Think flamenco and your mind conjures up images of flashing dark eyes, thundering feet, swiftly clapping hands and swirling skirts. You hear the weeping song of a strained gypsy voice, feel the heat of Andalucían sun and the gentle breeze wafting from a lazily flapping fan.
Where in gray, soft Seattle can you find such rare heat? For starters, in the converted garage-studio of Sara de Luis’s private home, where students make sharp turns, elegantly curve their arms, and play the wooden floor with their feet. They study classic Spanish rhythms with 12 counts to a measure, including alegrías (joyous) and seguirillas (dark). Sara de Luis pounds out a steady rhythm on the floor with a brightly painted thick wooden cane, and her students sweat to keep in compás: rhythm, the bones of flamenco.
De Luis rules the floor. She urges her students to stay grounded and to hear the music within each rhythmic phrase of footwork. She plays recordings of Paco de Lucia, a revolutionary flamenco guitarist of the ’60s and ’70s, and contemporary musicians such as Rafael “El Falo” Jimenez, whose sound she describes as “sweet.” Her movement is muscular and elegant, surprisingly sharp and exquisitely soft. The curving, twisting shapes she makes with her body are the result of a lifetime of training in both Spanish and classical dance. She is a whirlwind of energy, and commands the studio as she does the stage. Her life’s path has been infused with duende: the flamenco spirit of dark joy.
Small, dark-haired and doe-eyed, de Luis speaks with a melodic voice about her lifelong love affair with dance. Born of French and Spanish ancestry in the French Quarter of New Orleans, she is both truly American and an Old World romantic. Her classical training began at the San Francisco Conservatory of Ballet when she was 6 years old. After exposure to Spanish dance in the San Francisco flamenco scene, she began Spanish dance studies in her early teens. “It’s in my blood,” she says.
At 19, she was invited to Madrid to join Luisillo’s Teatro del Baile Español, one of the leading Spanish dance companies at the time. She toured extensively with the Teatro, working and studying with many great Spanish dance artists, including Juan Alba, Goyo Reyes and Lola Flores. She also met the great Manolo Vargas, and after many years of training, she became principal dancer with his company, Ximenez-Vargas Ballet Español. A woman who does not easily take ‘no’ for an answer, she says of her audition for the company, “I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse... I had incredible singers and musicians playing with me, and I had a bata de cola (a skirt with a very long train; dancing with it is a beautiful technical feat and a specialty of Sara’s), the whole nine yards. I gave a performance. I thought, ‘there’s no way that they’re going to refuse me, because this is my goal; that’s the company that I want to be part of.’”
After the Ballet Español disbanded, Sara returned
to the states with Manolo Vargas and Roberto Ximenez, and started her
own company, Los Duendes de España. She then retrained herself
in classical ballet, and went to work with Anthony Tudor, Agnes de Mille
and José Limón, among others. Her solid classical background
is the secret to her long career not only in flamenco, but classical Español
and classical ballet, including pointe work, pas de quatre and romantic
Flamenco is not exclusively a solo form of dance (indeed, a dancer isn’t much without her guitarist), nor a feminine one, but its most evocative images are of the steely, strong, fiery and passionate female performer, taking the ground and the stage in a way that no other dance form demands. She stomps and claps, breaking the silence between dancer and audience; she calls out, she sweats and burns. She brings her whole self to the stage, and while bravura and pride are the basis of her posture, without softness and sadness and darkness and truth, it is empty. It is no surprise that great life experience grooms a fine flamenco dancer.
In 1992, Sara embarked on the massive production of what she calls her most important work: Homenaje. The multimedia performance is an homage to her teachers, mainly Manolo Vargas and the other great artists who performed in the Golden Age of Spanish dance between the 1930s and 1970s: Pilar Lopez, Murcillo, Ximenez Vargas, José Greco and others. Over 10 years, she produced Homenaje six times with different casts; in Seattle, San Francisco and Mexico City. She spent five years researching in Mexico and Spain, calling in dozens of favors and borrowing vintage costumes and period photographs. She imagined or recreated traditional choreographies and projected huge slides of Golden Age flamenco stars onto the backdrop.
She speaks of the production with satisfaction: “It’s my real contribution. I’m exceedingly proud of that, because I fulfilled what I wanted to do — to give back to that period that produced me, and to my teachers. All the Spaniards that I hired to work with me said, ‘You know, Sara, no one’s done this in Spain. We had to come to America to be part of something so grand, and we want to say thank you.’
“And that’s really what I do. I’m a historian, and I’m just hell-bent on really teaching and not forgetting where we all come from as dancers and artists — because we wouldn’t have a present if we didn’t have a past.”
De Luis returns to Spain every year, to see her old friends in Madrid (“Manolo is very, very much alive at 96. He’s such an inspiration in how to grow old with such dignity and grace and curiosity and love of life”) and to visit Andalucía in southern Spain, the beating heart of flamenco, to take class. She urges the importance of continuing to study and keeping abreast of new advances. “You don’t have to like everything they do and how they’re doing it, but you can’t be blinded by what’s happening, because the level of dancing and the level of technique is off the maps... I’m a traditionalist, and I don’t deny that. But you still have to know what’s going on.”
Sara de Luis has been in demand as a guest artist and choreographer around the world. To name only a few of her more recent appearances: Seattle Opera, New York Philharmonic, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Albuquerque Flamenco Festival. Last May, she choreographed Carmen with Kansas City Ballet’s William Whitener, and gave her farewell stage performance in that production. She’s clear that she’ll never retire, and she is still teaching and choreographing with passion and energy. It’s hard to imagine a finer way to spend one’s waking and working hours than dancing.
Victoria Jacobs is a dancer, teacher, freelance writer, world traveler and pretty decent cook currently residing in Seattle. Her flamenco company, Barrio Flamenco, performs regularly in the Seattle area.
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
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