Before New York-born Martin Santangelo formed the first words in his mouth as a child, his mother exposed him to flamenco dance and music. She was a dancer, and flamenco players often stayed in their home. But it wasn't until nearly 20 years later, while working as an actor in Hollywood, that he saw flamenco again and felt the power of the form. That experience, says Santangelo, "blew my mind."
That was the late '80s, and he has since moved to Spain where in 1993, he and his wife, Soledad Barrio, started a classical flamenco company, Noche Flamenca. The company will perform this emotionally charged Spanish music and dance at the University of Richmond's Alice Jepson Theatre Oct. 26-28.
Unlike other flamenco companies in Spain that incorporate jazz and modern dance, Noche Flamenca is purely classical flamenco. For Santangelo, the experience of performing the dance is nothing less than "delicious." "It's wild," he says. "Savage. It's a lot of work." Learning flamenco is much more than acquiring skill for the fast and complex rhythms, the campas, the 12-beat structure and the footwork. An essential component is understanding flamenco's cultural roots.
"[Flamenco] was born out of the necessity of a minority's need to express themselves," he explains. The minorities he refers to are the Gypsies, Jews and Arabs, all of whom were ill-treated in Spain and eventually forced out of the country. Flamenco's mournful songs originated with the exiled Jews; the poetry and rhythms borrowed from Arab poetry. The dance borrows from the Arabs also, but it was the Andalusian Gypsies' bold dancing that ensured flamenco's popularity and longevity.
Despite a dedicated international audience for flamenco, the majority of its fans live outside of Spain. Santangelo compares the phenomenon to jazz, which is more popular in Spain and France, for instance, than it is in the United States. "Any minority who makes big advances in a cultural art form is awed," he speculates, "but it is also frightening. It's a delicate line because, in one respect, there's an appreciation of that culture, but if they make their voice too loud, it challenges the balance of the society."
The upcoming concert with five dancers, three musicians and two singers will present seven works. Santangelo assures there'll be "no tricks or gimmicks. No pyrotechnics or flashy lighting." For him, the raw emotion, "the desperate needs of these minorities to celebrate, cry or express," needs no embellishment.
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