In the flamenco world, nothing is debated quite so hotly as the topic of authenticity. Being a Gypsy--or at least a lifelong resident of Spain--will clear a dancer for takeoff into the emotion-drenched flamenco stratosphere.
So when Maria Bermudez brings tears into eyes and hearts into throats as she dances on the stages of Spain, Brazil, Sweden and Japan (or California, where she returns Friday through next Sunday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood), audiences pretty much assume she's the real thing.
"I never say where I'm from before they see me perform," Bermudez says on the phone from her home of seven years in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the "cradles of flamenco" in Spain's province of Andalucia. "After a concert in London once, people came backstage saying, 'Oh, you were great. I can really tell you're from Jerez because there's that special something, that rhythm, that feeling.' And I told them, 'To be honest, I'm not from Jerez originally.' So they say, 'Oh, well, you must have been there all your life.' And I said, 'No, I'm americana.'
"The look on people's faces usually changes at this point--sometimes they're impressed, sometimes they're offended. But always surprised--like, 'You're not supposed to dance that way; only people from Jerez are supposed to dance that way.' "
That way means the wildly immediate balance of technique and passion that lies at the heart of the flamenco art form. Bermudez, 35, has never let geography or ethnicity stand in the way of embracing such a goal, even though she got a relatively late start. She was born into a Mexican American household in Los Angeles and grew up in Santa Paula, in Ventura County, without taking any dance classes.
"My forte was theater and singing, but I did have flamenco in my background because my brother was a flamenco dancer. When I was about 20, I studied theater arts at Los Angeles City College, but then I began taking flamenco from Linda Vega, a very well-known dancer in Los Angeles, and a kind of obsession took me over."
The obsession served her well, because within a few months, Bermudez was making her debut on an East Coast tour with Boston Flamenco Ballet, where her brother also had danced.
"I picked it up pretty quickly," she says simply. "Maybe it was in my subconscious."
But Bermudez didn't depend on her natural talent alone to support her career. She decided to sell all her earthly goods and investigate the roots of flamenco in Spain.
After six months in Madrid, taking up to eight classes a day to strengthen her technique, Bermudez returned home to California for a while, working "like an animal," both at flamenco and part-time jobs, such as editorial assistant at a magazine. After one more training trip to Spain, she made her Los Angeles debut at El Cid restaurant, and not long after that she moved to Spain for good.
"I went to live in Sevilla for a while, working in a tablao, a flamenco nightclub. You don't make a lot of money there, but it's absolutely the best training. You dance from about 9 o'clock to 2 or 3 in the morning with maybe five to seven other dancers. You have your own solos, but you also learn from watching and playing palmas"--hand-clapping rhythmically--"that's when you're actually an instrument accompanying other dancers."
It was one thing to be an outsider in Madrid and Seville, where many foreigners go to study flamenco dance, Bermudez explains, but she encountered more opposition when she went south to Jerez, where cante, or flamenco song, was king.
"The reaction was 'Why are you not in Madrid or Sevilla? They are the capitals of baile, the dance.' And I'd say, 'Yes, but I'm an aficionada of cante.' This made them open their eyes and their doors, because so many dancers considered cante just the background for the choreography. I didn't just want to do steps; I wanted to know what was behind the steps."
In Jerez, flamenco songs, with their deeply melancholy lyrics and mournfully rough vocal intonations, are the focal point at private flamenco social clubs called penas. These are not ordinary watering holes; here the cognoscenti pool their money to bring in guest artists, and woe betide the audience member who chats during a performance. This suited Bermudez fine--she had come to listen and learn.
"I came to find out what the cante was all about," she says. "It's like finding out what the blues is all about--you would go to New Orleans or the Deep South to find out how these people live and why they sang those words. You find out here that, in a similar way, flamenco was the Gypsies' only form of liberation from the suffering or depression they were going through--or [the way they expressed] the joy that they felt at certain moments. The Gypsies lived a very hard life, and the only way to express that was to say, 'Ay,' which literally means 'ouch.' When I hear a singer sing, 'Ay, ay, ay,' I want to know why, and I want to feel that in my dance."
Whenever she was challenged, as an outsider, about her ability to comprehend flamenco, she had an answer: "I said, 'Do you know why I think I can do it? Because I feel just like you. I am human, and I have felt pain exactly as you have felt pain. I've just got to get past my head to express it like you.'
"Flamenco is about life, about everyday life and expressing yourself wholly, without preconceived ideas of how you should do it. So you have to get out of your own way. That's what flamenco is about--getting out of your own way and just being."
And when this happens, Bermudez says, "it's a very spiritual feeling. People have tried to define it for years; they call it duende, total communication. For that to happen, everything has to be in the right place: the stars, the moon, the artists--and the audience too, because they play a role."
In Spain, when the quality of duende is present, audience members respond with shouts of encouragement and sometimes tear their clothing. In California, Bermudez says, audiences are quieter, although a few aficionados do express their support vocally. In Japan, however, audience interest just has to be assumed until the end of a performance.
"The Japanese audience is very quiet, and for us that's very difficult," Bermudez says. "But in the end, we know they're probably the biggest aficionados there are in flamenco. They have the most tablaos, they have flamenco clubs, guitar and dressmaking shops, singing workshops, touring companies--it's incredible."
In Japan and elsewhere, even in Spain, Bermudez has gradually won over the skeptics. One Spanish newspaper has heralded her "great success"; a Canadian critic cited her "superlative artistry." After making her Jerez debut at a pena--dancing, not singing, which she says she'd need 20 years more to get the nerve to do--she continues to immerse herself in many aspects of flamenco.
She makes almost daily use of Jerez's Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, where she can study recordings, videos and books on the art form. There is also a studio there where she teaches and rehearses for performances, either as a solo dancer with a few musicians--or with her company, a larger group that has a rotating constituency of guest dancers, musicians and singers, some of whom will be part of her show at the Ford.
At home, flamenco also plays a role: She is married to Pele de los Reyes, a Gypsy and a flamenco musician whose blues and rock-influenced group, Navajita Platea, is now on Spain's Top 40 charts.
"It's ironic," Bermudez says, "I do Jerez and he does America."
But even though her emphasis 'Flamenco is about life, about everyday life and expressing yourself wholly, without preconceived ideas of how you should do it. So you have to get out of your own way. That's what flamenco is about--getting out of your own way and just being.' has been traditional flamenco--usually called flamenco puro--Bermudez is also interested in expanding the form. For her, the idea of "pure flamenco" means that you respect the past but also innovate, as long as you are true to your own inspiration.
"In our program for the Ford last time, our two male dancers tended to stay within the lines of puro style," she says. "This time we're going to see slightly more modern dancers, and the singers as well. You'll see it in rhythms and the style, slightly more free but always respecting the music."
The idea that flamenco purity and authenticity are narrowly defined by some enthusiasts is frustrating to Bermudez, but she also finds that lively debate is stimulating. After all, change is inevitable.
As she says, even flamenco's originators have not been static:
"Gypsies nowadays are not in little caravans or huddled around campfires or street corners anymore--the image the general public has. Today they are filling stadiums and concert halls. So flamenco now is at a very sophisticated level. This opens the doors more for people to know where it all comes from.
"And no matter who you are, if you can be open, you can get it. Because in flamenco, the heart is in the hand. Definitely. Everybody's onstage with their heart in their hand. That's puro. Either you get it or you don't."
MARIA BERMUDEZ AND "SONIDOS GITANOS/GYPSY FLAMENCO," John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E. Dates: Friday through next Sunday, 8 p.m. Prices: $20-$25. Phone: (800) 209-5277 or (213) 658-4077.