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By Ninotchka Bennahum
Teodoro “Teo” Morca has danced, taught, and choreographed in the flamenco idiom for 55 years. Once the partner of the famed 1960s Spanish bailaora Pilar Lopez, he has devoted his career to making flamenco dance accessible to any student.
Morca’s broad dance background includes classical ballet, escuela bolera, modern dance, and karate. Born in Los Angeles to Hungarian immigrants, he began his training in 1952 with the Cansino family, Antonio Triana, and Martin Vargas. Flamenco was in vogue in the U.S. following the Spanish Civil War. Artists sought refuge in America from Generalissimo Franco, and Morca began earning acclaim as a choreographer. In 1964 he relocated to Madrid, where he joined Pilar Lopez’s Baile Español and became one of the only American teachers at the famed studio Amor de Dios. Upon returning to the States in 1975, he and his wife, Isabel, founded the Morca Academy of Performing Arts in Bellingham, WA. There, he evolved his teaching craft until 1998. Last year he published The Morca Method of Flamenco (see www.morca.com) and became the director of the Taos Academy of Dance Arts in New Mexico, where Ninotchka Bennahum spoke with him recently.
What inspired you to develop your own method of teaching? I observed American students of flamenco struggle both in Spain and the States. If you study at Amor de Dios in Madrid, you’ll end up in the class of a Gypsy or Spanish teacher known for his or her stylistic approach to the form. You will learn their bulerías or alegrías. But you may have trouble finding a well-rounded flamenco education: how to strengthen one part of the body while working another, and mastering footwork.
What makes your classes unique? I explain how to work every part of the body, how to utilize all of your training. I want dancers to think of the body as a single moving force of nature. Once the entire core is working well, you can master good footwork. My method is to bring out the student’s individuality within the basic vocabulary of flamenco. I offer technique classes in 11-, 4-, and 12-count rhythms, and I stop to explain what interpretation means.
Improvisation is the heart of flamenco. How do you teach students to improvise? There is no such thing as pure improvisation in flamenco. Improvisation comes when a student has mastered the structure of the palo, or rhythm. She can then add accentuations or even beats to an established phrase.
Does a serious student of flamenco have to make the pilgrimage to Spain to become an artist? Yes, but they have to be thoughtful about it. There are two reasons to go to Spain: to absorb the culture and to study flamenco with great teachers. Most students get off the plane and run straight to the nearest studio. My advice—spend some time absorbing the atmosphere, the architecture; eat the food; observe people’s mannerisms. Then, maybe, take a class. If you have a month, take two weeks to study Spanish and the next two to check out the classes that may fit your personality. Spain is Mecca for the serious flamenco student. Traveling there is a must for the ambiente alone.
What if you can’t afford to go to Spain? Should you give up on flamenco? You can always go to the Festival Flamenco in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aside from this year’s hiatus due to the global financial crisis, it’s the finest performance/workshop for flamenco artists and students outside of Spain.
What is the relationship between choreography and technique in flamenco? Choreography emerges with an understanding of the various dances: siguiriyas, bulerías, martinetes. All of these dances have set structures with a beginning entrada and a final exit, salida. Each has various llamadas, calls to the guitarist and singer to tell them what you will do next, which usually means a change in footwork. A dancer has to know the traditional structure to discover ways of embellishing the dance. Today you do not see too much real choreography, a whole dance with a beginning, crescendo, and end. You see only patadas, short displays of fast footwork and then walking around the stage like you are thinking of the next inspiration.
How is that different from what you were taught? I come from the school where you danced a full choreography, keeping the feeling and interpretation of that form until the end of the dance. Each dance looked different from the next. Flamenco should have the same rules as any dance form, especially since it has gone onto the concert stage where you have to know how to use space. Today you see dancers out there with 30 minutes of footwork. Carmen Amaya never performed longer than nine minutes. A dancer should leave the audience hungry.
Do men and women have different choreography in flamenco? Other than skirt work, the techniques are the same for men and women. My wife, Isabel, had a skirt and bata (train) made for me, as sometimes I would concentrate on how a woman uses her legs. That is a bit of a lost art now that women just grab their skirts and lift to show their footwork. Then there are details such as florea, the flowering hand movements. Men and women do these. A man’s fingers are stretched in a more linear fashion to reflect his upright posture and long line in pants.
What great flamenco teacher has affected your career? Martin Vargas, from Valencia, Spain, was one of the few teachers I have known who did not have a big ego. I thank him for preparing me for my first trip to Spain. When Pilar Lopez saw me on television there and asked me to audition, I showed her whatever she asked for: flamenco, Spanish Classical, virtuoso castanet playing. I was prepared because of Vargas.
What do you hope to learn from your students? I hope to keep learning how to teach them better. It is a true give-and-take between teacher and student, worth a lifetime.
Photo by Jeffrey Willis