"Intimate" isn't the first word that comes to mind when you enter Annenberg Court, the Barnes Foundation's airy, modern lobby with limestone-clad walls and a ceiling that rises 50 feet. Yet this space works remarkably well as the venue for First Friday performing-arts events, including choral and instrumental concerts and all sorts of dance. On Friday, the court will be the setting for Pasión y Arte (PyA), Philadelphia's all-female flamenco dance company, in an evening of dance and music that — based on previous experience — is bound to feel powerful, emotional, and, yes, intimate.
PyA artistic and executive director Elba Hevia y Vaca will be dancing, along with the sensual Xianix Barrera and Alexa Miton, a specialist in zapateado (flamenco footwork). They will be joined by flamenco singers Barbara Martínez and Hector Marquez, guitarist Raphael Brunn, and percussionist Guillermo Barrón. These artists hail from various parts of the U.S. plus Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico, and France, but all spent years studying in Spain. All have impressive resumés, and all are experts in traditional flamenco — but are also committed to exploring new aspects of this ever-evolving art form.
A special feature of this performance is guest artist Raquel Heredia, a noted second-generation flamenco dancer from Granada, Spain. Fans of PyA will undoubtedly remember Heredia, who — after performing throughout Europe, the U.S., and Japan — made her Philadelphia debut a year ago in the company's fourth tablao of the season, at the Asian Arts Initiative.
A tablao is essentially a flamenco nightclub, offering food and beverages along with performances, and, as this First Friday event is so billed, it will include a cash bar and light hors d'oeuvres, along with flamenco music and dance, presented in two sets, at 6 and 7:30 p.m.
As in Spain, the performance will focus on solos, giving each dancer an opportunity to show off her individual style — and her compositional sense, as flamenco solos are created by the people who dance them. There will also be short excerpts from a group dance, Colonization: Women, a work in progress choreographed by Hevia y Vaca.
In a recent telephone interview, Hevia y Vaca said she had been researching this piece for two years and hoped to premiere the complete work in 2018. Meanwhile, she noted, "I want to put some of it out there, to see what it feels like." She acknowledged: "It's exciting … and scary."
Hevia y Vaca also stressed the central place of cante (flamenco singing), which is not always recognized by audiences outside Spain. "We forget," she pointed out, "that the voice is there, because we're always looking at the dancers, especially if we don't understand the words." To help with that, she plans to provide English translations of some of the lyrics. "I'm eager to get people inside flamenco," she said.
Although Heredia comes from a Spanish gypsy family with many flamenco artists, few American performers start out in flamenco. Martínez, for example, was trained as an opera singer and graduated from Brown University with a double major in comparative literature and visual art. But after falling in love with flamenco, she changed her focus, she said in a phone interview from her home in New York City.
Martínez said she was drawn to "the sincerity and expression of flamenco singing, its rawness … [which is] the other extreme from opera." So she devoted herself to "unlearning" many of the fundamentals of classical Western vocal technique and has become an established flamenco singer. (On a more pragmatic note, Martínez also noted that — unlike the situation with dancers, there is always a need for flamenco singers.) In addition to many other groups, Martínez has performed with PyA for more than a decade, and, she notes, "Some of the most interesting work I've done in flamenco has been with them."
Audience members who are inspired by this event will have an opportunity to study with Heredia, who will give a series of local flamenco dance workshops — for all levels — June 3-6.