Festival of Flamenco Arts & Traditions
By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager
A conversation regarding the guardianship of flamenco in its purest form is one that is as dramatic as the art form itself. This past June, the Bay Area Festival of Flamenco Arts and Traditions presented legendary Gitano or gypsy flamenco artist Manuela Carrosco, in concert and teaching workshops to an audience who largely seemed to understand that what they were seeing in her clarity of form and expressiveness is as close to the roots of a living tradition as one might get.
As flamenco companies tour widely and create new audiences for this ever evolving genre, a number of questions arise: What is lost when a form is devoid of its original context and what can be gained, if anything, by this displacement? Because flamenco grew from the intermingling of Spain's Gitanos, Arabs, and Jews in Andalusia, the source material came directly from the lives of these people who lived marginalized lives. The themes of love, longing, betrayal, poverty, joy, and pleasure all find a home in the repertoire. With the mainstreaming of the form to academies and studios that teach hundreds of students from Spain and abroad, the debate on what constitutes flamenco at its core is a relevant one. Flamenco like all great art has an intangible essence, that begs the conversation towards who can portray this essence and carry on the tradition. How is this essence taught?
A contributing voice to the spectrum of how flamenco arts in Spain are evolving, is the work of the Bay Area Flamenco Partnership who has emerged as a presenter of preeminent master artists from Spain. Under the direction of Nina Menendez, herself a singer of flamenco and someone with roots in Spain, the nonprofit organization has produced a series of concerts and teaching workshops for the large flamenco community here in Northern California. This community is comprised of students, teachers and audiences whose interest has been active and strong for more than four decades. A Living Cultures Grants Program awardee in both 2008 and 2010, Ms. Menendez's organization has been able to curate programs that brings Spain's dynasties of Gitano families to the a hungry and skilled community of practitioners here. The opportunity to see programs of this caliber and to study intensively with the teachers is a boost to the local community and has created a bi-national exchange that invigorates all involved.
This year's guest artist, Manuela Carrosco is considered a revered elder of the community in Andalusia. Her virtuosity and depth of artistry have been recognized at the highest level of Spanish society. In 2007 she was honored by the Ministry of Culture with the Premio Nacionalde Danza and in 2008 received the Medal of Andalucia. She was born into a lineage of known flamenco artists and learned from her father, "El Sordo," Juan Carrasco. Her neighborhood, the blacksmith section of Seville, is famous in flamenco history. By the age of 13, she was already touring Europe. She is best known for her performances with the Broadway production, "Flamenco Puro," which introduced the Gitano style to a larger audience.
The Bay Area connection to Andalusia is one that also has some parallel to flamenco history. The Bay Area is home to the first established performing company in the United States and to this day, Theater Flamenco has been a company of note. There are classes, companies, musicians and a bi-national interest in the study of flamenco arts. The beginnings of this movement also flourished in a neighborhood where cultures intermingled. The North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco developed its character from the cross section of Italian longshoremen and Chinese immigrants. The commercial corridor is dotted with cafes and small businesses. These small cafes replicated the bodegas or little eateries of Spain, where traditional flamenco could be found. A favorite spot was the old and now defunct Spaghetti Factory where in 1966 a group of dancers congregated nightly to create a local legacy that thrives today in a robust area with classes, concerts and numerous teachers. This history of flamenco in San Francisco encouraged generations of practitioners here and has developed a base where Spanish traditional arts can develop. Bay Area Flamenco Society through its year round activities is feeding the fires.