Canada’s Fabulous Flamencos 

By Kaija Pepper
  • Fiona Malena / Photo by Ivan Karabobaliev 

Vancouver International Flamenco Festival 

Flamenco Rosario, Fiona Malena, Myriam Allard & Various

September 17-23, 2012 

The roll call for the two mixed bills at the 23rd Vancouver International Flamenco Festival on September 20th and 21st at the Waterfront Theatre was made up of a cross-section of Canadian women. The dancers came from three provinces, with the British Columbia home team the largest, featuring Veronica Maguire from Victoria and, from Vancouver, Afifa Lahbabi, Melanie Meyers, Bonnie Stewart (all associated with Flamenco Rosario, the producing organization), Palma Bjarnason Kontogianni and Kasandra “La China”. Alberta was present through Calgary’s Fiona Malena, and Québec through Montréal’s remarkable Myriam Allard.

Based on this lineup, contemporary flamenco is alive, well and multi-textured. There was Veronica Maguire’s sweet smile and gentle emphases in Guajiras, accompanied by a trio of musicians that included her twenty-three-year-old son, Gareth Owen, on guitar. There was Kasandra’s powerful shoulders and feet in a farruca, a man’s dance with clean, strong lines that female flamencos have long been drawn to. There was Bonnie Stewart’s forthright dance of death in La Parca (La Danza de los Espiritus), and Afifa Lahbabi and Melanie Meyers’ duet, Solea por Buleria, in which the dance was splendidly integrated with the music from guitarist Victor Kolstee, singer Jafelin Helten and cellist Stephanie Glegg. The dancers choreographed their own work, with the exception of Maguire, whose Guajiras was by Spain’s Domingo Ortega. They danced in modestly frilled dresses, again with one exception: Kasandra wore high-waisted black trousers and a bright emerald green shirt. 

Palma Kontogianni did something quite different with Land Girl, about the women who worked the land during World War Two. The background to her solo is found in the program notes, but is also presented onstage through a medley of seven short songs whose lyrics tell the story, beginning with the optimistic recruitment of women to provide farm labour and concluding with the weary trench song When This Lousy War is Over. The movement was sometimes purely illustrative, as when a reference in the lyrics to time provokes a tapping of an imaginary wristwatch, a stylistic choice that has limits choreographically. But when Kontogianni danced more independently in flamenco-inspired, character-driven movement, Land Girl could breathe and grow in its own terms. Her costume (first coveralls, then a knee-length dress) and hair (pulled back into a neat sausage roll) provided 1940s-styled markers to the decade.

Both Fiona Malena and Myriam Allard are known to Vancouver audiences from their appearances in Rosario Ancer’s Mis Hermanas: Thicker than Water, My Sisters and I, a narrative work from 2008 in which they memorably played two of seven sisters. Malena’s Eclipse was the final piece on the first night, opening in darkness with the sweet Oriental sound of the Hang drum, followed by a small spot highlighting her liquid hands; the rest of her body, clad in a dark brown dress, was almost invisible.

The five-part work, reflecting “the visual and emotional states conjured by an eclipse”, features two music-only sections that gave Elena Morales a chance to showcase her rich, warm vocals. The interludes also facilitated costume changes: Malena returns after the first one in a dress featuring a riot of reds and oranges and, after the second, in gaudy red and gold satin replete with a long bata de cola skirt splashing at her feet. The movement, however, remained much the same flamenco vocabulary throughout, so the piece as a whole didn’t move forward with equal clarity. 

Yet the finale, with Malena whirling round on the spot, her bata de cola wrapping neatly around her heels as if by magic, was splendid. Morales tossed out a torrent of percussive consonants as if the Spanish words were beautiful stones, and the audience added their shouts of encouragement and enthusiasm, while Malena luxuriated in the sounds and in the sensuous curves of flamenco.

The last performer on the second night – Myriam Allard – is a true agent provocateur, pushing flamenco forward to achieve creative goals. Allard opened with two excerpts from Homoblablatus, set to premiere in Montréal in January. The piece is a collaboration with her partner in life and dance, singer Hedi Graja, whose background in theatre has clearly influenced Allard’s artistic trajectory. Since founding La Otra Orilla (The Other Shore) together in 2006, the duo has presented a series of works that have steadily moved further away from straight flamenco. Not that I’ve ever seen Allard do “straight” flamenco, whatever that is: her onstage presence when I first saw her in 2004 was that of an independent thinker thrillingly engaged with the music and the movement, creating her own unique expression. 

Homoblablatus (a fabricated nonsense word) explores “the weight of words and actions”. In the work-in-progress excerpts we saw, Allard wears skin-tight black pants and abandons flamenco form for a modern-dance style inspired by interior demons. These have her performing with one shoe on and one foot bare, hunched over as her shoulders, elbows, wrists and knees punctuate the space around her. The trio of musicians is theatrically engaged, as in the section where Graja, Éric Breton and Miguel Medina parade in a circle around Allard, banging on drums. One niggle: Graja’s microphone was too loud, which not only upset the delicate balance between sound and vision, but also gave a harsh tone to his voice.

The evening ended with Cercania 1, a more traditional piece, signaled by Allard returning to the stage wearing a brown fringe over her black top and pants, a gesture to the familiar flamenco garb of fringed shawls. Here, Allard showed off her technical chops, and was no less expressive than in the previous piece. One moment, she’s coiled tight, low to the ground, ready to strike; the next, she’s floating mid-air, creating a dizzying dance of extremes. Allard seems to push herself to the limit, genuinely engaging with the moment, as if this performance, now, might take her over the edge – and if she had jumped, we’d have followed, judging from the explosion from the audience when it was over.

Festival producers Rosario Ancer and Victor Kolstee curated a strong lineup, which continued the following evening at the Playhouse with Spain’s Angeles Gabaldon and a work-in-progress from Ancer. Guitarist Kolstee was featured on the final all-music night at the Cellar Jazz Club. Adding to the festive feeling over the week was the happy announcement that Ancer was the 2012 recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Dance. 

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