CAMINOS FLAMENCOS – A Conversation With Yaelisa

“CANCIONES 2″
Go Flamenco this Holiday Season at Fort Mason

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Renowned Flamenco dance troupe, Caminos Flamencos, under the guidance and direction of Yaelisa, presents Canciones 2 – a most welcomed blaze of fiery passion during The City’s frostiest Holiday Season. The production is being presented at the Cowell Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center for three performances only, December 18th–20th. This year, along with traditional music, Caminos Flamencos broadens the “nuevo flamenco” movement even further by presenting the works of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Since 1993, the company’s Emmy Award winning Artistic Director has been collaborating with artists in a variety of mediums, incorporating top musicians in the field of jazz, Latin and Afro-Cuban music. Yaelisa’s choreographies have been commissioned by Collage Dance Theatre, Malashock Dance & Company, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Stanford Danza Espanola and the Internacional Certamen de Coreografia in Madrid, Spain. Yaelisa is a master instructor and maintains a thriving studio in Oakland where she imparts the traditions and excitement of classic Flamenco to her clients. My interview with her was like Dance itself. Every little movement had a meaning all its own.

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Yaelisa: I’m the Artistic Director of Caminos Flamencos. We’re a San Francisco-based dance company with an international reputation. For nine straight seasons we’ve presented a premier. This year we’re going out on a limb and presenting something quite different from anything we’ve ever done. My company is known for experimenting and using other mediums and other styles of music on a smaller basis, usually one or two pieces. But this show, Canciones 2, was an innovative experiment we started last year with the first show. We started experimenting with different styles of music. We’re continuing that this year – even more. Almost three-fourths of our show is utilizing Pop, Rock, a little bit of Gospel and creating a hybrid dance style which incorporates Flamenco-style movement, but un-traditional and very contemporary – even our wardrobe. When we booked our theater we realized we’d be in the Holiday Season, so we wanted to offer our audiences something very different – something that would compete with the many “Nutcrackers” and ballet performances. I think we’ve achieved that because the show really has a lot more than just dance in it. We’re doing theatrical pieces, there’s some comedy. We are even doing a little bit of parody on our own art form – which we love. Flamenco artists generally take themselves very, very seriously. I do. We all do. But in this show we veer off into something different. In Flamenco, there can be something very funny or poignant. And our music reflects that – for example, The Beatles. Without sounding like a typical Artistic Director, I really love this show. Not only is it fun to choreograph and dance, but there are some incredible pieces that audiences will really relate to in these sort-of strange times. We are in a kind of new era. I don’t want to say the show has a political bent, but we’re not ignoring the fact that there’s a lot of things going on in the world that we don’t agree with.

Seán: Correct! And Traditions are being bashed-up against the wall as new things are coming in.

Yaelisa: Very much so. It’s a mistake to think that any art form is incapable of looking at itself or seeing what it represents and then evoking some different feelings within it that are “non-Traditional”. I’ve always felt that way. This show is more of a Dance and Theatre show than a Flamenco show. There are a lot of different styles of music, including Flamenco.

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Caminos Flamencos. Photo, Andy Mogg.

Seán: Tell me about your own background. How does one get started in Flamenco? As a teacher, many of my concerns are about getting children exposed to music that might not be heard in their own neighborhood. During own childhood, I know my inclinations toward certain avenues in the Performing Arts were sparked by the M.G.M films I watched on TV. I wanted to pursue and become all of that stuff myself.

Yaelisa: Of course! Didn’t we all?

Seán: Then one day — channel surfing on the radio – I discovered the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. I was hearing contemporary singers perform the same material – live! – that I had obsessed over in the movies. The magic was real. Let’s say a kid in middle school or high school comes to your show – maybe by chance. What are they going to see in the Flamenco world that might ignite that same interest you felt as a kid? How did it all start for you and how might that resonate in a young person these days?

Yaelisa: Mine is very much a typical story of someone growing up in Spain. My mother was Spanish and a Flamenco dancer, though she lived in San Francisco. So, I’m a second-generation artist. My whole childhood was spent being surrounded by Flamenco – the music, the artists, and that whole Bohemian lifestyle. This is not the case with my students. My school and my classes are equally important to me as our performances. I know that education and, specifically, cultural education is extremely important for youth and anyone who wants to experience something different. In my teaching, I approach it first from a cultural point of view and then the technical part of it. You see, Flamenco is an art form that Americans and peoples around the world can really relate to. In musical terms, Flamenco is similar to Jazz in that it has the element of musicians working together. The dancer, the singer, the guitarist are creating a mood, a feeling, and a sentiment on stage. Singing is the most important element in Flamenco. The other two artists, the dancer and the guitarist, are interpreting, or are supposed to. This is the ideal in Flamenco – interpreting the poetic verses that are being sung. In solo work, that sometimes involves a lot of improvisation, momentary decisions about where your piece is going. With ensemble work you must have the choreography mounted. But the mounting of it has to do with the singing. Even when there’s no improvisation, you are still interpreting the singing – but you are doing so in a rehearsed way.

