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Flamenco Black: Dance, Modernism and the African Diaspora

Photo credit: Frederick Choi

Sometimes a dance performance resonates because it offers an opportunity for education about cultural and historical context. At other times, the thoughtful arrangement of the program broadens one's appreciation for the aesthetic versatility and variability of a particular form. Still other events bring together world-class artists who give exceptionally brilliant and moving performances. The Flamenco Black concert during the 2023 Atlanta Flamenco Festival was a trifecta of excellence, featuring all three aspects of a great dance performance.

The ensemble dancers were professional and well-rehearsed, and the musicians and guest artist, British bailaora Yinka Esi Graves, delivered stunning technical virtuosity and emotional depth. The program wove different flamenco forms together with African dance and music to highlight not only the aesthetic debt flamenco owes to the African diaspora, but what Black art and culture have contributed to modernism writ large. Finally, the pre-show lecture by K. Meira Goldberg, author of Sondidos Negros, helped the audience understand how flamenco paradoxically gives voice to, even as it seeks to constrain, the resistance of Black bodies and cultures to colonial domination.

For Flamenco Black, Emory University's Performing Arts Studio was set up in a proscenium theater configuration with wings and raked, stadium-style seating leading down to the stage area. Nonetheless, as a relatively small venue, filled almost to capacity with an enthusiastic audience, the theater reflected some of the intimacy and proximity of artists and patrons one might find in a more traditional venue for flamenco performance. Goldberg displayed an expertise that blended the perspectives of artist and scholar. She was erudite and thorough, while remaining accessible to an audience in which flamenco devotees mingled with those who had little or no prior knowledge of the form and its long history.

While the pre-show discussion certainly prepared those who attended for the themes explored during Flamenco Black's approximately 90-minute run time, careful curation of the bill made those themes apparent even for attendees who missed Golberg's talk. The program opened with African Overture, a percussion solo from choreographer and drummer Moussa Diabate, and transitioned into a blend of flamenco and contemporary theatrical dance in the second piece, Las Sevillanes Libres, a solo from dancer J. Alexander Langley.

The pattern of longer flamenco compositions introduced or punctuated by African cultural forms continued throughout, highlighting, of course, how these dance traditions share percussive syncopation and choreographed and spontaneous vocalization, among other musical elements. Alternating between them also foregrounded how the dancers' bodies in both become musical instruments, contributing sonically as well as visually to the experience. Similarities in the shapes and relationships of bodies in space also emerged -- the careful articulation of hands, wrists, and forearms; intricate footwork; spirals that dictated the rotation of limbs around the body's center line as well as the bigger movements of dancers around the stage.

Significantly, Flamenco Black animated African dance as a thriving artistic tradition that stood alongside, in equivalent relation to flamenco. In Mutwase, Tanguillo Picasso Cubismo, and El Toro África, the dancers, Dr. Ramatu Afegbua-Sabbatt and Myra Coman, wore masks designed by Justin Locklear. As the title of the piece suggests, the masks for Tanguillo Picasso Cubismo reflected the aesthetic influence of cubism. By drawing Picasso into proximity with African dance, the piece invited consideration of how Picasso -- and other modernist artists from Balanchine and Graham to Cage and Matisse -- have drawn upon African source material, sometimes celebrating and sometimes appropriating it.

At the same time, by citing such a familiar and quintessentially modern influence in his mask design for one piece, Locklear drew attention to the masks, and along with them other elements of the dances in which they featured, as art created for this particular performance, rather than or perhaps in addition to historically accurate re-creations. It was a deft act of re-appropriation. The performances of African dances were traditional, in the sense they adhered to aesthetic and material constraints dating back to the dances' earliest cultural origins. They were also of the moment in that they emerged from and for a contemporary purpose and audience.

The flamenco performances similarly troubled, in the best way, distinctions between tradition and innovation, or artistic performance and cultural preservation. Their diversity of music and choreography, and the gorgeous costume design by Everything Flamenco and Fernando Hernández referenced the form's origins in the village squares and tavernas of pre-modern Spain and the Americas, as well as its elevation to a Spanish national art form during the 20th century. For example, in one piece, the dancers wore familiar long and twining ruffled skirts in shimmering satin, and short jackets and tight pants. In another dance, the Caribbean-influenced knee-length circular skirts and tied halter tops, and loose pants and shirts gave the dancers greater freedom of movement. In yet another piece, courtly elegance and practicality seemed to converge in the Afro-futurist lines and soft green and gold metallic gleam of the dancers' garb.

In addition to taking the audience on a tour of the past, present, and future of flamenco, Flamenco Black's programmatic diversity challenged any attempt to pin flamenco down to a closed set of aesthetic characteristics. Some palos, the songs or musical signatures of flamenco, call for slow, stately partnered dance steps. Others invite the flamboyant solos featuring quick heel work and dizzying, spiraling turns that are perhaps the most well-known of the form's choreographic features.

The Flamenco Black ensemble dancers were all technically proficient, moving and working together cohesively. Kiandra Brooks, in particular, carried herself with poised confidence, shoulders perfectly set, wrists and elbows held at just the right angle. Ceronicia Jessie had a less commanding stage presence than some of the other dancers, but she exhibited remarkable stylistic and musical versatility.

The musicians, including the African percussionists, dazzled with their technical brilliance, stirred the emotions with their affective range, and made magic with their seamless improvisation. Cantaor and percussionist Pepele Méndez sang with an otherworldly voice. His solo in Tonas was devastatingly beautiful.​ Guitarist Guillermo Guillen made the guitar sing in a voice to match Méndez.

To a show replete with professionalism, artistic beauty, and cultural richness, Yinka Esi Graves added transcendence. She was spectacular. Her arms twined through hypnotic braceo, her core stable and her head and gaze level, even as she moved her feet through lightning quick, sharply percussive heel work. In her solos, which closed both the first and second half, she fused with the musicians to create a perfect, breathtaking storm of rhythm, movement, and melody.

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