This story features “Flamenco Vivo: Carlota Santana” presented by Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center. Learn more about this performance and get tix on the event page here.
Carlota Santana knows the meaning of the phrase, “You can’t please all the people all the time.”
The dance troupe she heads, Flamenco Vivo, presents a fusion of the traditional art form of flamenco and “a more modern twist,” in Santana’s words.
Strictly speaking, flamenco is a form of song, dance and instrumental (mostly guitar) music commonly associated with the Andalusian Roma (Gypsies) of southern Spain. After probably migrating to the country during the Middle Ages and early-Renaissance, they encountered Sephardic Jews and Moors, and their cultural intermingling produced the form we think of as flamenco.
Although flamenco stemmed originally from folkloric traditions, it eventually became professional, demanding extensive training to perform. What characterizes flamenco is acoustic guitar music, chanting, hand claps, heels stamps and castanets. The dancing appears to have no set tempo and may include both fast and slow passages.
Disagreement does exist among flamenco fans concerning preferences for the old and the new styles. But Flamenco Vivo continues to do both — as it will during its 25-stop tour, beginning at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center on the Takoma/Silver Spring campus.
“A lot of people are traditionalists and don’t like the modern stuff,” said Santana. “They like the old songs and dances. On the other side, there are those who like to see salsa and African rhythms included. We can’t go so far in the modern direction that flamenco disappears, or it is turned into something else. I’m traditional in my heart.”
Despite the company’s more modern elements, Santana was named “The Keeper of Flamenco” by Dance Magazine. She also received the La Cruz de la Oren al Merito Civil from the King and Government of Spain for “all the years of passion, excellence and dedication to the flamenco art.”
Those who are “serious” about learning and performing flamenco must spend time in Spain, especially Andalusia. “There are classes there every day,” Santana said. “Here in the United States, it’s more for fun.”
For its part, Flamenco Vivo, with locations in New York and North Carolina, offers many educational programs and sends teaching artists into schools to familiarize youngsters with the art form. That is in addition to frequent performances.
Santana co-founded the company with Roberto Lorca, who passed away in 1987. “Our mission is to promote flamenco as a living art form and a vital part of Hispanic heritage,” Santana said.
The name of the company, which can mean either “Flamenco is alive” or “Flamenco is lively,” expresses her faith in the future.
Some 200 events take place at the Cultural Arts Center a year, many presented by the community at large. But Flamenco Vivo is part of the Cultural Arts Center Guest Artist Series, said Margaret Holt, director of Guest Artist and Education Programs. “Flamenco Vivo is an incredible production; it’s considered the single best flamenco group in the country.”
“Presenting a company like Flamenco Vivo is also important because the Latino-Hispanic population is growing at a very rapid rate, and we want to include a lot of Spanish culture into our programming,” Holt explained.
To make the programming more accessible, the Cultural Arts Center is presenting a full-fledged performance the first night of Flamenco Vivo’s appearance and an interactive demonstration for a half-hour the following morning geared for children and families. During the second concert, audience members will be able to play castanets in place.
What makes a cultural form that is several hundred years old — however you perform it — have lasting appeal? “People can grab onto it emotionally,” said Santana. “It helps express whatever feeling you have inside. Especially when people are doing a solo in flamenco, they pour out their hearts, and audiences relate.”
Female dancers in flamenco are given a great deal of latitude, she noted. They can express themselves in the most feminine way, as soft and sexy, but also can be loud and noisy, depending on what palos (traditional music forms in flamenco) they use.
One component of Flamenco Vivo’s repertoire is Mujeres Valientes (Valiant Women), which pays tribute to the “fundamental power and courage of individual Latin American women who over the centuries have challenged authority and fought against ignorance, inequality and injustice,” Santana explained.
In the first half of the March tour performances, a dance-theater work by choreographer Belen Maya shares two largely unknown stories about two very different women. One is 17th-century poet, author and educator Juana Ines de la Cruz, who entered a nunnery to pursue her love of knowledge and ultimately collected the largest library in Mexico.
The other is 19th century revolutionary Manuela Sáenz. Originally married to a wealthy English merchant, she lived the life of an aristocrat and a socialite in Lima. Peru. But inspired by the political and military affairs of her day, she left her husband in 1822 to begin an eight-year collaboration and personal relationship with Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan military and political leader who played a leading role in establishing Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.
Five musicians perform the original score by Gaspar Rodriguez, which accompanies this segment of the production. “The dance movement is very different,” said Santana. “Holding your back erect was very important in traditional flamenco. But in modern flamenco, the dancers may lean forward with shoulders bent, arms stretched out and hands doing different things.
“But even modern flamenco has the same original rhythm — 12-beat rhythms — based on the music.”
In the tribute to de la Cruz, performers will wear nuns’ habits rather than flouncy skirts and flowers in their hair more typical of traditional flamenco. In the celebration of Saenz’s life, “you’ll see a partner dance that’s very balletic, in which the male lifts up the female. again, atypical of flamenco,” said Santana.
The second half of the concert, however, is much closer to many audience members’ concept of flamenco. Two dancers perform, while two vocalists sing in flamenco phrases accompanied by traditional flamenco guitarists.
With all the stamping of traditional flamenco, it seems intuitive that it would be a young person’s game. But, according to Santana, flamenco dancers “first hit their prime at 35 or 40.” That’s around the time many ballet dancers are hanging up their toe shoes. “When you’re an older dancer,” she continued, “you do less-complicated stomping and express more emotion.”
It is emotion, after all that fuels the juices of flamenco as a lasting art.
“Flamenco Vivo: Carlota Santana” will take the stage of Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, at 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, and at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 3. Tickets are $25; $20 for students and seniors, and $10 for children. Order tickets online at: http://mcblogs.montgomerycollege.edu/cac/box-office. Learn more about this performance here.