STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Is there room for femininity in our culture? That’s the question posed by Pasión y Arte in the premiere of the dance work “Cosas de Mujeres (Things of Women).”
The all-female flamenco company will explore feminine objects widely used in the Flamenco language — manton (shawl), abanico (fan), and bata de cola (long train) — and their meanings. The dancers will perform on a stage featuring large-scale paintings of Lithuanian artist Ray Bartkus and accompanied by original compositions and live music by flamenco guitarist Raphael Brunn and Barbara Martinez’s cante jondo (song).
Flamenco was born out of oppression, like jazz and blues, and therefore it’s an art form that is highly stylized, much like ballet, that expresses emotions, said company founder and Artistic Director Elba Hevia y Vaca. The traditional flamenco has a singer, guitar, and dancers, and has numerous influences — northern African, Iberian Gypsy, Jewish, Spanish folklore, and Arab, she said.
Flamenco is based on rhythm families called palo, she said, and each family has an emotion attached to it — aloneness, happiness, and more. Dancers interpret the verse of the songs and they are “musicians with their feet and all the different parts of their bodies,” she said.
“The percussive footwork that the form demands allows women to make powerful physical sounds and gestures that allow them to take an active, even aggressive, stance,” she said. “Because my company is all women, it shows women partnering to produce the story of the dance in tandem, rather than in competition with each other over a male dancer’s attention, as is typical.”
She thinks the emotions translate to those watching.
“When an audience member sees this happening live, the experience is deeply felt,” she said. “The best flamenco is full of feeling, and makes the audience feel, too.”
In creating her works, Hevia y Vaca draws on her cultural experience and the lives of contemporary women to keep the art form relevant in the 21st Century. She was born in La Paz, Bolivia, where she studied classical Spanish dance from ages 5 to 13, and became enthralled by the power of flamenco. She traveled to Spain to study flamenco at 15. She continued to study through college (Georgetown) and toured nationally. She has performed at The Kennedy Center, the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, the Kimmel Center, New York’s SummerStages, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Wilma Theater, Painted Bride Arts Center, and more.
In 2000, she founded Pasión y Arte because of her belief that highly-stylized traditional Spanish flamenco dance is “a perfect vessel to empower women.” Her works explore life as a Latina woman and her passion for the flamenco language.
Traditional flamenco choreography delineates borders between masculine and feminine movements and characters, and often assigns the female dancer the role of sex object, she said.
“The richness of flamenco’s language, however, offers a ripe and flexible vocabulary for women to critique these very personas beyond the constraints of this rigid view of gender. My social change intent is best expressed by my belief that flamenco can be one of the most powerful ways to empower women and offer them agency and the subjectivity to tell their own stories,” she said.
One way she tells a different story than traditional flamenco in “Cosas de Mujeres” is with a fan, which has been used by dancers since the late 1800s when it was incorporated in the classical Spanish dance, she said. Traditionally, the fan is used to entice or to demonstrate timidity or flirtatiousness. Hevia y Vaca explores making fun of the fan and its traditional meanings. She hopes to enlighten and engage audiences, but she also just wants to express her views on gender and femininity.
“While my performances are presented with the aim of invoking new perspectives in audiences, the work, at its heart, is about the process of figuring out how to get there despite the form’s history of oppressing women,” she said.
“Cosas de Mujeres” is another step in her exploration, another step in her journey of making art that emboldens and empowers women.
“Through my choreography and dance, I use the language of flamenco as a way to show the strength, determination and also the vulnerability of women,” she said. “I create stories of women by women. We are the protagonists of our own stories.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Cosas de Mujeres (Things of Women)”
When: 8 p.m. April 10-11; 3 p.m. April 12
Where: Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University, 3401 Filbert St., Philadelphia.
Tickets: $20; students/seniors $16, at http://pasionyarte.brownpapertickets.com/
Info.: http://www.pasionyarteflamenco.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/pasionyarte