It is tradition in Spain to show one's appreciation for a remarkable Flamenco performance by throwing carnations onto the stage, with cries of olé
and expressive piropos
(complimentary remarks). So what should an appropriate response be in New York?
The best we could offer after seeing A Palo Seco Flamenco Company was to stand, applaud vigorously and cheer as loud as our voices would allow for the amazing artistry of dancer/choreographer Rebeca Tomás and her troupe. If only I had a bouquet of carnations.
Connecticut-born Rebeca Thomas didn't intend to become a dancer. But a semester abroad in Granada, Spain (via the University of Rochester, where she was studying comparative religion, psychology and music), changed all that. After seeing the amazing Flamenco dancer Antonio Canales, she fell in love with the dance form. "I was supposed to do an independent study, so I chose Flamenco," she said, in a one-on-one a few weeks before her company's recent stint at Theatre 80. "I needed to know everything about this world."
After graduating, she returned to Spain to live on and off for seven years. By a lovely coincidence, she met her husband, José Perillán, a citizen of Madrid, at her university, where he was also studying comparative religion in addition to physics. So in a tradition followed by many an American bailaora
(viz., María Alba, née Joan Fitzmaurice), Thomas became Tomás.
In Granada she danced in tablaos
. "It's a very specific style because you dance in the cuevas
, which have earthen floors, not on raised stages," she related. In Madrid, where she lived with her husband's grandparents, she studied with the biggest names and "a new generation, more modern and dancey," she said.
In 2006, she and her husband settled in New York. (They now have a one-and-a-half-year-old son.) She formed her company, A Palo Seco, three years ago. The name refers to a bare-bones style of Flamenco music that often consists of either a capella singing or only percussion, but no guitar.
The powerful "El Martinete" was an example of this style. Singers David Castellano and Barbara Martinez dove into the raw depths of cante jondo
(deep song), with Jose Moreno on percussion, while a quintet of female dancers, taking on the strength and attitude of male dancers, executed canonized movements melding with modern choreographic language. "It departs from the linear norm," stated Tomás, "but within the Flamenco structure. It still has rancio
The opening piece, "Cinco Por Cinco" ("Five By Five"), also this season's title, featured the closely attuned ensemble of five dancers, five non-dancers (two singers and three musicians) and "five ideas inspired by the structured chaos of New York City," the program notes indicated.
"There's an edge in Flamenco, but New York City has an edge, too," explained Tomás. "There are so many different artistic visions in the city, whether visual or performance arts. In 'Cinco Por Cinco' and also 'El Martinete' people are doing different things at different times, then coming together, based on different movement phrases, and going off doing different phrases, too."
She admitted to pushing the boundaries of Flamenco. "In the U.S. it's very easy to do exactly the same thing as traditional Flamenco companies. I'm trying not to do that. We are Flamenco artists, but we live in New York City. What we get from the city is what we put out."
"El Lenguage del Abanico" ("The Language of the Fan") was first conceived as a solo, but Tomás reworked it as a trio for herself, Elana and Sol. Here, the fan is not used as a traditional coquettish prop, but as a sharp visual punctuation and driving percussive element. The women, clad in pants, snapped open and closed the fans in unison with a flick of the wrist, struck them against their bodies and attacked the stage with their zapateo
(footwork). Laura Castellano's palmas
(handclapping), Moreno's percussion and Martinez's singing worked in unison, but at times remained silent for the precision rhythms of the dancers and fans to take charge.
La farruca is a light form typical of cante chico
, which is traditionally danced by men. Elana and Roybal danced the duet "Las Farrucas" with great skill and zapateo
. Martinez's vocals were integral to the dance as an onstage presence.
"I like the male aesthetic, the lines, the turns, but I also like the women in the male aesthetic," said Tomás. "It doesn't have to be a man that does that. A woman can take that power on," she said.
Tomás said she uses only women because there are a lot of strong female dancers residing in New York City. Sol is originally from Argentina; Castellano is American; and Roybal and Elana are Mexican-American.
The two musical interludes were distinct, but performed with verve and incredible musicianship, with Moreno on drums and cajon
(big box) and Cortes on Flamenco guitar. "Guajiras," was heavily influenced by Cuban rhythms. The more traditional, quick-paced "Bulerias" was 12-beat Flamenco puro
Sol performed a solo, "Tientos-Tangos," which began with the somber side of Flamenco (Tientos) and transitioned to the more cheerful Tangos. She is a deft and admirable performer in the New York state of mind. However, I am more an aficionada
of those bailaoras
who look you in the eye defiantly, smolder, make distorted faces, bare their souls and move me to tears.
For the finale, Tomás danced "Alegrías" in a magenta bata de cola
(dress with a long train) and a long white mantón
(shawl). She commandeered the shawl, artfully swirling it around her body, letting it embrace and engulf her. Fancy footwork (escobilla
) on fire. It's not usual to see a bailaora
smile, but you could tell that Tomás was having a great time, and the audience loved her back.
"You start your own flamenco company, you should end your show with your solo," said Tomás, "but I am trying to step away from that. It's not about my dancing. It's about my vision, what I am trying to get out there."
She added, "The truth is, when it comes to my own show, I dance a thousand times worse than when I dance at a tablao
. Because I am in charge of so many things, I just can't be a dancer."
If you want to get a different feel from the show, Tomás dances Flamenco on Thursdays and Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. at The Wine Spot, 127 MacDougal, between West 3rd and 4th Streets. Showtimes: 7, 8, 8:45, 9:30. www.winespotnyc.com
"It's me, a guitarist, a singer and a tiny stage," she said.
Tomás, in magenta bata de cola, Pedro Cortes (guitar), Ali Bello (violin).
Photo © & courtesy of Amor Montes De Oca
"Cinco Por Cinco" (quintet): L-R: Rebeca Tomás, Leslie Roybal (in back), Marina Elana, Laura Castellano (in back), Sol "la Argentinita."
Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff
"El Martinete" (trio): L-R: Rebeca Tomás, Laura Castellano, Sol "la Argentinita."
Photo by Images for Innovation.
Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler
Tomás with fan.
On display in the exhibit, "100 Years of Flamenco in New York," at New York Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, until August 3, 2013.
Photo by Images for Innovation.
Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler