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Vengo: Rosario Toledo’s Return

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by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
Photo Credit: Mike Hurwitz

It’s not your usual set up: the back room at Philadelphia’s WHYY building, generally used for panel discussions and screenings of Downton Abby, is strew with sand and fishing nets.  A small black stage occupies the center of room and is flanked by rows of chairs on all four sides.  Barely visible amongst the debris are a pair of teal flamenco shoes, dotted with red pom poms that cling to the shoes like barnacles cling to a shipwreck.  This is Rosario Toledo’s Vengo, a fitting finale to the first full week of the 2014 Philadelphia Flamenco Festival.

This is not Toledo’s first time in Philadelphia.  The darling of flamenco’s modern vanguard gave a brilliant solo performance during the Festival’s inaugural season in 2012 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, during which she changed from black pointe shoes and fishnets into traditional flamenco heels and a form fitting, Matadorian-esque pantsuit.

This time she appears in a simple sundress and high top sneakers.  A train whistle pierces the air as Toledo bolts around the outer ring of the audience, running to catch the train to her hometown of Cádiz, a seaport town in southwestern Spain where Vengo first premiered.

Reflecting on the work, which is more performance art than pure flamenco, Toledo notes, “Returning is always painful, it means rescuing and accepting where we come from.  It is the return to the place that created me, transformed me and unmade me, that will remake me again.”

She doesn’t just proffer her train ticket; she dances it to the conductor.  In her hoop earrings and shiny sneakers, she looks like a delinquent teenager stealing away to the beach for the day; the familiar port de bras and zapateado of flamenco become an act of defiance in which she decides finally to surrender her ticket only because she wants to.

There are no ruffles, no frills, no fancy combs or shawls, just a white patent leather satchel and the teal shoe, which she holds up to her ear to mime talking on her phone.  As we arrive in Cádiz, she pulls her dress over her head to reveal a sea green bathing suit.  Her unnamed accomplice transforms from train conductor to snack vendor and Toledo trawls the beach like an amateur archaeologist looking for treasure.

What does she find?  A net, which she wraps around her waist like a flamenco skirt to a score of cackling seagulls.

Still barefeet, she steps onto the small stage and walks as if balancing on a tightrope.  Swinging her legs from side to side, she is flamenco but not; she holds invisible castanets and lip syncs, cracking jokes with silent punch lines comprehensible only through her zany smile.

The high point of her performance comes with an unexpected change in music: suddenly, it’s jazz but Toledo doesn’t miss a beat.  Finally donning the green flamenco shoes, she presses herself into the new time signature, stomping and pulling her curly hair in time with the music until her sidekick, now a beach bum, pours a watering can over her head.

Vengo represented the culmination of Toledo’s month-long residency in Philadelphia, in which she collaborated with local artists Eun Jong Choi, Meg Foley and Germaine Ingram in addition to festival sponsor Pasión y Arte; the Philadelphia Flamenco Festival continues through March 16 with performances, film screenings and master classes.

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