Death and the Madam

Flamenco slays me: Susana di Palma as the treacherous Celestina

Maybe it's the recent popularity of TV shows like The Sopranos, or maybe it's just irrational superstition, but when more than four people are found in a furtive conference in a basement, one can assume that some scheme is in the works. This I encountered, at least, on a recent dank Sunday-afternoon visit to the normally quiet southeast Minneapolis neighborhood of Prospect Park. After driving down a dead-end street, looking in both directions carefully before venturing inside the nondescript duplex doorway, and maneuvering through an obstacle course created by two leaping shelties, this writer soon found herself descending into a basement dance studio. There, apparent ringleader Susana di Palma, artistic director of the 16-year-old Zorongo Flamenco Theatre, and four of her accomplices, Cancún-based dancers Raul Salcedo and Marisol Moreno, Venezuelan percussionist Gonzalo Grau, and Spanish-Gypsy (by way of New York) guitarist Pedro Cortes, all milled about looking rather suspicious. They pounded rhythms into the wood floor with their suede-shod feet, clapped their hands with great gusto, and hatched their plans in rapid-fire Spanish and English. Was this the scene of a murder plot? Most definitely.

Di Palma leads her visitor away from the dubious activity, repairing to the dining room, where she proudly presents three birdcages in front of the bay window. Her warm voice soothes a pair of doves huddled together in one while twin cockatiels stare over the houseguest's shoulder. No false moves here.

"There is an underworld to Minnesota nice," warns di Palma, her small dancer's frame swathed in black. The self-described fan of film noir, suspense, and (gulp) even homicide, is eager to promote her new work, a "flamenco murder mystery" premiering this weekend during the Walker Art Center's Out There series at the Southern Theater. Titled La Virtud Negra (Black Virtue), the piece gives di Palma and her close-knit group of performers an opportunity to bring the film-noir genre to life by combining flamenco dance and music with video shot in familiar Twin Cities landmarks, including the Walker, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and the Loring Bar.

La Celestina, a 15th-century tragicomedy by Spanish writer Fernando de Rojas, inspired di Palma to realize her noir side onstage. She appears in the title role as a madam who earned a rowdy reputation during the Spanish Inquisition when, in the midst of overwhelming repression, prostitution was legal. Di Palma jokes that the state and church were probably the biggest users of the skin trade. "Celestina was very hedonistic," she continues. "She believed in wine and friends and love. She was unscrupulous in her pursuit of the good life. She was a maiden-mender, [meaning] she recycled virgins. She went into graveyards and used elements of that earth to make potions. She would sell out to make anything happen." She is surrounded by prostitutes, all named Delores (a play on the Spanish word dolores, or "sadness").

In di Palma's update of the story, Celestina turns up dead, and although her demise has been captured on film, the killer's identity is unknown. Suspects and motives abound. Actor Jim Stowell, the "victimized narrator" leads the audience through the shady tale, one that takes its influence, in part, from 20th-century feminism. "It explores the insecure place men occupy next to women. Such as, Why is the femme fatale always bad?" di Palma asks, adding that the work owes a bit to theorist Susan Faludi's latest book on male disillusionment, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Flamenco singer Manolo Segura, a 15-year collaborator with di Palma, digital animator Lynn Lukas, and members of the Zorongo company will all contribute to the performance.

There will be plenty of flamenco dancing during the evening, of course, but it doesn't adhere strictly to technique, cautions di Palma. "I take liberties with the form for the character," she explains. Di Palma, an American who began studying Spanish dance as a child, spent much of her early career in Spain studying with top flamenco artists. She continues to spend at least two months a year in Madrid working with the master dancers and singers of the genre.

At age 60, she sees this newest endeavor as an opportunity to reflect on a life in dance as well as the aging process. She identifies with her character Celestina. "As a teacher you are nurturing something you are losing, just like a madam." di Palma explains. "It's very dramatic. The young people are beautiful, but you have a twist of resentment." She continues: "Who would want to kill an older woman [like Celestina]? It's a personal exploration of letting go of vanity.

"People have more technique now. They grew up with jazz," di Palma continues, at the same time that, appropriately enough, Grau and Cortes arrive in the living room to pound out Duke Ellington's "Caravan" on the piano. "Every dancer is good; their technique is better than ever. Spain was isolated for so many years; this generation of kids don't remember the oppression [under Franco]. Flamenco was of the pueblos, of the people. Now it's an urban form. Now there are drugs, murder, a bunch of film noir. All this shift happened during my generation." Di Palma shrugs it off, her baby-boomer spirit intact. She has a house full of energetic artists, a show to make, and blood-red shoes on her feet.

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