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At the Flamenco Festival, blend into a new idea of ​​Spanish dance

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For Olga Pericet, flamenco is an invitation: to play and explore the limits of one’s imagination on stage. “I like to keep things spontaneous and lively,” she said in an interview from Madrid. Pericet, from a family of flamenco dancers and teachers, has a deep respect for the traditions of this form. But she also finds her inspiration in unexpected places, like the films of Quentin Tarantino or the dances of Martha Graham. “I’m bipolar that way,” she said. “I like to mix it up.”

Flamenco – the music and dance – is steeped in history, its origins coming from the blending of Roma culture with the cultural melting pot of southern Spain. It is also an art in constant evolution, with a sense of reinvention. Over the years, the Flamenco Festival, which arrives in New York every spring, has offered a window into its evolution.

This year, the festival has three downtown dance programsstarting March 8, each invoking a range of associations: to past dance forms, to flamenco authors, and to the central role of the flamenco guitar. “La Léona” by Péricet was inspired by a 19th-century guitar prototype that produced the rich, resonant sound we associate with flamenco music today. THE “Invocación” by the National Ballet of Spain is a large-scale ensemble work that looks specifically to the past.

And the “Gala Flamenca” focuses – as every year – on the figure of the solo dancer, virtuoso and innovative, constantly drawing inspiration from and adding to tradition. Two gala artists will wear the royal 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 treatment of his voluminous folds. A symbol of tradition meets the fluidity of contemporary presentation.

“This year the festival includes the opposites of flamenco,” said its creator and director, Miguel Marín, during 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 turns into pure fantasy,” he said.

The festival program — 22 shows spread across the city’s theaters — highlights the role of the guitar in Spanish music and dance; most will include tributes to Paco de Lucía, the great guitarist, died in 2014.

The guitar plays a central role in Pericet’s “La Leona,” an intimate performance in which she dances alone, supported by four male musicians. The title “La Leona” or “the lioness” has a double meaning. The lioness is clearly Pericet, whose powerful imagination is revealed in every striking image. It is also a reference to a guitar created in 1856 by the luthier Antonio de Torres, who gave it the name “La Leona”. With its larger dimensions and more rounded shape, Torres’ guitar was capable of projecting a more resonant, or leonine, sound. It has become the prototype of the contemporary flamenco guitar.

“I wanted to become the body of this guitar,” said Pericet, 48, “and shed light on everything around it and its origins, which for me are the origin of flamenco.” Rising from a geyser of pink-hued frills, Pericet appears, guitar-shaped cutouts hanging from her limbs and obscuring her face, something like a cross between a folk saint and a surrealist painting. By the end of the evening, she became one of the musicians, tapping rhythms with her hands on a guitar-shaped wooden board while drumming with her feet in a classic flamenco footwork, or zapateado.

“La Leona” also draws inspiration from the stories of 19th-century flamenco performers, whose dancing made them objects of erotic fascination and sometimes societal rejection. “The origins of flamenco date back to a time when women were just beginning to rise up and become liberated,” Pericet said. “A new society was being born in which women’s sexuality was unleashed on stage.”

The beginning is like a molt; Pericet emerges, masked and naked to the waist, from an ocean of fabrics.

“I see the scene like a painting,” she says. “The first thing I see are shapes and colors. Through them, I see how I want to paint my canvas.

The imagery of this very personal evening is as fluid as Pericet’s exploration of gender and the body. Sometimes she dances topless; in another, she wears a man’s costume and dances the farruca, a traditionally male dance. Later, she performs a dance with castanets, to 19th century guitar music.

“I wanted to move forward and backward in time, mix it all up,” Pericet said. “All these elements, past and present, are powerful and I want to use them all.”

Ballet Nacional’s “Invocación,” while 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 18th-century escuela bolera – a variation of ballet – then moves to the hybrid style developed for 20th-century audiences and finally to the choreographer’s theatrical flamenco dance. Mario Maya, died in 2008. The impression is one of profusion and wealth.

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

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

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

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

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

“Invocación” brings this essence to life with a vengeance. The show has a little bit of everything. In the first section, choreographed by Olmo, a corps of 18 dancers perform the rapid, detailed footwork and small jumps of the escuela bolera while playing castanets and wearing costumes—long dresses, fishnets, boleros—reminiscent of 18th century clothing.

In the final section, “De lo Flamenco,” the dancers perform choreography by Maya, who, according to flamenco expert Estela Zatania, was one of the first to rationalize and dramatize the language of flamenco, making it suitable for large stages. At one point, nine men perform a sharp-angled dance in which they move first their feet, then their legs, then their arms, while seated on chairs, a Mayan specialty.

“I was shocked that we never performed one of Maya’s works in the company,” Olmo said. “It’s a real act of recovery.” By including “De lo Flamenco” in his first performance, Olmo has restored Maya to its rightful place in the company and Spanish dance lineage.

Olmo also created a solo, “Jauleña,” which distills all the other elements of the show, as if filtering them through a single body. The title refers to Jau, a town near Granada in which Jewish, Arab and Christian cultures coexisted peacefully. Originally performed by Olmo, the solo, like Pericet’s, also has a molting quality. For 10 minutes, he tries out different forms and identities, stopping and then starting again in bursts of movements that fold back on themselves. He mimes fanning himself; he does fluttering footwork or poses in a muscular toreador stance. Every identity slips past him like water.

In New York, the solo will be performed by a woman, Inmaculada Salomón. “The movements are androgynous,” she said, “and leave room for play and self-discovery.”

As different as these shows may be, they all stem from a sense of ownership of tradition. The entirety of Spanish music and dance is available to these dancers and choreographers, to make of it what they want. Liñán reinvents what a dance in a bata de cola can be; Olmo distills the different currents of Spanish dance into a single solo, which he transfers from his own body to that of a dancer; Pericet becomes the incarnation of Antonio de Torres’ guitar.

This freedom and versatility constitute the strength of flamenco, both for artists like Pericet and for major institutions like the Ballet Nacional. “All preconceived ideas disappear,” Marín said. “Ten or twelve 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 want.

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