Flamenco is booming. Once generally regarded as corny and arcane, it is now performed in opera houses and theaters all over the world. Children -- and their mothers -- take classes, and pop musicians sample its plaintive chords. Go clubbing and watch the patrons try their hand at it. Increased exposure and a higher level of performance have given the art this boost.
Still, for all its popularity, until the Spanish impresario Miguel Marin established Flamenco Festival USA in 2000, few American venues consistently offered high-quality performances. A flamenco lover who grew up in Andalusia, Marin set out to fill the void. "I want people to know just how good it can be," he said.
Marin took the Seville Bienal as the model for his festival. A rousing success since its founding in 1980, the Bienal offers a month of top-flight flamenco every other September. Audiences who pack the city's elegant old concert halls are treated to a premiere every day. In 2001, 63,000 people attended the festival from as many as 15 countries. Marin comes here from Madrid to find new artists and productions for the United States, which after Spain is the world's biggest market for flamenco.
Marin brought the first Flamenco Festival USA to Washington, Boston and New York in 2000. Inspired by glowing reviews and record attendance, he extended the festival to six cities in 2001. 25,000 people turned up for 20 concerts, all of which sold out.
This year, it travels to 11 cities. In Washington the venue is George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, beginning Tuesday and Wednesday with Ballet Flamenca Sara Baras in the dramatic ballet "Mariana Pineda." Juana Amaya and Farruquito will perform "Por Derecho" ("Pure Flamenco") on Friday and Saturday, and the guitarist Tomatito will appear in concert Feb. 7.
I saw them all during the Bienal last September. They all grew up in Andalusia, where flamenco first developed in the 16th century. Gypsies, Arabs, Jews and other outcasts then mingled in the region and poured their emotions into the fierce and sensual music and dance that became flamenco. These artists faithfully carry on the tradition.
Sara Baras, Spain's most popular flamenco dancer, has almost single-handedly won a new audience to the genre. Vivacious and beautiful, she was the host of a hit television show on flamenco for two years. She has also been featured in commercials, has modeled in fashion shows, and last year was pictured on a postage stamp. Born in Cadiz in 1971, she studied dance with her mother as a child and began performing professionally at age 18. Unwilling simply to star in other people's companies, she formed her own troupe in 1998, and since then has choreographed three major works, "Sensaciones," "Suen~os" and "Juana La Loca," which won every major Spanish dance prize in 2000.
After the world premiere of "Mariana Pineda" at the Bienal, Baras was ecstatic. The critics had been enthusiastic about her choreography and the story, which is based on Federico Garcia Lorca's play about a woman who was killed defending Spanish independence in the 19th century. Before flying to Barcelona to prepare for a month's engagement of the ballet there, she talked about her work over lunch. "I was intrigued by the character of Mariana Pineda," she said. "She fought so strongly for political freedom and endured so much -- being imprisoned in a convent, separated from everyone she loved. She lived with passion."
This large-scale production features 13 musicians and 10 dancers. And unlike most flamenco artists, Baras uses many collaborators: directors, stage managers, lighting, costume and set designers.
Consequently, the shows have unusual sophistication. "When performers try to do everything," she said, "it just doesn't work. We need the perspective of a director."
She made a good choice for her new ballet. The director, Lluis Pasqual, founder and co-director of the Teatre Lliure in Barcelona, seamlessly weaves together all its elements. The set is marvelously atmospheric, a striking silver-gray abstraction representing a convent. In contrast to its cool geometry, the women dancers, who play nuns, appear soft and vulnerable in flowing pastel dresses. And the haunting score, written by the distinguished composer and guitarist Manolo Sanlucar, highlights Baras's dramatic choreography.
Why is flamenco so popular now? "Because it comes from the heart," Baras said. "There are many fake things in the world today. Flamenco has great impact because it is true. That's also why it so difficult to perform. You have to give yourself to it totally."
Amaya, 34, would agree. She had just finished a rehearsal in a local studio and was exhausted, her hair damp around her face. All afternoon she had been experimenting with ideas for the show, "Por Derecho," which she would perform with Farruquito in the United States. She wanted to have something to show him when he joined her later. They are both from renowned and talented Gypsy families, though she is not related to the legendary dancer Carmen Amaya. "This is a thrilling time for me," she said. "Farruquito and I share the same vision of flamenco, but this is our first chance to dance together."
When Amaya was only 14, Mario Maya, a groundbreaking choreographer, selected her for leading roles in his dance spectacles "Ay Jundo" and "El Amargo," which toured the world. Later, she settled in Madrid and formed her own company. She only recently returned home to Seville. In 1998 she starred in Joaquin Cortes' "Gypsy Passion" in Europe and the United States, and in 2000 she danced a leading role in the opera "Le Cid," with Placido Domingo.
Amaya believes Gypsies have a special understanding of flamenco. "I don't question non-Gypsies' artistry," she said, "but Gypsies usually grow up completely immersed in flamenco. It's a lifestyle; it's always in our homes. We watch relatives dance and sing and play the guitar, and we pick up ideas from them. By the time we start taking classes, we are completely emotionally attuned to it. Farruquito and I came up the same way, and dance in the same style. It's pure flamenco."
When Farruquito arrived at the studio, they went over some of the dances they would perform, each with its own structure and rhythms. There is a general misunderstanding that flamenco is an entirely improvised art when in fact it is structured. Every dance requires a certain sequence of steps. The artist's responsibility is to color them with his own personality and emotions, just as a jazz singer does a standard.
Two years ago, when Farruquito was 18, his father, the singer El Morena, died, and the son gave few performances until recently. But he started his rehearsal with Amaya with relish, quietly stamping his feet. She faced him, clapping her hands, and he slowly built up momentum. He raised his arms overhead and lifted his chest, and she matched his pose, her hands weaving circles in the air. When he leapt in the air, she stood back, waiting her turn. The air was electric between them. "Flamenco gives me life," he said when they finished.
The Grammy-winning guitarist Tomatito, 45, was also born into a talented Gypsy family. He grew up to the sounds of his father and grandfather's guitars, and by 12 was playing in clubs in Malaga. The great guitarist Paco de Lucia came to hear him, and word spread of his brilliance. He accompanied many remarkable singers, chiefly Camaron de la Isla, who died in 1993. On his own since then, he has become one of the most celebrated Spanish guitarists in the world, joining musicians as diverse as Michel Camilo and George Benson for concerts and recordings.
"I would never give up my heritage," he said before his performance at the Teatro de la Maestranza. "But I like to try new things. Too often people emphasize the aggressive and severe in flamenco, whereas so much of it is tender and romantic." Onstage that night, he played flamenco in all its variety.
Tickets for Flamenco Festival USA, which range from $20 to $50 per event, can be purchased from the Lisner Auditorium box office (202-994-6800) or from Ticketmaster (202-432-7328).