Saturday, February 28, 2009

'T ain't no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

Los Farruco – The Legendary Gypsy Family Returns

Lisner Auditorium - George Washington University

Washington DC

I am not a dancer. I have never been particularly graceful, and am not particularly coordinated. I’ve also always been somewhat self-conscious about my, um, assets. (Even though, according to evolutionary biologists, it means I’m smarter than those waifs.) I feel about dancers the same way I feel about musicians, writers, or other artists— while I have great respect for them, I simply don’t understand them. They are aliens to me. My brain just does not work like theirs. Thursday’s performance only reinforced that awe. Human bodies are not meant to move that fast, or to create such raw, powerful sound. Such are the gifts of the first family of flamenco, Los Farruco.

Los Farruco performed as part of the DC Flamenco Festival (which apparently happens every year at GW). The family patriarch, El Farruco (Antonio Montoya Flores), died in 1997, but his daughters and grandsons carry on the family tradition. The company currently consists of La Farruca (Rosario Montoya Manzano), her younger sister La Faraona (Pilar Montoya Manzano), and their sons Farruco (Antonio Montoya Flores) and Barullo (Juan Fernandez Montoya). Farruco, or Farru, the 20-year-old leader of the company, has been dancing professionally since the age of 2, and created his own dance company at 10. His cousin, Barullo, is only 18. Farru’s older brother, Farruquito, was not part of this evening’s performance. (My friend Rocio, a gifted dancer herself, quipped that trying to keep the family members’ names straight is like reading a Gabriel García Márquez novel.)

Flamenco, apparently, does not refer to the dance, but to the music. The dance, I’ve learned, is there to complement the singers and musicians, not the other way around. From my perspective, all aspects of the performance were equally important: the dancing, singing, guitar playing, and clapping, or, more accurately, the human percussion. The musicians included Antonio Rey & El Tuto on guitar, and singers Antonio Zuniga, Pedro el Granaino, El Rubio de Pruna, and Mara Rey.

The interplay of visuals and sound—from the muted lighting to the dance itself, from the skilled guitar playing, to the thunderous clash of shoe against stage—created an almost smokey, transportive atmosphere, at times moody or somber, joyous or incendiary. The nearly 3 hour program (with no intermission) consisted of 6 pieces of music and dance.

Alegrias (Happiness) began with an unlit stage, and the fabulous, velvet crooning of the singers, accompanied by what I thought were drums, but turned out to be clapping. (I kept trying to spy the castanets, but there weren’t any. They simply created the sound with their palms). I have to agree with Rocio— there’s intense passion in the style of singing and guitar playing. I only wish I could’ve understood the Spanish lyrics. Farruco, Farruca, and Barullo danced a pas de trois—the young men with long flowing hair and suits, La Farruca in a dress that accentuated her curves—showcasing their incredible talents, making it appear effortless.

Tango de las Ninas (Tango of the Girls) was a mano-a-mano between the lovely, husky-throated singer, Ms. Rey, and La Faraona. La Faraona, who would never be called voluptuous, is a round woman, (zoftig, my mother would say), with sturdy, thick arms, and no discernable waist. This is not a put down, she is quite a large woman. Her appearance, however, belies her grace and skill. Both women were wearing brightly colored shawls (Ms. Rey’s a salmon color, and, in a bit of foreshadowing, La Faraona’s a fiery red). Although at first you think you know what the outcome will be, La Faraona finally lifts her dress, revealing her muscular, powerful legs, and lets the younger woman have it, handily defeating her.

Barullo (which translates as ‘racket’ according to Rocio) lived up to his name, as evidenced by shouts of “salvaje,” or wild, during his solo piece. His cousin, Farruco, danced to “Solea” (solitude or loneliness) and calls of “vamos guapo” (come on handsome) accompanied his bullfighter stance, as his jacket rounded his shoulders and then came off. Both men displayed remarkable athleticism, acrobatics even, and appeared super-human in their twists, turns, and stomps. But it wasn’t just their skill on display, they were beautiful to watch. I sat dumbfounded that humans were capable of such movements.

The star of the show, in my eyes, was La Farruca. She moved confidently in her glove fitting blue and black lace dress. Even more than the young men, she displayed an unselfconscious eroticism, encircling the singers and musicians, splaying her wrists, and caressing her hips.

I know very little about flamenco, but it was hard to watch the performance and not wonder about the historical context. The large crowd of zealous music lovers gave a standing ovation and enthusiastic hoots and hollers (in Spanish and English) to the performers. But I doubt flamenco has always been so well received. Like the Irish step-dancing of Riverdance, or the tap dancing of Savion Glover, I suspect flamenco has its roots in hardship and oppression. Gypsies the world over have faced and continue to face prejudice and discrimination. So what does that mean for a family of Gypsy performers and how has that influenced the way the dance/music has evolved?

I could be way off base, but I was struck by several things along those lines. First of all, you don’t need any instruments for flamenco, save one’s body. The guitar itself is secondary, since the majority of the music is created by hands, feet, and voice. It sounds silly to call it ‘clapping’ since that hardly captures how deafening the sound is, but it seems to me that the clapping is the basis for everything in flamenco. It’s like the Irish bodhrán—it sets the beat, tempo, mood. It really is drumming, just using one’s own skin as the drum. It’s harder to improvise a piano or a violin, but one’s body as a drum is cheap, portable, and undetectable.

