Rosario Toledo and the First Philadelphia Flamenco Festival

by Kat Richter, MA for The Dance Journal
photo credit: Mike Hurwitz

Flamenco, like many percussive dance forms, originated as a solo art.  As such, it takes a truly gifted individual to re-imagine that art for an entire company of dancers—even more so if she’s to infuse the traditional aesthetic with an almost burlesque sense of humor—but Rosario Toledo is one such individual.

In the final weekend of the two-week First Flamenco Festival, spearheaded by Pasión y Arte under the direction of Elba Hevia Y Vaca, Toledo and her company joined the dancers of Pasion y Arte at the Christ Church Community Center for a sold out show featuring five local company dancers and five musicians.  The program included the debut of “Cómplices” (Allies), the company’s first outside commission, and the US primiere of Toledo’s “Del primer paso” (The First Step).

In the opening sequence of “Cómplices” five female dancers dressed in long black gowns walk silently towards the center of their stage, their backs turned to one another.  As the tension builds, a single, snap breaks the silence.  First is the traditional port de bras, except there’s hardly anything traditional about it.  The dancers freeze again and again, in perfect unison with the keyboard, giving the effect that you’re watching flamenco through a strobe a light.  They circle their hips, then shake them side to side and finally vibrate back and forth—a far cry from the traditional tablao but infinitely intriguing.

Soloist Leslie Roybal’s feet seem to ricochet off the floor and her heels drop so quickly that her movement is almost imperceptible.  Percussionist Francois Zayas, who collaborated on the score, pumps his bent elbow like a deranged bagpiper, but he’s not playing the bagpipes; he’s playing the maracas.  Rocío Sánchez’s energy is as explosive as her feet and by the time the rest of the dancer’s return to the stage for the final buleria, their pale arms spin so quickly that they leave a trail of light, light sparklers in the night sky.

Not until the second act, however, do we see what Toledo is really made of.  In a bizarre homage to the bolera dance school and to the intimate relationship between traditional Spanish dance and 19th century ballet, she appears in a black lace leotard with black fishnets and black pointe shoes.  Donning a long black “tutu,” she picks her way through a simple petit allegro, her arms purposefully cast in the universal position of imitating ballet, rather than actually doing ballet.  At last, however, the castanets appear.  She grimaces, biting their cords with her teeth, and launches into the first step of the traditional Sevillanas, before eventually trading her pointe shoes for a proper pair of heels.

Considering Pasión y Artes dedication to the Neo-flamenco aesthetic, it comes as little surprise that Toledo later appears in a form fitting pantsuit, reminiscent in some ways of a matador’s costume but simultaneously feminine.  She changes costumes several times, dancing a seguiriya, solea and alegrías, her back arched beyond what seems humanly possible and with facial expressions worthy of silent film.

Although the second act seemed just a hair too long (and this despite the phenomenal singing of José Tarriño) one hopes that the First Philadelphia Flamenco Festival is just the start with many more years to come.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia's premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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