Have modern, digitally produced, slap-yer-brain summer entertainments left you feeling a bit benumbed? Then it's possible you don't even realize how much you need the New World Flamenco Festival, which begins its fifth annual foray this Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Employing little more than heads, hands and feet—to sing, strum and stomp—performers of Spain's venerable underclass art form will serve up an irresistible emotional paella of the human experience. And if you don't know much about the conventions or traditions of flamenco, don't worry. Has famed tap dancer Savion Glover ever studied or paid much attention to flamenco? “Not at all,” he says, and he's not just attending the festival—he's dancing in it.
The title and theme of this year's fest is Fronteras—frontiers—and it addresses both geographical and artistic frontiers. The regional flamenco styles of the southern Spanish towns Morón de la Frontera and Jerez de la Frontera will be celebrated, respectively, by Compania Juana Amaya (featuring the legendary Amaya's equally legendary uncle, Juan del Gastor, on guitar, as well as her daughter Nazaret) this Friday though Sunday, and by Son de Jerez next Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug. 8-9). Meanwhile, the artistic frontiers of flamenco will be explored in the second half of the Aug. 8-9 shows, which feature Glover dancing with Yaelisa, the uni-named San Francisco-based dancer (who has also been the fest's inspired artistic director since its inception). There'll also be performances by Compania Rafaela Carrasco on Aug. 11-13. Sevilla's Carrasco, says Yaelisa, “is an excellent flamenco dancer, but she's also trained in modern, classical and ballet. Her work is very contemporary and conceptual, extremely modern.”
Still, Yaelisa and Glover's duets may prove to be the festival's most modern act, as the duo leaps with all four feet into an uncharted borderland of flamenco and tap. Barclay president Douglas Rankin came up with the idea of pairing the dancers after seeing Glover's performances of Classical Savion at the Barclay last year. But aside from a brief backstage hello at one of Glover's New York performances, the Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funkstar and Yaelisa have yet to meet, much less dance together, and they won't until two days before the performance, at which time they'll also settle on the musical selections and other details that most artists would fret over for weeks.
Granted, Glover is the premier tap dancer of his time and can duet compellingly with a jar of mayonnaise, but why would he sign on so readily to dance into the unknown?
“I guess it's the influence of my good friend Gregory Hines, who passed away a couple of years ago,” Glover explained over the phone recently. “I think this is right up his alley, to tear up with a flamenco dancer. I've realized that sometimes I unconsciously commit to projects because of my pioneers, my teachers and mentors, to try to maintain the input, energy and chances they took in dance. I knew Gregory would be happy to hear something like this was going on. The second thing is just mewanting to have the experience.”
Though known primarily as a dancer, Glover considers what he does with his feet to be music, and he's also taken to jamming recently, with no rehearsal, with jazz greats like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The connection he sees between that, the Flamenco Fest and his other endeavors, he says, is trust.
“With all these people I've been blessed to share a bill with, I'm learning more every day that we as people need trust. We just have this unconscious security in trust. I trust that Yaelisa knows what she's doing. And I trust that she trusts me in knowing what I'm doing. So it's just a matter of us coming together and maintaining that trust,” Glover said. “I don't knowher. I don't know her personally to say, 'I trust you in my house alone,' but as an artist, I trust her, that we will have a glorious collaborative time. Besides the joy and warmth of participating in things like this, I love letting that unconscious trust do its thing.”
There are of course some technical issues to work out—tap shoes are louder than flamenco shoes, and Glover prefers an oak floor to the plywood the flamenco artists favor—but neither artist expressed any doubts about how their styles will mesh.
“I've worked with ballet and jazz dancers, but never a tap dancer, and Savion is a very interesting tapper,” Yaelisa said. “He hits the floor very hard, like a flamenco dancer.”
Not knowing much about flamenco, Glover had assumed there wasn't much room for improvisation in it. Yaelisa was pleased to tell him otherwise.
“That's really the only way I know how to work, and I told Savion that the only way I see this working is if we go out onstage and jam. He said, 'Sounds great to me.'”
THE NEW WORLD FLAMENCO FESTIVAL AT THE IRVINE BARCLAY THEATRE, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646; WWW.THEBARCLAY.ORG. “MORÓN, A TIEMPO Y A COMPAS” WITH COMPANIA JUANA AMAYA, FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M. N SUN., 6 P.M. $38-$43; “SIN FRONTERAS” WITH SAVION GLOVER, YAELISA AND SON DE JEREZ, TUES.-WED., 8 P.M. $38-$43; “UNA MIRADA AL FLAMENCO” WITH COMPANIA RAFAELA CARRASCO, AUG. 11-12, 8 P.M. N AUG. 13, 6 P.M. $38-$43. ALL AGES.