FOR MORE THAN a decade, Susana di Palma, founder of Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, has consistently expanded the boundaries of an art form known for its tradition rather than its innovation. Her successful combinations of drama and flamenco--as well as her own virtuosity in striking a pose and tearing up the boards with rapid-fire, intricate footwork--have earned di Palma international respect; these days, distinguished artists travel to Minnesota to perform in her works.
Flamenco evolved in much the same way the blues did in the U.S.--as a rural tradition transformed by people's migration to cities. While it was born out of the convergence of Arab, Jewish, and Gypsy cultures in the mountains of Andalucia, Spain, more than 600 years ago, flamenco now finds itself at a crossroads between history and commercialism. Fans and practitioners around the globe have divided into distinct camps: Purists, for example, demand expressive integrity; entertainment-minded performers emphasize flashy technique. Di Palma sees herself as an experimentalist who situates flamenco in the realm of modern drama, and appreciates the exposure the form has received because "it does appeal to a larger audience and helps attract people to the more basic elements of flamenco, which are harder to understand." Here di Palma alludes to flamenco's folk roots, a complex set of entrenched customs that seemingly contradict the more superficial sex appeal of present-day "toreadors."
Di Palma herself has gone beyond the basic elements with spectacular events that mix flamenco with other media. Her ambitious projects use iconic characters drawn from literature and the visual arts to make social statements; Sadja explored the life of Frida Kahlo, and Gernika, a piece about war, was inspired about the famous Picasso painting. "My ideas are my forte," she explains. "I wanted to be an actress, and I use [flamenco] to really express myself in a big way."
Two years ago, however, di Palma confronted her biggest challenge yet in undertaking an adaptation of Lawrence Thornton's magic-realist novel Imagining Argentina. When di Palma read this fictionalized account of the "disappeared"--people who were kidnapped during Argentina's repressive military regime of the 1970's--she envisioned some of its images in flamenco, and a project was born.
From the start, di Palma recognized that creating a dance-theater piece about the torture and murder of a generation of Argentinians would be a delicate matter. She consulted with Thornton and met with representatives from various human rights organizations who advised her to change the name of the piece from Imagining Argentina to Garden of Names so that people wouldn't expect a typical tango piece, and "so that we couldn't point fingers at the South American countries," notes di Palma. "These stories are from other cultures too, like China and Bosnia. The piece has a very universal flavor."
Thornton's novel is based on actual events during Argentina's guerra sucia ("dirty war"), when military generals seized the government and began abducting anyone suspected of opposing military rule. Di Palma was particularly drawn to the character of playwright Carlos Rueda, who, upon hearing that his wife, Cecilia, has been kidnapped and imprisoned, suddenly gains the power "to see" the fates of the disappeared.
"Carlos was the director of a children's theater. Art and imagination became his greatest tools for survival," she explains, observing that they gave him the "power to not be afraid to look--and go into--the darkness." Di Palma, who portrays Cecilia, confronted this power during rehearsals when, paired with Joe Chvala and members of his Flying Foot Forum troupe (who portray the generals), she has had to repeatedly rehearse a slow-motion rape scene; the episode is difficult to watch, but crucial to understanding the loss of control experienced by torture victims. The work left its impression an di Palma. "I became paranoid. I started to experience the symptoms of torture," she recalls. "The people from The Center for Victims of Torture told me to light a candle, drink water, not to talk about it outside the studio. They gave me ways to combat the experience."
While there are dark moments in Garden of Names, beauty is present as well. The piece is a tribute to the strength of imagination in the face of adversity; as Imagining Argentina's narrator observes, "It is not often that you see life and fiction take each other by the hand and dance"--a statement that eloquently sums up the choreographer's labors. CP
Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre performsGarden of Names October 3-13 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis; call 340-1725 for tickets.