As the sun set behind distant mountains, flamenco artist Eva Yerbabuena began a pre-performance rehearsal of her latest full-evening work at an outdoor theater here, high on a hill overlooking the city. “I took the show’s title from an ancient tradition,” she explained that July evening. “As the story goes, to enter a castle you had to promise to deliver ‘santo y sena.’ That’s what we promise our audiences: signs and wonders.”
Dressed in sleek black pants and a form-fitting shirt, her long dark hair hanging loose, Yerbabuena stamped on an onstage wooden platform to see if the sound would carry to the highest seats in the bleachers. Satisfied, she signaled her husband, guitarist Paco Jarana, and his fellow musicians to begin. A singer raised his husky voice in raw-throated fervor. The guitars joined him. Slowly lifting her arms, Yerbabuena rolled her hips from side to side, tapping her feet softly to the insistent chords.
Other dancers entered clapping their hands and formed a semicircle around her. She danced as if driven by an unseen force, one moment fiery, the next solemn, seeming to embody lust, jealousy and sorrow alternately with each sensual move. More than an hour later, her shirt wet with sweat and her hair in disarray, she called out “Gracias, gracias” to everyone and headed backstage.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Ballet Flamenco Eva Yerbabuena will bring “Santo y Sena” to Royce Hall in a presentation cosponsored by UCLA Live and Flamenco Festival USA. It will be the dancer-choreographer’s first appearances here since 2004. In the piece, she retraces her steps, as it were, reprising and refreshing highlights from works her company has performed since its debut nine years ago. In addition to reinventing these segments from five shows -- including ". . . Eva” (1998), “5 Women 5" (2000) and “The Spindle of Memory” (2006) -- she has added new choreography.
Settled after the rehearsal at her dressing table, which was bare but for her makeup case, a Hershey bar and a bouquet of red roses, she took a few sips of water, her face betraying no trace of weariness, and said: “This show has been very popular, I think, because it’s very direct.
“No matter what I choreograph,” she went on, “I think in terms of having a conversation with my audience. Emotion is so central to flamenco that not to touch people would be a failure.”
Others too have remarked on this aspect of Yerbabuena’s appeal. “Eva has the power to move all people,” Miguel Martin, director of Flamenco Festival Inc., said recently. “It comes from her energy. She totally connects with her own emotions and, thus, with ours.” After a performance in 2002, New Yorker magazine critic Joan Acocella wrote: “She seemed to touch on every facet of human experience. No one else in the festival got the ovation she did. The spectators jumped to their feet, screaming, and they stayed and stayed, letting other people get the taxicabs.”
Now 38, Yerbabuena stands out for her integrity in a field in which artists often rely on corny formulas as crowd pleasers or make amateurish attempts to modernize by using pop music as accompaniment or by embellishing their works with incongruous borrowings from other dance styles. Instead, she creates highly individualistic pieces, such as “5 Women 5,” in a style influenced by modern dance, and she also choreographs productions that faithfully interpret traditional flamenco. In either case, she eschews trends and tricks to increase her popularity. No matter how sophisticated her shows, they are suffused with the rawness essential to flamenco -- a fusion of Gypsy, Arab, Jewish and Spanish influences that began developing in Andalusia more than 200 years ago.
Her consuming belief in the power of flamenco grows out of her childhood in that region of southern Spain, where she studied with many of the art form’s greatest performers. She started to dance professionally in a company headed by Rafael Aguilar when she was only 15 before moving on to Paco Moyano’s troupe in 1987, when she was 17; both groups were popular and gave her exposure all over Spain and the rest of Europe. Since establishing her own company, she has received every major Spanish dance award and performed at home, elsewhere in Europe and in Asia, South America and the U.S.
Over the years, to expand her horizons Yerbabuena has also studied acting; traveled to Cuba to learn from forgotten flamenco dancers; performed with, among others, Mikhail Baryshnikov and idiosyncratic German choreographer Pina Bausch; and taken roles in Mike Figgis’ films “Flamenco Women” (1997) and “Hotel” (2001). “If you’re going to grow,” she said, “you have to constantly explore the world and develop your own character. Otherwise you can’t create anything new; you start repeating yourself.”
