"Flamenco is like the blues in America," says Juan Talavera of the Flamenco Dance Theatre. "There's a guy wailing, another guy playing the guitar, and someone says 'I can move to that kind of number.' And he starts dancing."
The wailing springs from the lives and passions of the Gypsies, the "very proud people," in Talavera's words, who created flamenco. "Unfortunately they are a very persecuted people, even today. They don't hold jobs. People don't hire them. They can't go into restaurants.
"In Spain last year," Talavera continued, on the phone from his home in Whittier, "I saw a family of Gypsies thrown out of a McDonald's. I went up to the manager and asked why. He said: 'They're Gypsies.' That's their reason. That's what the Gypsies have to deal with. All that comes out in the singing and dancing."
This weekend and next, Talavera will present four different programs of flamenco music and dance at the Curtis Theatre in Brea. He will include a variety of forms that he divides into "light, medium and heavy"--because, he says, otherwise "it gets too heavy. You want to shoot yourself after the last number.
"Cante chico means light, happy, no cares, we're having a fiesta-type of thing. We're eating and enjoying ourselves. Medium flamenco: The (dining) is over, you think of lost loves, lost whatever. You have a couple more drinks and get into the deep stuff--persecution, isolation. You're by yourself--solitude, loneliness. We're always singing about lost loves or lost things. We're always losing something."
Discussing the style, Talavera noted that "in American dancing, jazz or tap or any of that Broadway musical thing, everything moves at the same time and at the same pace. In flamenco dancing--not Hispanic dancing; flamenco is different--the upper body always moves a lot slower than the feet. The upper body is very statuesque, proud. The hands undulate slowly. The feet might be going crazy."
Because the essence of the music is spontaneous emotional expression, "the hard part is to get the singer to sing the same verse each time.
"They're not into rehearsal. They hate it. The first thing I get (from them) is, 'How many rehearsals? How long are they?'
"In rehearsal that day, the singer might be feeling low. When the performance comes along, maybe it's been a good day, maybe he made $500--he's not going to sing the same verse."
Like the Gypsies, Talavera knows something about harassment. Born in Los Angeles and raised in East L.A., he began studying dance when he was 6. It was a risky thing for a boy there to do. "You got beat up; you got called names.
"Even now, people call me names because they know I'm a dancer. Talk to any male dancer here in the United States and tell me he hasn't gone through some sort of backlash because he's a dancer."
He persevered and began dancing professionally as a teen-ager. When he was 22, he and two older associates founded the El Cid Flamenco Nightclub in Los Angeles, where he continued to dance until 1985, long after its ownership had passed.
In an interview that year, he said: "I don't want to be dancing when I'm 50. You look real strange."
Reminded of that quote recently, he laughed. "I'm 54, and I'm still dancing. Unfortunately, I think it's my life. I tried all sorts of different things. I've tried acting. That hasn't worked. I've done teaching. . . But when I hear a good flamenco guitarist and a good flamenco singer. . . You give me flamenco and man, I'm there. I'm alive."
* Juan Talavera and Flamenco Dance Theatre present different programs--Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and May 20 and 21 at 8:30 p.m.--at the Curtis Theatre in the Brea Civic Center, 1 Civic Center Drive, Brea. $19.50. (714) 990-7722.