DOUGLAS C. RANKIN, producer of the New World Flamenco Festival, had a flash of inspiration as he watched Savion Glover in “Classical Savion,” which had the 32-year-old dance star tapping to Vivaldi, Bach, Mendelssohn and other classical composers at New York’s Joyce Theater last year. “I tell you, I was sitting in the audience, and within the first five minutes I’m thinking, ‘My God, he’d make a terrific flamenco dancer, he’s got the feet,” says Rankin, who went on to present the classical show at the Irvine Barclay Theatre last November.
“And of course he’s got the rhythm and is widely known for his improvisational genius. I thought it was a crazy idea -- but let’s see what happens.”
He mentioned the idea to Yaelisa, the flamenco festival’s artistic director and a flamenco artist herself, and approached Glover about appearing, sealing the deal by sending off a photo of Yaelisa in performance.
“When they sent me the picture, I said yes,” Glover observed from his New York studio. “The picture was saying: ‘Come dance with me.’ ”
The Tony Award-winning tap dance superstar will appear with Yaelisa -- he’ll tap, she’ll provide flamenco moves, and both will improvise -- in the fifth incarnation of the festival, coming Friday through Aug. 13 to the Irvine Barclay. The festival is an intensive immersion course in the art form that includes performances, dance and music classes, lectures and open discussions with visiting artists. And, says Rankin, it’s a signature presentation of the theater.
Although the festival took a one-year hiatus in 2004 so organizers could figure out how to cope with increasingly difficult -- and increasingly expensive -- security and immigration protocol involved in bringing in artists from Spain, Rankin says that three out of four editions of the festival have sold out all performances and the remaining festival operated at 95% capacity.
Rankin says immigration issues that have continued to intensify since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have added about $50,000 to the cost of the festival, including the need to hire two representatives in Spain to handle visa arrangements. In the first year of the festival, he says, immigration needs could be handled for about $8,000. “It’s become a little more tenuous,” he says. But the $350,000 Irvine festival is considered the second most prominent annual flamenco festival in the United States behind the 6-year-old New York Flamenco Festival. And it bears the distinctive stamp not just of the theater but also of Yaelisa.
What makes this festival different from other such events, Rankin and Yaelisa say, is that each annual festival has been organized around a theme rather than around a star search for the most famous flamenco artists. Those themes, Rankin says, begin with Yaelisa.
This year’s festival, “Fronteras,” will include a tribute to the artists of the tiny Spanish town of Moron de la Frontera, which boasts a singular flamenco style created and handed down by the Del Gastor family. Juana Amaya’s company includes her uncle, guitarist Juan del Gastor, as well as her daughter, Nazaret Reyes. The performances mark the first time that Juana Amaya will perform with her uncle.
“It’s hard to describe, but their style is quite distinguished by a sound,” says Yaelisa, who often finds herself explaining to flamenco newbies that the art form started with the music, not the dance. “It’s a guitar sound, a musical sound distinguished not only by its simplicity but by its profound heart.” She adds that multigenerational flamenco families are becoming increasingly rare.
And while this company celebrates tradition, the company of Rafaela Carrasco of Seville, a young choreographer who is a champion of contemporary flamenco, will push the boundaries of flamenco dance as will two performances by Yaelisa and Glover on Aug. 8 and 9. While the two are working together to select the music, they will not get together in the studio until two days before the performance, which will be largely improvised and therefore different each night. Appropriately, the dance will be called “Sin Fronteras” -- “Without Borders.”
“People have said to me over the years: ‘How can you go out there and improvise? That’s so risky,’ ” Yaelisa says. “But I’m not scared, and I don’t have stage fright. How can I make a mistake if I don’t know what I’m going to do?”
Glover says he feels the same way. He is not going to attempt to perform flamenco but expects that something new will be created when he pairs his style with Yaelisa’s flamenco dance. “Our main goal is just to interpret joy through dance and the coming together of the two art forms,” he says. “It’s a dialogue that we will look to establish during performance.”
Adds Glover, “The music that I have suggested to her was not of a flamenco vibe -- I mentioned some Miles [Davis] and stuff like that. But then she sent me some really groovy tunes, so I think we’re going to go with her tunes. It was flamenco but with the energy of today’s sounds.”
