By Kaija Pepper

More and more, I find myself appreciating the joy in flamenco expression, which is as integral to the art form as pain and sorrow. In a world filled with so many political and ecological challenges, we could all use more joy, which certainly filled the theatre at the three shows I caught at this year’s Vancouver International Flamenco Festival in September.

With the Playhouse headliner, Baile de Autor, Spain’s impeccable stylist Manuel Liñán shot into laser-sharp poses that were as often witty and chic as bold and angst-filled. Whether in dark trousers and white shirt, or, later, a black skirt with a long frilly train (the traditionally female bata de cola), his luscious hands and hips unfurled majestically, his short compact body asserting the energy and power of each shape. Liñán’s solo dance, accompanied by singer David Carpio and guitarist Manuel Valencia, left the audience giddy with delight, judging from waves of excitement that washed over the auditorium, with applause erupting at those moments of climax flamenco does so well.

Flamenco Rosario, the festival’s producing organization, has a decades-long history of presenting and teaching in the city. One of the festival’s smaller Waterfront Theatre shows featured a former student, Deborah “La Caramelita” Dawson, who now heads her own company in France. In Nritya (meaning dance in Sanskrit), Dawson draws on her Indian heritage, Malaysian parentage and training in flamenco.

Fusion work is a tradition with Flamenco Rosario’s own shows by co-directors Rosario Ancer and Victor Kolstee, which have previously highlighted flamenco’s connection to the Romani people and India. With La Caramelita company’s Nritya, Dawson’s fusion dance was rhythmically and conceptually supported by the musical team’s inspiration in Indian, flamenco, and contemporary electronic rhythms and sounds. The teamwork among the quintet of dancer and musicians — vocalist Alejandro Mendía (Dawson’s life partner), guitarist Guillermo Guillén, percussionist Alex Carrasco and flautist Lara Wong — gave Nritya that essential ingredient of heart.

The following night at the Waterfront, Flamenco Rosario’s own Nuevo II went for broke, bringing the audience into a collective state of happy enthusiasm. The featured guest dancer — a Chilean who lives in Spain, young Gabriel Aragú — was physically very different from Liñán, his long limbs unfurling into elegant profile poses. Aragú might have drawn us in more slowly at the start in order to vary the dynamics, but the fireworks of his footwork and spinning turns were impossible to resist. Nuevo II’s feast of emotions was especially rich when led by dynamite Mexican singer José Jesús “El Cachito” Díaz Marcos, who channels song from the core of his being.

At the Playhouse earlier in September, there was a ballet night out with the premiere of Joshua Beamish’s @giselle. The 32-year-old British Columbian choreographer made an early splash in his career when New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan commissioned him as one of four choreographers in her independent performance project, Restless Creature (2013). He has continued to make international contacts, in 2016 creating a piece for the Royal Ballet’s Draft Works program: Reimagining Giselle, featuring a cast of four Royal Ballet dancers.

Building on that London studio presentation, Beamish assembled a stellar lineup for his @giselle, produced by his own MOVETHECOMPANY, which he runs in both Vancouver (he hails from nearby Kelowna) and New York.

Headlining the cast of 14, which includes a corps of six young Wilis, was American Ballet Theatre soloist Catherine Hurlin as @giselle, National Ballet of Canada principal Harrison James as @albrecht and Pennsylvania Ballet principal Sterling Baca as @hilarion. The @ sign precedes all the act one character names, establishing the fact that, in Beamish’s version of the 1841 ballet, they are best known by their online presence. His production is set in a world where a media platform, the Village, dominates daily life, and so, in the ballet, there is almost as much texting and live streaming, projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage, as there is dancing.

Brianna Amore’s lively projections feature text messages and selfies as @giselle falls for @loys, who @hilarion discovers is actually @albrecht. A contemporary scenario of online deceit and betrayal plays out in solos danced alone in front of a camera, with narcissistic self-display, sensual suggestion and, eventually, aggression sent out by social media as @giselle and @loys connect online. The scrim also makes possible some spine-chilling solos in act two, when @hilarion and @albrecht engage with the Wilis, the two men joined by ghostly projections that envelop them like a deadly mist.

Beamish uses the familiar Adolphe Adam score, and he follows the familiar story of young love betrayed, although @giselle’s death from a weak heart has an actual scientific diagnosis, shared in an online text by @mamaberthe (Beverley Bagg, a resident teacher at Ballet BC) as being from SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndromes). There’s a flirtatious scene of love-me-love-me-not with a daisy and other reminders of the original libretto, along with references to the Romantic choreography in @giselle’s pretty skips and pointe work, and in the Wilis’ icy poses. Mostly, though, the choreography resists any obvious ballet flow with hips that abruptly jut out, and joints that lead and punctuate the movement: shoulders, elbows and knees make definite appearances throughout, creating a puppet-like, Petrouchkian echo I wasn’t sure how to interpret in this particular ballet.

Hurlin, James and Baca performed with commitment on opening night. Their technical precision and power was awesome, but the rich emotional details of the classic production’s solos and pas de deux were missing, partly because of the reliance on technology, at the cost of choreographic development, to tell the story.

The focus on technology did create media buzz, which might well have attracted an audience yet to fall in love with the art form of ballet, and with Giselle, that young woman whose story so many have told. Other recent versions created buzz with their own timely themes: Akram Khan’s 2016 production for English National Ballet imagined Giselle as a migrant factory worker and, in 2017, Dada Masilo — a South African woman — created a feminist version. In one form or another, Giselle lives on, and classical ballet, often condemned as creaky and irrelevant, continues to be an inspiration able to take on a multitude of interpretations.


Deborah “La Caramelita” Dawson in La Caramelita company’s Nritya
Photo: Tim Matheson