Dressed to dance in lipstick-red shoes and skinny black velour pants, Susana di Palma stamps out flamenco tattoos punctuated by syllabic tongue twisters: "Ba-gadiga, dica, ba-garica, tica, tum!" The artistic director of Zorongo Flamenco is rehearsing an international troupe drawn from Spain, Mexico, Venezuela, Minneapolis, and New York--five dancers, two musicians and a singer--for her upcoming 20th-anniversary production of Gernika. The performers ingest her eccentric rhythms ("Contemporary flamenco is syncopation on top of syncopation," says di Palma), filling the small studio with a racket of clapping hands, stuttering feet, staccato guitar licks. Piercing, high-pitched wails issue from Manolo Segura, who accompanies the dancers with a flamenco cante jondo, or "deep song," redolent of acrid Spanish wine and centuries of hard-core misery.
Di Palma claps her hands, calling a halt. "Let's do that again--sing the feet!" she demands. "Okay, Margaret Thatcher," says Segura in a faux whine, "but when do we get to eat lunch?" "Maybe by next Thursday," di Palma flips back at him. Meanwhile a sort of rhythmic squabble has broken out between the dancers and guitarist/composer Pedro Cortez Jr., which di Palma settles with a rapid-fire barrage of English and Spanish, some deep-throated laughter, and a few unflinching directives.
The genial commotion continues as the dancers run through a refurbished version of di Palma's 1987 work based on Pablo Picasso's antiwar masterpiece Guernica, which she is presenting at the Southern Theater beginning this weekend. She first saw the painting in 1972, along with preparatory sketches. "The sketches were so powerful," says the 62-year-old di Palma. "The directness of those isolated images--people on fire, a screaming woman holding her dead child--were gut-wrenching to me because they weren't yet 'composed.'" Gernika (the Basque spelling) is a response to Picasso's painting, which details the 1937 atrocities committed on a Basque village targeted for destruction by the fascist dictator Franco as a training exercise for Hitler's troops.
Following Picasso's abstractionist dictates, di Palma worked to deconstruct the passionate flamenco vocabulary by improvising: "I literally put myself into the state of the woman with the dead child and extrapolated from there." Finding the core of the emotional outrage she had experienced meant stripping down some of the flamenco conventions--the glamour elements of ruffles, spectacle, and showy presentation. Gernika exposes the raw essence of flamenco, a dance form born of political repression and nurtured in the violent netherworld of dispossessed gypsies and poor Andalusian peasants. It also incorporates the nonlinear narrative style and stringent modernism reminiscent of more contemporary dance theater. At one point in her rehearsal, di Palma demonstrates a squared-off version of flamenco's voluptuously decorative arm and torso moves that looks something like cubist popping.
Di Palma's fusion of forms has led to some clashes--especially with the more conventionally trained dancers she imports. "Sometimes I've asked them to break down and dance out of rhythm, and they say they just can't do it," she says. "Do they think the flamenco gods will come down and strike them dead?" Her modernist tendencies and penchant for politically charged material (she has created works based on political torture in Argentina and women in prison) have gained di Palma a reputation as an experimentalist who infuses flamenco with contemporary resonance.
Di Palma had planned to create a new work based on Spanish sweatshops for these performances, but the terrorist attacks led her back to Gernika. "I meditated on how I've changed in the 15 years since it premiered, on the impact it had on me then and after September 11," says di Palma. "Part of me thought, do we really need this dance at this time? But the last image in Gernika is one of hope. I think we all need that."