The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott

ON THE OPEN ROAD: a review of RAICES, a dance theater performance by Calo Gitano

The Open Road. The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not above. Not even within. The soul is neither above nor within. It is a wayfarer down the open road.

D. H. Lawrence

Traveling across town at twilight, my sister Nancy and I look forward with eagerness to the theater event arranged by Marianela "Malita" Belloso and her company of flamenco dancers and musicians for presentation on this hot August evening in East Atlanta, an event we've had hints about in e-mails during the past month from the Calo Gitano website: Raices, it's called, translated from the Spanish as "Roots." Now, roots can mean many things, from rutabaga turnips to the underground feeder tendrils of trees that in time may become giants. And, through metaphor--an imaginal process fundamental to humans--roots cross from plant sphere into animal life as poetry. We speak of human roots that we pull up in one place and put down in another, for we are travelers, and we take our cultural values and habits, our roots, with us and plant them in new places and cultivate diversity which, as you know, often sits in the same soil as adversity.

So roots and seeds and soil, planting and cultivation, rain and wind and weather, harvest and festival offer an appropriate spectrum of images for exploring the traveling life of gitanos, gypsies, that mysterious whirlwind of wanderers who, for six hundred years or more have roamed and settled, have lived between welcome and exile, from India to Turkey to Egypt where they acquired the name that clung to them throughout their sojourn into Northern Europe and finally to Spain where the cultural soil was hospitable to their seeds and plants, enough to flower an influence on dance and song that traveled on through the Spanish explorers to the Americas and islands of the Caribbean, all the while assimilating, cultivating, creating a blend of the old and the new.

Gypsy life becomes then a metaphor for whatever it is in each of us as individuals regardless of color or language or culture that won't be completely tamed: the wild part that wants freedom from convention, from authority, from domestication so that once life threatens to become established, confined, tied up or tied down, the roaming instinct arises, the craving for adventure. In you or me it may begin with a wayward glance, a wandering eye, a longing--for what? Well, yearning is a way of life. Isn't that where we live most of the time even when we're paying homage to work and family and community? When we read stories and novels, we ask what is the character yearning for? And if he or she isn't yearning, doesn't have some obstacle in the way of yearning that must be dealt with to reach a satisfactory climax and denouement, we think we don't have much of a story. That yearning is for something extraordinary, usually outside the confines of comfort and community.

But what about the alienated character, who may be yearning for just the opposite: for the embrace of community, for hospitality, welcome, acceptance? And there you have the gypsy dilemma: often on the outside, longing to be let in and then on the inside, yearning to break out. Sometimes, they have been caught in horror, as in the European holocaust when gypsies, along with Jews, another wandering and often exiled culture, were sent to the ovens. Instead of roots, bones were planted that seeded our memories with sadness for the gypsy and the Jew in all of us, not to mention the homosexual, that other outcast with unconventional eyes, who did not escape the Nazi meltdown.

Not the end of the story, though: the gypsies who survived despite the climate of human hate and the shadow blows against our own kind went on wandering: pulling up roots, putting them down, picking up feet, putting them down, in the rhythm of the dance that has their footprints in it everywhere. They used their bodies to make music like the first humans must have done, clapping their hands in defiance and in joy, creating percussive sounds, palmas that support footbeats that hold the dancer close to the ground, driving energy down to the depths, into the soil of memory that knows sex and birth and work and dying, down to the depths of human history, bringing up the stories of humankind and out of the earth, the spirit of duende, that untranslatable word attached to a force that darkens the color of life, enriches each work of art that reaches into the deeps and looks into the face of death and smiles anyway and says, Let's have it all!

All of these themes are in the roots, the raices of flamenco dancing and in the story of the gypsies told by Calo Gitano, named after the gypsy dialect, the gypsy voice, on this sultry Saturday night in August in the small cool auditorium in East Atlanta in front of a sold-out audience who came with love and interest to watch what Malita and her husband Kevin and her sister Cara and her partner Farzan and their dance company and their guests from other dance companies have put together in an energetic determination to flower flamenco in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Our story begins in India, we hear from narrator Regulo Enrique Belloso, and taking stage are two Indian dancers from Aparna's Dance Academy, working in a stylized mode of angled arms and constantly changing hand gestures that always return to rest with finger to thumb, signifying some kind of containment or unity, I suspect--performing the kind of Kathak dance that surely helped to shape the original gypsy repertoire. Dressed in long red costumes bearing patterns of gilded vines, with sequined embroidery and belts, the women wear their ornamented hair pulled back, displaying long earrings. They wear bangles on their wrists and, on their bare ankles, strings of tiny bells that tinkle in rhythm with drumbeats on their recorded music.

Here we have a likely source for expressive hand and arm movements found in flamenco and also patterned stamping movements of the feet. I recall hearing or reading that some Asian traditional dance training involves the mastery of over a hundred hand gestures. Westerners wondering how many we can make are likely to find out as I did, not many. One? Three? Ten? Only in the long, slow-motion time of tradition can such a specialty evolve.