According to Rocio, another hallmark of flamenco dancing is not moving your core. While the hands, arms, and legs are all moving, one’s torso and even hips are relatively motionless. Salsa it is not. Like Irish dancing, there seems to be a great discipline to flamenco. In Irish dance, the dancers keep their upper bodies motionless, not only the torso, but especially the arms. This appears to have been historically adaptive, a way to hide participating in an illegal, indigenous tradition from the British invaders.

The appeal of flamenco also lies in its power and passion. Even if you’re a poor Gypsy peasant, there’s a certain amount of bravado involved. And, like most dance across cultures, it’s not only a vehicle for creativity, but it’s a celebration of the body and a celebration of sexuality. Los Farruco showcased all of these things and more, and reminded me how exceptional and creative humans are.

It also made me re-evaluate the way I see myself in space—at the end of the evening, even I was dancing down the middle of the busy DC streets.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Does Barack Obama listen to Radiohead?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

I recently declined an invitation to an anti-Valentine's Day party. Whether you're anti-V day because of mass consumerism or a bad break-up, doesn't celebrating it anyway kind of defeat the purpose of being against it? Anyway, life is too tenuous to waste energy on being bitter or angry.

So today, celebrate this former pagan holiday by being happy in your own skin.

(And then listen to this great song from the best Brit-pop band of the 90s.) xo

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ground Control to Major T(h)om

Like Robert Plant, I feel "bewildered" after watching last night’s Grammy’s. It was the first time I’ve watched the Grammy’s in years, and it definitely lived up to my memories, ranging from the ridiculous (Katy Perry and, um, fruit) to the sublime (Thom, Jonny, and lots of brass and drums).

Some of the evenings highlights:
U2’s completely uninspired opening: “You don’t know how beautiful you are…” But Bono sure knows how beautiful HE is. It sounded like a recycled “City of Blinding Lights." Then, in the first of many bizarro TV moments, Whitney Houston received a standing ovation for walking out on stage to present the first award. Did I miss something? Or were they standing because she finally left Bobby Brown? Or because she’s not in rehab? In that case, they should have stood for Kid Rock. Shit, they should have stood for Jennifer Hudson. Now SHE’S talented and resilient, and delivered an awesome performance.

The members of Blink-182 announced the band was getting back together. Who knew (or cared) that they were ever apart?
And what’s with me that I never before noticed what Nicole Kidman and half the women on this planet have known— Keith Urban es très adorable.
Morgan Freeman introduced his “good friend” Kenny Chesney (really?), and I found out that super cool Charlie Haden is Jack Black’s father-in-law (REALLY!)

The “Hip Hop Summit” was decidedly NOT earth shattering. I would’ve much preferred the VERY pregnant Ms. Arulpragasam to sing “Paper Planes” alone.

And is it just me, or has Sir Paul McCartney just gone downhill after that whole post-9/11 “Freedom” debacle? Instead of seeming like one of the key architects of one of the world’s greatest bands, he comes across as an arrogant prick with jail-bait dates.

After hearing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss I’m kind of sorry I didn’t hear them when they were in Baltimore last year. Hmm. Wonder if I could’ve requested “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” my favorite Zep song ever since I was a little kid (what the hell does that say about ME?!)

Ok, it’s just gotta be said. What is UP with Coldplay? I mean, do they have to wear those Sgt. Pepper uniforms all the time? I understand when they were first promoting the album and everything, but, really….! And I hate to be one of those Radiohead fans that has this thing against Coldplay. And I don’t, I really don’t. But I’ve always agreed with Jon Pareles’ assessment of them musically. The Case Against Coldplay - New York Times They are insufferable. But I feel bad about saying it. They seem like pleasant enough lads, and they sing pleasant enough songs. And poor lovely Gwyneth, giving that gushing introduction to Radiohead! Years ago she said in an interview something to the effect that if her husband gave her a free pass to bed any man it would be Radiohead drummer Phil Selway because she had so much respect for him… I mean, dudes, I understand that you look up to Radiohead, and you want them to like you back, but pimpin’ out your wife just isn’t cool….

But yes, it was a pleasure to see and hear Thom and Jonny— to watch Thom flail, to see Jonny smile (!!) --even though Thom looked quite unwell (he is, after all, still Thom). I much prefer the live percussion to the electronica of the record. Radiohead’s performance was definitely worth enduring some of the more interesting moments. And Cat Power singing Space Oddity to sell cars to boot.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

About A Girl

My niece, Keighlyn, turns 17 today. She is one of the coolest, most authentic human beings I know. I'm tired of reading sensationalist articles about how kids today are not prepared for the world, how their academic achievements are far lower than previous generations, how they are ill-equipped to do anything but play computer games. Clearly, those people who are intolerant of youth culture have never met young adults like her. Keighlyn has a more open and global perspective than many adults I know. She is the family's expert of Proposition 8. She's a voracious reader who loves the smell of libraries. She's a talented musician, dancer, actor. And despite her crazy busy schedule, she still has the time to be a teenager, captivated by a beloved band, or lost in a favorite book. I'm grateful that we've always been close, and she's always looked up to me, her "B," her dad's wife's sister. I'm looking forward to our continued friendship as we get older, and I'm excited to know the amazing adult she's becoming.
Happy Birthday, Keighlyn!