By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
An ambitious smorgasbord of Latin music and dance presented by Latin Fiesta in collaboration with Concilio, 1492: Music and Dance from Spain to the Americas, gave voice to an often overlooked sector of the arts community at the Suzanne Roberts Theater during the final week of this year’s PIFA. Tracing the history of Latin music from its Moorish origins in Andalucía to its arrival in the New World, the concert took PIFA’s time travel theme and ran with it. Dancers from Ballet Folklorico Acapulco and Eastern College joined the twelve-person ensemble, making for an educational and highly entertaining evening, but the lack of historical context left the majority of the audience with more questions than answers.
The concert begins in medieval Spain with guest artist Kinan Idnawi. Most people forget that the country underwent centuries of Islamic rule but the architecture of southern Spain—and its musical traditions, as demonstrated by Idnawi on the traditional pear-shaped oud— give voice to this legacy. Watching Idnawi, with his eyes closed in concentration and his dark hair falling over his face, it becomes easy to imagine how the musicians of medieval Spain would inspire composers for centuries to come.
A collection of Sephardic songs follows, leading up to a section of the program entitled “The Gypsy Influence.” Dancer Liliana Ruiz performs an energetic flamenco dance, Por Alegrias, to live accompaniment provided by vocalist La Conja and guitarist Andreas Arnold. In a flared polka dot dress and heels, Ruiz gathers the audience, first with her fingers, then her arms, elbows and shoulders. She plays in between the musical phrasing, arms swiping through the traditional llamada or call then passing into a quick exchange of balls and heels, first slowly, then double time. Her feet vibrate off of the floor and it’s easy to see why she is such a favorite with the ensemble.
Leaving the gypsy encampment, we’re off to the New World. It’s here that the time travel theme starts to lose its footing. Ruiz and partner Antonio Romero perform a Mayan dance in bright gold costumes but the anthropologist in me can’t help but wonder how Mayan this dance really is. Was it, as we’re perhaps meant to believe, passed down from the ancients, or was it reconstructed based on historical research? Although the concert covers immense ground, both musically and geographically, the program and the accompanying slide projections offer little in the way of an explanation and Romero looks just as confused in his execution of the shuffling steps as I feel watching him.
The arrival of Ballet Folklorico Acapulco helps to put this journey back on course. The women’s white lace blouses and full skirts provide the perfect contrast to their bright floral headdresses as they sashay across the stage. Although several of the dancers are too shy to make their onstage flirtations believable, a charming duet from Jalisco rouses the audience. A man and woman dressed in traditional costume circle around a long sash, unwound from the man’s waist and laid upon the stage. He taps his heeled boots as she swirls her rainbow colored skirt, pausing every so often to manipulate the sash with their feet. We start to wonder what are they doing? Is it tangled? Is there something caught on their shoe? By the time the music ends, however, they have tied the sash into a large bow.
The second act begins in the concert halls of Madrid with performances by del Pico Taylor on piano and Raymond Taylor on violin. Ruiz performs an Intermedio with castanets and lace-up heels dressed in rhinestone fishnets and a brocade corset. I can’t help but wonder where does this dance come from? Not that it has to come from anywhere—she’s a beautiful dancer and the audience loves her—but is it a nod to the Escuela Bolera, Spain’s more balletic dance form, or a baroque/burlesque mash up?
At last we arrive in Cuba and the full Latin Fiesta ensemble takes over. Ruiz returns to the stage with Romero; this time they dance salsa, dressed in fiery red costumes that reflect their fast paced footwork and wow-factor lifts. Anne Margaret O’Malley leads a group of students in a conga line around the theater and some of the gutsier audience members join in as the concert draws to a close. It’s been a long but enjoyable journey, and a thorough reminder of what the music and dance worlds owe to Spain and Latin America.
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.