The Kathak dance is lovely indeed, but it lacks what defines flamenco most: the nail-studded shoes that strike fire from the ground as the dancer makes room for improvisation, the personal imprint given by each individual performer, burning with urgency to express spontaneously all that can be in a moment felt. Flamenco solo turns involve breaking out of the stylized container into ever new expressions. Wherefrom the fierceness, fire, duende? It must come from the wandering, the self-imposed exile to other lands, the living side by side with other cultures without assimilating into them, from suffering contempt, accusations of criminality, rejection of their fortune-telling ways, from remaining outsiders, crossing cultural boundaries only in their trades as tinkers, blacksmiths, wood carvers, coppersmiths, horse traders, and in their arts.

The narrator dates their departure from a homeland along the demarcation line between India and what is now Pakistan. They brought with them all of the cultural roots they had assimilated by that time, and no doubt they put them down, hybridized the plants, and pulled them up again many times. When we leave a situation, we take some of it with us, and at the same time, we leave something of ourselves behind. After what may have been several centuries of wandering, the gypsies appeared in Europe close to the time of the Renaissance and began their off-again, on-again attempts to settle down, which they were not able to do with impunity until they had gone north and on the way south again reached Spain, where they found the cultural compatibility they would never find elsewhere and where, through art, they were able to mix and mingle and merge.

The story of their suffering comes through in the Martinete. We hear it in the soulful singing of Kevin Wilson, cantor for Raices, who accompanies the caravan of dancers moving in from either side of the stage bearing candles, three of them representing Spirits of Duende and carrying round, illuminated orbs to imagize the seeds of culture they carry with them, seeds they secretly plant at places in the new geography where non-gypsies (payos) are not likely to find them without permission. From these seeds will grow the transformative influence of gypsy art and life on Spanish song and dance that then will travel the world over. The lasting imprint they left in Spain appears in cante jondo, translated as "deep song," slow and serious, sounding the music of disappointed love, betrayal and death, and in the lighter and more cheerful cante chico, as well as in flamenco dances.

Poor in possessions, gypsies are rich in what? In time, in ceremony, in vocal and physical expression, in kinship, in laughter, in adventure. What makes their story worth celebrating is in the way they define wealth outside the mesmerizing force field of money.

Onstage, we have a chorus of dancers, all in black tops, some in pink skirts, some in blue skirts, tapping, whirling, clapping, working their clothes: head scarves slide down the sides of faces to reveal large pink loops on ears and turn into shawls that that then become geometric shapes--triangles--to hold taut, to swing and furl. The chorus breaks out on either side to focus on three dancers who form a body triangle, scarves dangling in the middle, and pick up fans to flirt and trade off with other dancers while Kevin keeps the story moving with his voice and beside him, Farzan "Fernando" Kendrick guides the dancers so skillfully with his guitar that our awareness of him almost disappears. But the guitar is absolutely essential to flamenco: it sets the pace and contains the footwork of the travelers in its rhythms. Without it, the dancers would go nowhere.

My interest in flamenco intensified when, a few years ago, I watched the WorldNet television program on Manuel Maya, known as "Manolete" (like the bullfighter), whose dancing is completely compelling, and in this film, he often works with his brother as cantor. Here I discovered that while the singing, the cante jondo, is complex and emotionally far-ranging, the lyrics when translated often sound surprisingly simple. Here, for example, are some lines from one of the tonight's songs: Esta noche va a llover (Tonight is going to rain), mi posito cogera agua (my well will collect water), que no hay sequera ninguna (it won't be dry). Simple lines, but one can see in those images the flowering mystery of gypsies, whenever they were settled enough to have a well. When the cantor sings, he or she pours forth all of the lived life suggested by the lines.

I pause to ask who is this gypsy living in the larynx and lungs of Kevin Wilson, Attorney-at-law? Would that more lawyers had one! An outlaw, I mean. A lover. We know that that lawyers have slick tongues and cunning ways, but we are talking deep song, and Kevin is, in the music of the evening, advocating the values of love and suffering and planting seeds and maybe even leaving town to escape persecution. He is a singer of surpassing fine emotion, lavishly shaping sonorous clouds that rain on the ear, rich and resonant.

Now three ladies are dancing a traditional Spanish Zorongo and find one of the seeds left by the Spirits of Duende. They claim it and become inspired to transform the traditional music of Spain into something new.

Then the stage is cleared for M'lovely Malita to make her solo appearance: she has changed her blue skirt for black pants, a red bolero over her black top--a severe look, complete with sombrero and cane, a chair her only set piece--her captain's chair, perhaps, on her boat to set sail to the Americas. As Christopher Columbus...Yes, that's right...she accepts her commission from Isabella of Spain to discover new trade routes to Asia and dances her way across oceans to penetrate not Asia but the Americas, to mix and blend the gypsy style yet again, and no doubt to blow some pollen toward the soil of what will become the country where Malita was born, where she started dancing at the age of six and danced her way by nine into the largest flamenco dance academy in Venezuela before (later, of course) taking her Master's Degree in Spanish Culture and History and making her way to the USA where she met Farzan and with him in 2001 founded Calo Gitano and brought in Kevin, with whom she founded a family that now includes a toddler, Camila, who is growing taller by the day and going around crying out agua, agua as if she were herself a small flamenco seed.

