24th Annual Festival Flamenco Internacional
Albuquerque, New Mexico
June 9–11, 2011
Reviewed by Ninotchka Bennahum
La Moneta. Photo courtesy Pat Berrett.
Twenty-four years ago Eva Encinas-Sandoval founded the International Flamenco Festival of singing, guitar, and dance at the University of New Mexico, where she established the nation’s first flamenco program more than three decades ago. Today, Festival performances can be seen throughout Albuquerque, symbols of Encinas-Sandoval’s mission to bring the finest Spanish Gypsy Flamenco artists to America for one week each June to perform and teach. Now an established part of the Hispanic identity of the city of Albuquerque, patronized by the Spanish and American governments, the Festival Flamenco has become a reflection of great art, teaching, and development of young dance artists. If you’re a budding flamenco dancer seeking a stepping stone to study in Spain, the Festival’s week-long cante (song), baile (dance), and toque (guitar) classes might be your first stop. The Festival uses two theaters for its performances and concursos (competitions): The University of New Mexico’s intimate Rodey Theater and the City of Albuquerque’s newly built National Hispanic Cultural Center.
This year’s Festival brought a coterie of younger performers; most were in their mid-30s. While the tremendous energy and enthusiasm for flamenco was palpable at each show, also apparent was a lack of seasoned, more subtle artistry. Perhaps a sign of youth-driven Spanish flamenco festivals and competitions, the Festival’s curatorial choices this year fell prey to a well-trained but primarily uninspiring group of dancers whose performances tested the audience as each dancer searched for artistic vision. Earlier Festivals presented older dancers (and singers)—José Greco, La Tati, Teo Morca, La Farruca, Mañuela Carrasco—whose knowledge and mosaic structure of improvisational rhythms offered rich histories of Gypsy art. Today, while the lineage from one great dancer to the next generation is acknowledged in program notes, the unseasoned and, at times, solipsistic performance quality of the Festival’s chosen dancers—José Maya, La Moneta, and María José Franco—showed that even Gypsy flamenco has been influenced by competition trends rather than visionary artistry.
The exception to this critique was Fuensanta La Moneta, who performed June 9 at UNM’s Rodey Theater. From the tablaos (flamenco bars) and zambras (flamenco cafés) of Granada, La Moneta shared a full-evening entitled “Bailar, Vivir” with two bailadors—David Coria and Raimundo Benitez—and five excellent singers, guitarists and percussionists. La Moneta, the star of “Bailar,” danced two lengthy solos that opened and closed her show. Each soleá showcased the power in her legs and arms. Her footwork was precise and powerful, each sound a resounding attack on the floor and the dance itself. Loud echoes of foot and heelwork poured vibrational force into the stage, leaving the audience in awe.
In the second, more interesting solo, La Moneta entered the stage with a rush of tremendous energy, stopped and began a series of deep backbends accompanied by extended arms and hands. Her supple fingers traced tiny circles as her she threw her head back, turning around herself. In these stiller, more private moments Moneta’s control over her full body and not just her feet became apparent. Then she abandoned her use of the upper torso, appearing semi-human in quick darts across the floor; these were little conquests of space. A rather small woman with long, shiny black hair, an intense gaze and unkempt costuming, Moneta’s gift is raw power. Her eyes signal a dancer who travels between spirit worlds as she moves from moment to moment across the stage.
The most distinguished choreography of the Fiesta Flamenca, during its final two shows (June 11 & 12) at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, was offered not by a Spaniard or a gypsy but by an American: Joaquín Encinas. He is the founder and artistic director of Yjastros (Stepchildren): The American Flamenco Repertory Company and festival producer Eva Encinas-Sandoval’s son.: Joaquín Encinas, founder and artistic director of Yjastros (Stepchildren): The American Flamenco Repertory Company and festival producer Eva Encinas-Sandoval’s son. A company of 11 dancers including Encinas’ sister Marisol, herself an accomplished flamenco artist, and his son Nevarez (who attends Yale University), Yjastros performed A Nuestro Aire, set to guitar, flamenco song and the excellent Afro-Gypsy percussion by Hector Aguilar. Aire is composed of episodes in which women and men experience chance encounters. They meet on stage, exchange a battery of rhythmic improvisational moments and later part. There is no story other than those told by bodies, elegantly clothed in skintight flounced batas (dresses). Both men—Nevarez Encinas and the outstanding Carlos Menchaca—wear chic, tight SoHo-style black suits. They dance with the women but, most interestingly, together in a short pas de deux that should be extended.
Menchaca’s fierce yet precise footwork and intense stage presence revealed a budding artist full of potential if given the right roles and coaching. Yjastros’ female dancers are equally strong and well-rehearsed. They carry out with few mistakes Encinas’s love of improvisation on traditional flamenco musical phrases. Their collective energy is focused with precision so exact as to produce a flamenco of female soldiers, much like Balanchine’s army of women in The Four Temperaments. With greater subtlety in upper bodywork in both the male and female dancers, Encinas may one day tell us who these fine dancers are.
The finest performer of the evening was in fact the oldest: La Talegona, native of Cordoba. Along with the sonorous deep song cries of Rubio de Pruna, also a Cordoban, Talegona’s performance brought meditative calm to the stage. Her articulate footwork and sensuous use of arms and fingers showed younger generations how improvisational interpretation of individual rhythmic structures must move constantly between feet and head and not be located solely in the legs. Whereas the star performer of the evening José Maya appeared superficially slick in his solo—determined to shock—Talegona’s Soleá demonstrated how flamenco art emerges from a feeling deep inside, communicated to the audience with no goal in sight.