For choreographer Susana di Palma, mounting a typical production can feel like commandeering a team of wild horses. The upcoming flamenco festival that di Palma is producing at the Southern Theater unites the legendary Gypsy dancer Manolete and two Spanish musicians with members of her Minneapolis-based company, Zorongo Flamenco. "We are dealing with monster energy--musicians and a dancer who define the power of Gypsy flamenco," di Palma says. "It's unrelenting and intimidating for us, but when the Gypsies are onstage, there is nothing like it."
A magnetic performer in her own right, di Palma is known for innovative productions that fuse flamenco and modern dance elements with socially conscious themes such as political torture in Argentina. This festival will concentrate on the traditional roots of the dance form, which was born and nurtured in the Gypsy caves of Andalusia. "Like the blues in America, flamenco evolved from the political repression of a dispossessed group," says di Palma. "The only professional outlets the Gypsies had for their unique spirit and energy were flamenco and bullfighting."
Flamenco moved from the Gypsy caves to popular nightclubs in Spain in the 1970s and '80s. "There were lots of flamenco shows for tourists, but the greats didn't come out until 2:00 a.m. and you never knew where, or if, they would show up," says di Palma, who has studied and performed in Spain for over three decades. "Flamenco is a way of life, not just a dance. The families live flamenco, and the music and dance are often passed down from generation to generation. But you can say someone is 'flamenco' who doesn't sing or dance. The term suggests an attitude or defiant spirit, walking on the edge--or doing things in your own time," laughs di Palma, who must continually prod her Spanish performers to obtain visas and airline tickets. "They don't do e-mail."
At a time when she and other dancers are experimenting with expanding their culturally specific forms, di Palma fiercely defends the integrity of traditional flamenco. "Being on the cutting edge is easy. Staying pure with the form requires immense discipline and focus," she says. "That means scaling down to the core or essence of the movement rather than embellishing too much. It's like writing a poem as opposed to a novel. A traditional solo is terrifying for me. I can't just get up there and do what I please, and there is something very un-American about that."
For di Palma and other flamenco aficionados, Manolete embodies the best of the traditionalists. This 57-year-old veteran began dancing at the age of 3 in a flamenco family; his mother was a singer, his father a dancer. His deeply etched face and pulled-up flamenco posture suggest a cross between a Spanish grandee and a Mayan prince. He dances with the coiled power and quickness of a panther on the prowl and displays a mercurial grace that can shift from playful to fierce to lyrical within a rat-a-tat-tat of his immaculate heel work. "He's aristocratic, earthy, a class act. He has a kind of primitive ability that is fast disappearing in flamenco. It's a sense of hierarchy and elegance, "says di Palma. "Stylistically I'm not as aggressive as Manolete. He has a more intense inner focus, and I'm more extroverted. I'm challenged by his austerity and directness because I tend to be more filigreed and playful."
The Spanish word fuerza, which can mean force or brutishness, defines this kind of power. Di Palma describes the "dark edge" of flamenco as the opposite of "Minnesota nice." Says di Palma, "It's a way of life that is completely physicalized. Sometimes when I am teaching class, I have to tell my students 'I want you to be nasty. Really scare me.'"