Dance in the blood
AS it happens, the woman behind the celebration of the traditional Spanish dance form is not from Spain but is a third-generation Californian, born and raised in San Francisco, although she lived in Spain for an extended period. She teaches in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. “My grandmother is Catalan, from Barcelona, so that’s where the Spanish blood comes into play,” she says in a conversation at her cozy home in an eclectic Oakland neighborhood she describes as “part ghetto, part wonderful.”
Yaelisa’s late mother was a flamenco artist, a singer and dancer, and “I was thrown onto a stage when I was about 4 years old,” she says. In her teenage years, Yaelisa rebelled against the dancer’s irregular hours and the theater lifestyle, but eventually the dance took her over.
After a first failed marriage to a musician, she vowed she would never marry another one, but she did -- Jason McGuire, who also serves as the festival’s music director and will play guitar during her two performances with Glover. During the conversation, sonorous chords waft through the living room as McGuire plays guitar in his sunny music studio at the rear of the house.
Yaelisa notes with some ambivalence that their 6-year-old daughter, Rachel, is already being indoctrinated into flamenco by osmosis. “We just had performances all weekend; she came to the one last night in San Francisco, and afterwards we went to a party where we were up until midnight,” she says. “At 2 weeks old, she came to her first rehearsals and slept right through them. She runs around before the show, but during the show she is the best audience member -- she knows that Mommy and Daddy are working and this is to be respected.”
Rachel is already a good “flamenco,” as its devotees call themselves. “Flamenco, in a word, is feeling, or communication,” Yaelisa says. “For flamencos themselves, it’s kind of a way of life. It’s such a heavily cultural thing in Spain, especially when you talk about the families who, generation after generation, have passed it on. It’s an oral tradition; none of the music is written in flamenco. It’s not a Spanish art form -- it landed in Spain, but it is an art form that comes from the Africans, the Arabs, it is the amalgamation of all these cultures. The precursor to the acoustic guitar is the oud, and there is a Middle Eastern influence, also an Indian influence.
“Flamenco was like hip-hop, it was a thing that people did in the streets, on corners, to earn some money to take home. Then somebody decided it should be inside, in a nightclub, and then: ‘Oh, it should be on a theater stage.’ What came with that, of course, is both a degradation of and an advancement of its potential.”
Because of the ephemeral nature of any oral tradition, Yaelisa concedes that there are some who worry that experimenting with flamenco could lead to its extinction. The dancer disagrees. “There are people that feel that way, I respect that, but I am curious as an artist,” she says. “I have used sitar, oud, I’ve done everything. I’ve danced to recorded music, I’ve danced to electronic music. My choreographies have been a little out there.”
But although Yaelisa has been a champion of experimentation, she sees the pendulum swinging back toward traditional flamenco choreography, costumes and instruments -- both in the larger community and for herself. “It’s like I’ve been there, done that,” she says of her more contemporary work. “My favorite, I have to say it, is just to go out there and do traditional flamenco, that goes as long as it goes and ends where it ends and we don’t know where it’s going.
“We’ve been going in the opposite direction for 25 years now, and it’s starting to turn around. Young dancers are coming up in Spain who want to dress in the long train dresses that are really old-fashioned. Because essentially, you can only go so far with contemporary flamenco dance. It’s gone about as far as it can go, and it’s beginning to head back. I don’t make those judgment calls, I think an artist should be able to do what they feel -- but I think that’s the trend.”
Even though their work together will challenge some choreographic and musical boundaries, Yaelisa and Glover say their taste for improvisation is tradition, in both tap and flamenco. “They all come from the street -- tap, jazz and flamenco,” Glover says. “And the streets are always changing. If it comes from the streets, change is the only thing that’s consistent.”
New World Flamenco Festival: ‘Fronteras’
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre
4242 Campus Drive
When: Friday through Aug. 13
“Moron, a Tiempo y a Compas”
(Moron, in Time and in Rhythm)
Compania Juana Amaya with Juan del Gastor,
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. next Sunday
Savion Glover, Yaelisa, Jason McGuire & Son de Jerez
8 p.m. Aug. 8 and 9
“Una Mirada al Flamenco”
(A Look at Flamenco)
Compania Rafaela Carrasco
8 p.m. Aug. 11 and 12, 6 p.m. Aug. 13
Open discussion on the history of flamenco in Moron de la Frontera with guitarist Juan del Gastor, Lucy del Gastor and Yaelisa. 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Free; reservations recommended.
Tickets: $38 to $100
Information and workshop schedule
www.thebarclay.orgTicketmaster (714) 740-7478