Courtesy Irvine Barclay TheatreMost of the things I loved about rock & roll—all that freedom-emotion-earthiness-immediacy-expression stuff—were pretty well leeched out of the music years ago. Sure, there are still a few pockets of resistance, but these days you've got to look somewhere other than rock music.
In 2002 and 2003, for example, I saw performances at the Irvine Barclay Theatre that were about as thrilling as seeing the Beatles live had been, and the only thing in common were the Cuban heeled boots. The shows were the Barclay's in-house creation, the New World Flamenco Festival: guys stomping about on a wooden floor, women stomping right back, a brutal flailing of cedar-topped guitars, beshawled matrons wailing like their entrails were being gnawed by hyenas, enraptured audience members shouting, "Viva lemaquinadeescribir!" which, of course, means, "Long live the typewriter!"
You won't find any word processors at this year's festival, as it's a decidedly old-school affair. While flamenco music and dance have enjoyed and endured considerable experimentation over the past two decades, the theme of this year's 10-day Barclay fest is "Tradicion yFamilia."
"There was a long trend of trying to make flamenco more contemporary or commercial. The trend I see now is toward the roots of flamenco," said festival artistic director Yaelisa. The acclaimed one-named dancer/choreographer has presented some astonishingly effective fusion flamenco at previous New World fests, but this time, "I felt it was important to address the renewed appreciation for tradition. And all the companies we're featuring have something in common, which is family, a very important thing in flamenco. In most gypsy families, the flamenco is handed down to the next generation solely as an oral or physical tradition.
"A perfect example is Los Farruco, where half the members are related to one another. They are one of the strictest dynasties in Spain, where they are maintaining the style and the integrity of the patriarch, the original Farruco." (The legendary patriarch, El Farruco, died in 1997. The company features his daughter, La Farruca, and 17-year-old grandson, who has now taken the name Farruco.)
In flamenco, traditional in no way means stuffy. Consider Antonio el Pipa, who was a featured artist at the fest two years ago. He's a decidedly informed traditionalist, who has explored new styles of dance, musical textures and presentation, but keeps only that which he can bring home to the styles of his native Jerez. His 2003 Barclay performance exploded with passion, drama and wit, as if he were some possessed cross between Danny Kaye and a centaur doing a Gene Krupa drum solo with his feet.
This year, he returns heading his Compania Antonio El Pipa, performing one of his established works, "Vivencias" ("Experiences"). "The theme of the show is how the people of his grandmother's generation labored in the fields, some of the poorest people anywhere, and how they would come together to join as one family and take care of one another," Yaelisa said. "And their gatherings were where a great art blossomed. It's not a huge production, but flamenco doesn't need that. It is so expressive it just needs a few props and great artists onstage."
In the remaining set of performances, titled "Y Una Batita de Cola," the dancers make magic with a few yards of cloth, specifically the fabulous trains of their dresses.
"The style of dancing with the flamenco train (called batadecola) requires an amazing amount of agility and technique," Yaelisa said. "It's an art, but you really have to be an athlete for it. It lost popularity for years, but in Spain today, many young girls are taking an interest in dancing in that dress again."
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Unlike the three previous flamenco fests, Yaelisa isn't dancing in this one, leaving that to the Spaniards who are generations-deep in the flamenco life. She's lived, studied and danced extensively in Spain, but she grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a half-Spanish modern dancer who adopted flamenco after seeing the legendary Carmen Amaya dance.
"My mother became a professional flamenco dancer and an even better singer, so I grew up with the art form from the time I was in her belly. That was all I knew, with visitors from Spain around the house all the time. So, of course, in my teen years, I went through a period of being interested in anything but flamenco. Then my mom put me in one of her shows, and I got bit really bad by the flamenco bug.
"What I get by dancing and performing on a stage can't be replaced by anything. But I get a great satisfaction from helping to bring this project together and seeing people from all over come to enjoy flamenco," Yaelisa said. "And I especially love working with the Barclay Theatre, where the people are just amazing—not worried about the bottom line, but about doing the best presentation of the art form. It is very rare in my business to find a group of people like that."
THE NEW WORLD FLAMENCO FESTIVAL AT THE IRVINE BARCLAY THEATRE, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646; WWW.THEBARCLAY.ORG. LOS FARRUCO, FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 6 p.m. $36-$100; Y UNA BATITA DE COLA, TUES.-WED., 8 P.M. $32-$100; COMPANIA ANTONIO EL PIPA, AUG. 12-13, 8 P.M.; AUG. 14, 6 P.M. $36-$100. ALLA AGES.