Q&A with Palabra Flamenco

August 27, 2018 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Interview by Barbara Black

The 2018 Victoria Festival of Authors once again offers an event that draws the written word out of its solitary context and, this year, into a joint artistic exploration of movement, music, and poetry. Victoria’s popular Palabra Flamenco brings their unique literary flamenco collaboration to the festival stage with “La Palabra en el Tiempo.” Prior to the festival, I asked artistic director and dancer Denise Yeo and poet Garth Martens about their project and this unique and lasting art form.

Barbara Black: What are the roots of “La Palabra en el Tiempo”? How did it come into being as a collaborative venture combining spoken word, dance, and music and how unique is this concept to flamenco?

Denise Yeo: Garth and I first explored, in conversation, how English poetry and flamenco might come together a couple years ago. In early 2017, we experimented with existing text from Garth and traditional music from my husband, flamenco guitarist Gareth Owen. My role was diplomatic, finding language both poet and flamenco musician understood. From those early attempts I fashioned an entire show involving four of us: dancer, singer, guitarist, and poet.

Poetry spoken alongside flamenco music is not unique in Spanish, but an old practice that arguably pre-dates singing in flamenco. Poetry, in flamenco’s origins, is an oral tradition. The “text” was not traditionally crafted to stand alone on the page. Layering of written English poetry and flamenco is unique. Both English poetry and flamenco are musical; however, they do not share a common musical root and therefore don’t always like to reside in the same space together.

Garth Martens: I’ve been a student of Alma de España for nine years. For twenty-six years, the school has promoted on Vancouver Island the study of flamenco not as a cul-de-sac within modern or ballet programming, but as an end in itself, deserving and capacious enough for life-long study. This accounts for Alma de España’s integration of the study of dance, guitar, song, and palmas (clapping), informed by what’s happening in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, where instructors and students periodically study.

My commitment to flamenco isn’t about trying to bag a poem out of it. I was only ready to try this literary flamenco collaboration after I performed as a dance soloist on stage for more than a year, which is no claim to any expertise beyond that I’d given this art form enough respect to feel in partnership with it. Thankfully Denise, Gareth, and Veronica ensure this experiment is in relationship with tradition. It is important to us that the art forms have their stature, that neither flamenco nor the poetry is diminished.

BB: Where there’s flamenco there is the notion and practise of duende. Christopher Maurer, the editor of “In Search of Duende,” sees four elements at work in poet Federico García Lorca’s vision of duende: irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and “a dash of the diabolical.”

Denise, who are you when you dance flamenco? What moves and speaks through your body? How is duendepresent?

DY: I don’t know how duendeis present. I don’t think I intentionally ask for it to show up. Instead I think I can talk about how it is when dancing feels like it’s in service to something a little difficult to talk about. The “good dancing” is when something larger than, more dimensional, deeper, and more foundational is being served. Someone has called it “what is.” In performance the “what is” encompasses myself, the other musicians, the audience, the room, the air, the ground underneath, the rocks: the history and future of these beings. Categories of flamenco music and dance are called palos, each with its structural and connotative associations. In my experience, the archetypal energy of the palowe invite into the space evokes a reverberation and acknowledgement from every being present. The good dancing requires a kind of deep listening and almost mind-less response on my part.

When the good dancing happens I typically have decided to throw away my plan and surrender and respond to what is going on right in that moment. I don’t think about the lines my body makes, or what expressions show on my face. From training and practice, my body moves through different rhythms and forms, but at the mercy of the moment. Usually simple patterns robust and earthy enough to contain heightened energy are what emit from my body. Nothing clever or terribly sophisticated is at hand material-wise when the good dancing happens. Clever and sophisticated are for other times when the performance goal is different.

BB: Garth, Tracy K. Smith on poets.org writes “…the duendesleeps deep within the poet… asks to be awakened and wrestled…. We write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely.” How is your poetry or that of other poets woven into “La Palabra en el Tiempo”? Is duendepresent there, too?

GM: These encounters can’t be guaranteed. At best, we create rooms or clearings where a meeting might occur. I don’t want to claim more than that. There is no exercise that predetermines it. We can look where we don’t want to, but need to. Get close to what’s grotesque or in descent, and if the instant is seared, that’s it.