And because I knew Malita before the baby, I can tell you that she did not stop dancing during the time she had baby Belloso-Wilson in her belly because the doctor told her it was all right and natural in her case, and that after Camila was born, Malita continued to jiggle every jot of fat from her muscle and bone so that she looks fit to play not only her voluptuous self but also, in her Christopher Columbus pants, a man.

One aspect of the mood of flamenco can be seen in its way of holding contrasexual heat, so that when a man dances, there is a hint of feminine grace and receptivity, and when a woman covers her mouth with her fan, there is a boldness in her eyes so aggressive that it cannot be ignored. Androgyny has a place here, as it does in most mixtures that are spicy and interesting.

It is no wonder, then, that Malita plays Christopher Columbus convincingly, without giving up any of her femininity, and with the intense concentration needed to make that voyage where he undoubtedly met up with African styles, worked into the Raices plot by African-American dancer Tambra Harris, wearing red dress with a ruffled blousy top, patterned in gold, with headdress to match. For her, percussionist Jerry Field comes out in full force because in Africa the drum is a god, called Lord Mother in one exhibit I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dancer's bare feet softly place drumbeats on the ground. She moves up and down, round and round all over the stage, in an intricate and lovely balance of energy and grace, building a crescendo of movement that culminates, appropriately, in a bow to the drum.

Then Malita comes back in a pink and blue and black outfit with silver shoes and plays with the African vibrations left by the soft-footed dancer, showing how the already changing forms picked up more influences from the Caribbean and from Cuban farmers, the Guajiros. We visit the market of the Guajiras before Christopher Columbus returns in triumph to Spain, bearing much wealth and many riches including new nurturance for the flamenco tree that branches and flowers: Los Tangos link to Seguiriyas, Solea and Tientos under the approving eyes of the Gitanos.

The second act puts on display all the cultural combinations that continued to flower as Spain established colonies throughout the New World: we see communities celebrating the magnificent tree that contains the essence of adventure, discovery, joy in the face of hardship and struggle, kinship, merriment, mirth...all choreographed into Tientos, Rumba, Alegrias, Garrotin, Sevillanas. Dancers are now lifting skirts so that we can see foot and ankle, and anyone knows how sexy that is. The shawls are eagle wings.... All the pinks return, going round and round and then form a crescent when the blues come back, castanets clacking, Kevin cantoring in the background. Pinks step forth with fans, everybody dances. It's harvest time for the gitanos and for our performers. Malita calls back African and Indian dancers.

And the narrator tells us finally, Our story ends here in this very room where the raices that began as tiny seeds have grown into a mighty tree with branches that are long enough and strong enough to take hold anywhere that flamenco can be seen and heard. The dances may evolve and change as do the smiling faces of the dancers, but the raices remain the same continuing to inspire dancers and audiences worldwide, to bring the joy and passion of flamenco to their lives.

The long and loving applause confirms what we all know: this is a first-rate show of talents seeded into the formation of Calo Gitano and flowering onstage in front of us. And we will not let them go until Malita and Kevin have performed a duet full of dignity and pride, that ends with Kevin breaking into a double turn that astonishes and delights the audience. Lights down, and the couple drift apart to take up positions in separate areas of the stage where they will receive our appreciation.

Now Nancy and I are hugging and kissing charismatic Kevin, who looks like a slender and perhaps taller version of the new Old Spice guy in the television ad, and we are yearning to hear him ask us if our men are living up to their potential and treating us right, but we keep a little distance from this spicy guy, knowing that M'lovely Malita might otherwise come over in her nail-studded shoes and stomp us until duende runs out our ears. Ah! there she is! Now we hug and kiss Malita and wave to Farzan and the beautiful entourage of dancers from Calo Gitano Flamenco Academy and their guest dancers and percussionist. Then we get in Nancy's car and make our way back across North Atlanta from east to west where we live.

On the way we talk about the deepening of Atlanta culture. We are already impressed that the city has a world class symphony orchestra and a very fine art museum, a jewel of an art history museum, a spacious and interesting botanical gardens, an expansive acquarium and a zoo that even I wouldn't mind living in, a reputable science center and a truly extraordinary puppet center and museum, not to mention two Shakespeare venues (most cities don't have even one theater dedicated to producing Shakespeare) and a dozen or more traditional and experimental theaters besides, offering Atlanta theater-goers a menu more complex than most places can. And now, over the past decade, we have witnessed a flamenco academy in the making whose presence in the city does its share of busting up the layer of asphalt we carry in our minds, along with the conventional veneer to lure conventions. When I go out to see and hear Calo Gitano, I make a brief trip in my mind back to Geneva in Switzerland where I first saw live flamenco performances, and I applaud my city's response to this quintessential cosmopolitan art form. I know its raices are planted on the open road, and that the freedom of the open road sustains the magical/mystical seeds of duende, but I am glad Calo Gitano has found a home here.

To view our earlier article on Calo Gitano at Vino Libro, go to Searching for International Atlanta

For our article on Duende and links to other interesting presentations related to flamenco, go to Angel? Muse? Daimon? Duende!

Copyright 2011, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved