MANILA -- One may have caught a flamenco-inspired performance or two in television production numbers over the years, and even in a TV ad lately. For the authentic flamenco performances, there have been a good number staged featuring visiting artists from Spain. And there have been those performed in public restaurants, and private corporate and diplomatic functions by local professional flamenco dancers. Most likely, these local artists will be members of Centro Flamenco.
Manila’s Centro Flamenco, which has been around since 2002, has steadily become the birthing ground of true-blue Filipina flamenqueras and flamenqueros, under the passionate and tireless mentoring of its founder Emma Estrada. Through its performing arm Grupo Nuevo Flamenco, Estrada and her core group of dancers have been staging flamenco shows throughout the Philippines and the rest of Asia for years.
“I decided to form Fundacion Centro Flamenco to give the Filipinos a unified voice and purpose that will allow us to keep pace with the trends of the art form in the Philippines. The focus of the Foundation was not only to further promote the dance but to create a venue for artists as well, both foreign and local, to share their knowledge and experience with others,” Estrada shared.
This year, Centro Flamenco stages its biggest production yet: "La Luna Roja" (The Red Moon), which Estrada wrote and choreographed, and directed by stage and film actor-director Leo Rialp.
The show features Grupo Nuevo Flamenco and other students of Centro Flamenco, theater actress Tami Monsod in the role of sorceress, and flamenco artists from Spain, led by acclaimed flamenco dancer Javier Martos who plays the male lead. Spanish flamenco musicians will provide the live music, namely Sergio Gomez (singer/cantaor), Jose Cortes (percussion/cajon), and Ruben Campos (guitar/toque).
Mixing ballet and flamenco
In "La Luna Roja," Estrada marries the storytelling of the ballet art form with the “outpouring of emotion” that flamenco performances are known for. While there have been adaptations of some of the more popular stories (such as Carmen and Amor Brujo) as both traditional ballets and flamenco performances, this is an original work created for this ballet.
“I choreographed 'La Luna Roja' to channel the vortex of raw emotions into a story. I wanted to bond the traditional storytelling style of ballet with the captivating and powerful emotions of flamenco,” she explained.
"La Luna Roja" is a fairy tale filled with magic, as well as with struggle, desire, fury, love, sacrifice and redemption.
She related: “The story starts out as a typical ballet. There is the village, a villain, a curse, and the love and sacrifice of star-crossed lovers. I wanted a simple story with a distinctly flamenco flavour; 'La Luna Roja' pushes the boundaries, bringing to light raw emotions not addressed by traditional ballets. The tale aspires to lay bare the many aspects of the feminine mystique: the anguished mother, the conceited woman, the playful youngster, the spurned lover, the selfless young protector, and the hopeful bride.”
All told via flamenco’s passionate, vigorous, sensual and captivating moves and footwork.
Director Rialp, who helps bring Estrada’s vision to life, said: “Everybody is enthusiastic and excited about doing this production because it’s the first of its kind. And what better group to do it than Centro Flamenco. There’s no other group and no other choreographer (here) who can do it.”
Despite this, he acknowledged the inherent challenges in mounting such a show. “I’ve watched so many videos of flamenco performances, and this is very, very challenging. The shows I’ve seen in Spain are mostly abstract pieces; it’s difficult to stitch together a (full-blown) story. And I think it’s worth finding out how that is done, through Emma’s dream project, an original story for flamenco,” he said.
“I want to actualize Emma’s vision, to see how we can materialize it, how we can tell the story efficiently. The story itself has to be extreme, it can’t be subtle. The genre is fiery, passionate, so the story and form have to come up to that standard.
“I like the choreography, which is very mature, and requires a professional group. We need for the dancers to come up to the challenge of the choreography,” Rialp said.
Estrada is confident that they do, saying, “My students have definitely grown as dancers during the preparation of this performance. A lot is expected of them both physically and mentally, and every day they have to challenge themselves to become a seamless part of the ballet. Flamenco is a difficult art form and it is rewarding to watch my students finally make that breakthrough where they go beyond just learning the steps to understanding the emotions of flamenco and making the dance their own.”
Estrada has worked with Rialp in various shows since 2007. “Leo’s approach to flamenco is always tasteful and sophisticated,” she shared. “He directs flamenco with class, while remaining true to the essence and passionate soul of the dance.”
She is inspired as well as challenged that her former flamenco teacher Javier Martos is collaborating with her on this project.
“Fortunately, Javier is a joy to work with, full of ideas, but still respects my vision for the ballet,” she related. “He is also supportive of my desire to increase the appreciation of flamenco in the Philippines. Javier believes, like I do, that ballets like 'La Luna Roja' allow Filipinos to experience flamenco as it truly is—a sensual, fierce, fresh and captivating form of dance. He understands that my lofty yet ultimate goal is to lift my students to the level of flamenco dancers in Spain, and for that to happen, it is essential that my students work with flamenco professionals like him. It gives them something to aspire to and when they compare their progress, they know they’re comparing themselves with the world’s best.”
She elaborated: “Spanish musicians bring an authenticity and depth to the performance. Flamenco is neither just the dance nor the music but both, they are two halves of one whole, and only when both are performed together can the audience truly experience flamenco. The role of the cantaor is especially important, as it is he who sings the emotion portrayed by the dancers.”
The greatest challenge for her was working with these artists who all live in Spain, and who won’t be coming to Manila to rehearse with the Filipino dancers until a week before the show.
“We had to complete our collaborations long distance and even with technology, not having Javier and the musicians and their energy in the same room as my dancers proved to be a challenge for me,” she said.
The Filipina 'duende'
Drawing out the proverbial “duende”—the flamenco brand of “passion”—in her dancers is her other great challenge.
“Filipina women by nature are gentle and sweet,” she said, “and the greatest challenge and greatest reward for me is bringing out the fire in them, to convince them to give themselves permission to be authentic, to strip away their masks and years of upbringing, to bare their souls and celebrate their true emotions.”
Director Rialp acknowledged that “flamenco needs a kind of temperament. Filipinos will end up putting in their own spin or style of flamenco.”
To this Emma was quick to add: “The soul of the Filipina is different, but it doesn’t mean they cannot do flamenco. We have to infuse it with our own kind of flamenco, so to speak. What is important is to be able to let out our soul.”
She recounted: “One of my teachers, Candela Soto, would say that when she goes out on stage, ‘se siente desnuda’, she feels naked. It’s not easy for a Filipina to do that.”
But then it is also true that flamenco cannot just be about technique. “It goes beyond technique; if you cannot express, then it doesn’t work,” she stressed.
Which is likely why there is no equivalent of the term “duende” in any other dance form. “The inner soul of the dancer has to come out,” she explained.
As another teacher of hers put it, “Flamenco is not seen, it is felt.” In other words, “duende” is about being able to move the audience.
Ultimately, that is what the mostly Filipino cast, along with Javier Martos and the Spanish musicians, will deliver onstage in November, when they bring Estrada’s "La Luna Roja" to life.
"La Luna Roja" will have shows on November 25, Saturday, at 8 p.m. and November 26, Sunday, at 3 p.m. at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater, RCBC Plaza, Makati.