When the presenter Miguel Marin decided to organize Flamenco Festival USA in 2001, he wanted to change the way Americans perceived flamenco. A native of Andalusia, flamenco's birthplace, he knew that many talented flamenco dancers and musicians had not had opportunities to perform in the United States.
"I thought there might be audiences for more than the big name artists," he says. "There had always been a lot of exciting flamenco in Spain that didn't come here. It seemed to me that Americans might enjoy a broader spectrum, in a circumscribed period of time."
But first Marin had to find an American presenter who would share his vision. He found a perfect partner in the World Music Institute, which under the leadership of Robert and Helene Browning had been presenting flamenco in New York since the 1980s. Together they have plotted the course of the festival since its inception.
From a series of three events that took place in New York, Boston and Washington, Flamenco Festival USA has blossomed into a popular nationwide festival, which now travels to London and Paris as well. Audiences have more than quadrupled. In New York alone, there will be eight shows this year. The events will take place between February 3 and 24 at New York City Center, Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and at the Skirball Center at New York University.
"Americans responded more enthusiastically than I ever could have imagined," Marin says. "In a short period of time, they've become truly knowledgeable about flamenco."
A good deal of credit for this must go to Marin and the Brownings. From the beginning, they programmed the avant-garde along with the traditional, big name artists as well as newcomers, all of the highest quality. In fact, because of the festival's variety, you no longer have to go to Spain to get a good idea of today's flamenco scene.
This year's festival does it again. It opens February 3 at Town Hall with the American debut of the much-touted young singer Estrella Morente. Only 25, the beautiful daughter of renowned singer Enrique Morente has been singing since she was a child in Granada, where she grew up surrounded by flamenco artists. By seven, she had performed with the famed guitarist Sabicas. On her first recording in 2001, she was accompanied by another great guitarist, Manolo Sanlúcar. She has also recorded soundtracks for films by Carlos Saura and Pedro Almodóvar; Peter Gabriel launched her first CD on his label, Real World.
Flamenco artists now consider an invitation to Flamenco Festival USA an honor. "I have been dreaming about singing in New York since my teens," says Morente. "It's wonderful flamenco is so popular now. I think it's because of our no-holds-barred attitude to performing. Andalusians are naturally extroverted and the sheer directness of flamenco is something that more introverted cultures respond to. Singing flamenco takes a lot out of you. It's hard going for the voice and body. You have to keep up your stamina and strength because so much is dissipated with the huge range of sounds required in any given song. But it also allows you to express your deepest feelings."
As usual, Marin has programmed famous artists as well as newcomers to the American public. There is no bigger name in flamenco than Paco de Lucìa, the master guitarist who brought the art to the world's attention in the 1960s when he began incorporating jazz influences to his music. Only more expressive today, he performs at Carnegie Hall on February 10.
For the opening night gala at New York City Center on February 15, Marin offers a mix of ages and styles. Making their American debuts, three young dancers, Olga Pericet, Marco Flores and Manuel Liñán, will present a modern work they have been developing over the past seven years, while the more established Joaquìn Grilo and Isabel Bayón will perform equally impassioned solos on the same night, in a more traditional style.
For these artists, flamenco is way of life. "The flamenco feeling is in many other things than the music and dance," Bayón says. "It's inside, in things that other people can't get at. In any place, in any situation, at any time of day, you can see something flamenco. Not only in the playing and the singing but also in situations, in mannerisms, ways of sitting, starting to sing and the phrases that emerge. It's a state of mind and being."
The experimental dancer and choreographer Rafaela Carrasco, who performs with her company on February 16 at City Center, would agree with Bayón. In her work, "A Glance at Flamenco," which was a hit in 2005 at the famed Jerez Flamenco Festival, she subtly explores the moods of flamenco, demonstrating how varied and personal they can be. Her staging gains its effectiveness from the moody lighting and the atmospheric score. She challenges the traditional roles in flamenco, in one instance, choreographing a dance for men which calls for them to wear traditional long flamenco dresses. "The freedom of expression in flamenco today is terrific," she says. "Everything is permitted."
Sara Baras, who performs with her company at City Center February 17-18, is a perfect example. The most popular dancer in Spain, whose shows sell out in Madrid and Barcelona for months, she has choreographed everything from historical dramas, such as Mariana Pineda about a 19th-century political activist, to a series of traditional dances presented in a contemporary and very glamorous style, like the beautiful Sabores (Flavors), which she presents here this year.
"There are so many different kinds of artists today," Marin says. "Some stay close to flamenco's roots; others only use them as the base from which to experiment. You can't generalize. The art is too rich and varied to pin down.