I like what Smith writes, and I add there is more than the self in duende. In Jan Zwicky’sAuden as Philosopher, she separates inarticulate, obliged response to a Sacred Presence or Event from an attempt to communicate this experience so others know it. There is a tension between testimony and technique. It’s possible duendeemerges when an artist, capable of baroque majesty, works crudely to reveal a truth. Of responses to Sacred Presence or Event, among examples from Zwicky’s essay, duendeis nearer Auden’s “panic dread”.

I wrote the poems when visiting a friend in New Mexico. Denise and I combed through the work, chose whole poems, or a section of one, or fragments, and identified each of these with one of flamenco’s traditional palos, categories of traditional flamenco music and dance, such as fandangos, tarantos,bulerías, and soleá, each with their own structure and emotional associations. How are these woven into La Palabra en el Tiempo? I perform poems in context of the palo, in place of or alongside flamenco song (cante). I speak in relationship to others on stage and what they’re up to, with resolves for the guitarist or dancer. Apart from mine, we include in the show an untitled poem by Andalusian poet Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly.

BB: For people who are not familiar with flamenco, what are the greatest misconceptions (or the greatest surprises) about this art form?

DY: I think that flamenco can bypass cultural norms and other similar learned structures in the brain. Like other musical forms, it can tug directly at emotions and evoke feelings to do with parts of ourselves that we might have forgotten. People are surprised when they see flamenco because it sounds and looks unusual to those steeped in dominant western culture. It’s unusual and foreign to them, and yet they feel a response to it.

GM: Flamenco is often associated with the words ‘passion’ and ‘fiery’, and it is those, but one of the art form’s surprises is the breadth of personhood it allows. Faces we’re not meant to show, we’re told are inappropriate, rule the moment.

BB: As one of the collaborators in this piece, tell me about the beats, the rhythms, the words, the emotion, the voice of flamenco, how they affect you personally in performance, in the heat of the moment.

DY: In performance the rhythm, words, emotion, and cante(song) serve to remind me what we’re trying to achieve. They set off a frequency that points to the archetypal energy invoked. My thinking and feeling is shaped and responds in kind.

GM: Every so often, I’ve had to scrap-heap my understanding of what happens, rhythmically speaking, in flamenco. I’m grateful to Denise and Gareth for their patience and time in helping me recalibrate my palmas. I’m learning not only where movement begins, through shoulders, wrists, and hands, but how rhythm might, if I practice, pool in my consciousness so that my thinking informs my movement and ultimately the groove. If I admire the dancer’s footwork rather than heed it, or over-think what I’m hearing, I wobble. Ideally I’m at ease, in relationship, listening, physically ready but relaxed. If everyone, guitarist, singer, dancer, and palmero, is at their best, monuments happen — surprises that satisfy because they seem destined — etched in commotion on stage. Where lightning was. You can’t legislate that. You can only round your corners.

The emotion, when it enters, is unpredictable. Today in rehearsal, Denise and Veronica introduced something for soleáfor only the two of them, and in their circling there was trust and grief and inheritance. I saw vulnerability on Denise’s face, frustration, and a welling up. I was very moved. At another re-worked section of soleá, when speaking my poem to Veronica with greater sensitivity, responsive to her movements and inches from her face, I again felt unusually emotional. With every performance, in rehearsal or on stage, the weight shifts. We’re very close. In rehearsal, there’s laughter when we screw up or goof around. Sometimes there are arguments.

BB: Will there be more exciting projects in your future combining the spoken word and flamenco?

DY: I think so. The experiment to bring English poetry and flamenco together has been even more successful than I thought it would be. We’ve learned so much. It has opened horizons I hadn’t considered when we first collaborated.

GM: Yeah, we have more to do.

BB: Here’s a Bonus Question: what is the sound of flamenco without an audience?

DY: There’s always an audience. Sometimes the audience isn’t people.

GM: 😮

Palabra Flamenco is the ensemble: artistic director and dancer Denise Yeo, poet Garth Martens, singer Veronica Maguire, and guitarist Gareth Owen. “La Palabra en el Tiempo” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on September 26 at Metro Studio Theatre (1411 Quadra Street). Purchase tickets here.