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Andres Peña. Photo, Andy Mogg.

Yaelisa: What we do in our company – and what Flamenco really is – is a cultivation of ideas. It happens on stage half the time, right in the moment. That’s why audiences respond to Flamenco – to its energy and to the impulse it creates. It’s also why Flamenco is both loved and misunderstood. It is sometimes viewed as being trite or as “light entertainment”. In fact, it’s really based on some very heavy ideas. Musically, it is very complex. Rhythmically, there are hundreds of styles in Flamenco and a varying degree of rhythmic phrasings within those styles. So, a dancer or a musician in Flamenco must have an incredible amount of musical knowledge of the many styles and the songs within the style. We’re talking about a really deep knowledge. I would compare it to Indian music. But the structure is more like Jazz where the artists and the musicians know what the style is and what the rhythm is. When you’re on stage anything can happen and things will change. It can veer off into something else, it can slip into another style which has a different rhythmic phrasing. It never ceases to amaze me how much of an evolving art form it is for the artist and the audience.

Seán: When I observe Flamenco I am always very aware of the dramatic tension – the subtext in the story between the dancers, even if there is no singer. The elements of passion and sexual tension always seem very high to me.

Yaelisa: In this show there will be a variety of feelings. One piece will have some comedy in it, another will be more deeply theatrical. As a contrast, the show will culminate with the traditional presentation of Flamenco. The show does veer off to something I don’t think has ever been done before. The closing piece of the show is “Let It Be” with the entire cast. It’s our way of saying how we feel about our world right now. Flamenco is actually apolitical. Flamenco is an art form of the street – it does not start on concert stages nor did it have sets and ensemble pieces. That was added later on to create the idea that it could be brought to larger stages. So, the most exciting Flamenco is in the smaller spaces, when the audience is closer to it. I can guarantee you we’re going to create a lot of heat on stage because we’re presenting all this other alternative music. A lot of times the sexiness has to do with the unknown something-or-other that’s going on. The Mystery.

Seán: The dramatic tension.

Yaelisa: Exactly. That’s why – when you feel like you don’t know what’s happening – you just get all riled-up and it becomes sexy for sure.

Seán: So, when am I going to see two men or two women dance Flamenco and convey the same heightened sexual tension?

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Yaelisa: We don’t have a lot of male dancers here, Sean.

Seán: Why is that?

Yaelisa: It’s a fact that’s been true for so long.

Seán: Why are the men in the Latin community, especially here in San Francisco, not participating in Flamenco dance?

Yaelisa: I would love to put together a dance in Flamenco called “Sevillanas”. It’s a partner dance, a sort-of folk dance. In Spain, men dance it together and women dance it together. But, you’ll never see only two men dancing it together. It’s on my mind to see a group of Gay men dance Sevillanas.

Seán: It could make such a difference. I know dancers who are participating in recent alternative productions, such as Dancing With The Drag Queen Stars. It was a huge and fabulous three-part event over at Cheryl Burke Dance. It was created by my friend, Patrik Gallineaux, and it just took off like wildfire. My experience of Flamenco is that it’s always about a man and a woman. And it feels very exclusionary to me.

Yaelisa: I think you’ve seen a representation of Flamenco that’s very one-sided.

Seán: Probably.

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Caminos Flamencos. Photo, David Belove

Yaelisa: Most of the time, in the real world and especially in America, it really is a Solo art form. Occasionally, if a man and a woman dance together, that is not the norm. The norm is for the soloist to express feelings and the sentiments of that particular solo – without the encumbrance of a relationship. The relationship is really between themselves and the musicians. That’s more common, even in Spain.

Seán: Do you have favorite pieces of music that you love to dance?

Yaelisa: As a Flamenco artist, I respond to certain styles. I love lots of different kind of music. I couldn’t just narrow it down to one piece. In Flamenco, there’s a style called “Solearis” that I really respond to. It’s a solo that I’m known for, that is a part of me, and the first solo I learned. The verses are not about relationships or my relationship to anyone. It’s about yourself and your spirituality, your feeling of aloneness in the world. Your question is so intriguing. There is so much music in the world. That’s one of the things we are saying in our show. We are Flamencos. We can go anywhere with this.

Seán: Where are you going after this show?

Yaelisa: On December 23rd we have a special Christmas show at the Verdi Club. It’s a ballroom that we’ll convert into a Spanish nightclub. It’s a special show for families and our audiences who prefer to see us in an intimate environment.

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“Canciones 2″ plays three performances, December 18th–20th, at the Cowell Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. The show features Jason “El Rubio” McGuire, Felix de Lola and Gypsy Singer Jesus Montoya in an evening of traditional Flamenco along with the music of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Also appearing is 10-year old prodigy Roberto Granados who performed at the inauguration of President Obama.
Click here for ticket information: CANCIONES 2

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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