rest of the concert--it would have interfered with the distilled movement and pure technique.
But throwing in those few moments of finale fervor proved a wise decision in its way. Apart from the sheer entertainment value--most people like to see obviously difficult steps done well--those last few minutes were the ultimate nay-saying: this kind of splashy dancing is what we could have done but chose not to. Instead of emphasizing technique as an end in itself, Edo makes it a means to an end. The dancers too are means to an end: instruments (albeit fine-tuned ones with personalities of their own) to convey the dance. When the music itself wasn't center stage (as it was in two impressive guitar solos by Miguel Espinoza and Miguel Ochoa) it too was subsidiary. The singer (Pepe El Culata) and instrumentalists did not strive for our attention.
As I watched this performance I couldn't help recalling a comment from Edo about the classes he's teaching as part of an extended residency with Chicago Flamenco Studies, which sponsored this concert. He said his teaching methods had forced a change in studios: the dancers had pounded a large hole in the floor. "I didn't know," he said, "whether I should commend them on their studious dancing or chastise them for succeeding too well."
This was the kind of concentration each soloist brought to each dance. It's the kind of concentration you would expect from a man with an extensive tradition of dance in his family. Edo Sie is a third-generation dancer, married to dancer Susanna Sie; daughter Lily Sie was a featured soloist on this program.
Martinete, Edo's first dance, was a perfect example of the concert's bare-bones mentality. Martinete was inspired by gypsies who took up blacksmithing, and Edo times his steps so that the pauses between them are like the pauses within the hammering; the sharply angular twists of his wrist also parallel the hammer blows. When he rounds his arms softly at the beginning, it makes a pointed contrast.
Edo's compelling gaucho-inspired Zapateado, with its clean, precise footwork, is almost a textbook illustration of the versatile toe-heel sounds he can make. He alternately pounds the staccato steps into the floor and touches the floor so lightly there's only the suggestion of footwork, giving the sounds an incredible range, soft as a whisper or loud as a shout. The sharp line of his movement, with quick, pivoting profile reversals as he poses briefly between each succession of steps, is paralleled by the ramrod straightness of his whole torso and by the harsh lines of his face. To see this soft-spoken, polite man transformed onstage is phenomenal: with each intent, glazed stare into the audience, he commands our attention. When his heel pushes progress to tiny tapping steps, the audience hangs suspended on each precise tap to the floor. You can't even hear people breathe. People watch so intently that it doesn't occur to them to applaud the steps.
Lily, on the other hand, commands our attention with the abandon of her movement. Edo looks down at his feet, and we look down with him. Lily looks inward, almost forgetting we're there. From the first moment of Siguiriya, when she poses briefly in a corner of the stage, she makes that tiny corner her own little world. Loose and supple, she starts the dance very slowly, almost as if she's thinking it into being on the spot, snaking her arms up in a sensuous series of wrist turns; then she builds like a slow-burning fire to a constant level of intensity. It appears she could go on forever: stopping the dance is incidental. When the music stops, she stops--as if forced to.
In Tarantos Lily is so overtaken by the spirit of the dance that she continues even at the expense of her costume: her blouse almost comes undone, escaping the waistline it's been tucked into. The sleeves extend over her hands and the shirttails flow out around her like an oversize pajama top. When she takes a bow with Edo at the end of this duet, she seems to be returning from a trance state, trying to gather the blouse around her into a semblance of its former appearance. The dance encounter between the two is confrontational, as are most flamenco duets, almost a battle of the sexes. That's slightly disconcerting given that these dancers are father and daughter, but ultimately their expertise overcomes even this. Onstage they are no longer related, they're simply two dancers conveying traditional steps through the medium of their bodies.