A private person, she doesn’t put her career above everything else and tours less than other flamenco artists of her stature because she prefers to stay close to her roots in Andalusia. Today she lives near Seville with her husband and teenage daughter, and there she slowly creates each production.
Yerbabuena said she begins every show with an image in mind. For “Signs and Wonders,” she imagined herself sitting onstage in a small pool of light. And that, in fact, is how the work opens -- with her seated in a chair illuminated by a single spotlight, preparing for a journey through flamenco.
“It resembles a journey through life,” she said, “for we perform a dance for almost every human emotion. We do styles from the lighthearted alegria to the somber solea. Even though it looks like a big show because of the large cast of dancers and musicians, it’s actually very intimate in feeling.”
Indeed, although aficionados often insist that flamenco can be truly experienced only in surroundings such as a cafe or a private residence, Yerbabuena disagrees. “The feeling when I am dancing for a large audience is almost the same as when I am dancing by myself,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but the audience pushes me on, through adrenaline or whatever it is, and the space doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I am centered and in touch with myself. The greatest possible innovation is to be oneself, to make your performance as personal as possible -- it’s not about always doing something new. And it’s not about performing in a certain environment or venue. No matter where I perform, I find the process totally therapeutic.”
Improvisation is as fundamental to flamenco as it is to jazz. No matter how much flamenco choreographers plan their shows, their productions will suffer if a large part does not include spontaneous responses to the music and the mood of the moment.
“Your improvisation depends on your state of mind,” Yerbabuena said, “but it doesn’t solely depend on you. You’re with musicians and other dancers, and they’re going to help you maintain a balance between your dance, their dances and the music. It’s quite a feat, but there’s also infinite leeway when you’re in tune with one another.
“The musicians determine what I’ll do -- you could say, give me and the other dancers orders. It’s very subtle, but once you become aware of it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t notice before. The interplay among the performers is what makes flamenco such an emotional and exciting experience. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Stopping by his wife’s dressing room to suggest a few adjustments to the show, Jarana offered his own take on the couple’s working method. “Sometimes Eva has the first idea, and other times it’s me,” he said. “But as soon as we decide on the concept, I start the music, always aiming for coherence between the theme and the music. We have been sharing ideas for many years -- we usually know on what we’ll agree and on what we’ll disagree. We work very closely. The results come in stages -- a bit of this, then a bit of that -- and we keep going to see what we get. And sometimes we have to turn back and start all over. There’s a creative tension or understanding because we are so close. It can be difficult. Sometimes we’ll be trying to express the same idea but in completely different ways, and it will take us a long time to realize that we’re actually saying the same thing. We’re very in tune with one another.”
Yerbabuena interrupted with a smile. “I can walk out onstage and, just from the way I am breathing, Paco will know what I need,” she said. “But there is another part of me when I’m dancing, an inner part of me, which no one will ever be able to enter, just as at times no one can enter a part of Paco, when he is playing or composing music.”
As the evening’s performance grew closer, Yerbabuena began taking sumptuous red, black and white gowns from a closet. She laid delicately embroidered shawls across a chair and started arranging her hair.
“Flamenco is the best vehicle for me to express myself,” she said. “It’s so rich and versatile and at the same time technical and unsettling. There are no limits. It’s a way of life and the culture of a people. For all our modernization in Spain, it’s still an essential aspect of Spanish life. What means the most to me is that when I step onstage, I feel the greatest sense of freedom. I only know freedom through flamenco.”
A short while later, she appeared onstage beautifully dressed, bathed in a single light. A hush fell over the theater, and the moon emerged from behind a cloud. Though she was staring out into the darkness, she seemed to be looking inside herself, responding to the soft strumming of guitars and the fresh night air.
As if possessed, she rose to her feet. “Ole!” shouted one audience member, then another and another. The conversation had begun.
Ballet Flamenco Eva Yerbabuena
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Price: $28 to $54
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org