by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Aidan Un
The high-ceiling, loft gallery space of Exuberance, the tony jazz salon in Northern Liberties, proved the perfect intimate setting for Elba Hevia y Vaca’s hour-long solo La Bolivanita in its premiere at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. On the back wall, opulent ferns catching the soft overhead lighting over a wide dance arena with an audience close enough to hear every word, Hevia y Vaca’s offered a sometimes whispery oral history of her career as a Flamenco dancer-choreographer. Collaborating with director Belen Maya, it is a dance memoir of Hevia y Vaca’s creative journey that she embarked on forty eight years ago in Bolivia.
Hevia y Vaca describes her emotionally difficult childhood in Bolivia, the social injustices in her country, the struggles with her family, and her first steps as a folkloric dancer that led to her training as a Flamenco dancer and as the founding artistic director of Pasion Y Arte, her all-female flamenco dance company in Philadelphia.
La Bolivianita is also her visual tutorial on the elements of Flamenco, its cultural legacies, the techniques, and always evolving artistry. Dressed in black tights and sheer garment with delicate floral hem, Elba sat in a straight back chair and started clapping her hands on her legs and body, and created vocal percussive sounds.
You don’t need to know anything about Flamenco to be entranced by the dancers and musician who perform it. But for a Flamenco dancer, it is steeped in dance and music history, and cultural relevance from Spain and South America.
The first lesson of flamenco is in its rhythmic patterns or compás. Hevia y Vaca instructs that this is the primal family of rhythms and classic counts that become the “driving force” of the dance. The dialogue between the dancers, musicians, and singers have centuries-old artistic legacies. The force that is the spontaneous alchemy or ‘duende’ spirit conjured between the musicians and dancers.
“The other thing we have,” Hevia y Vaca assures “is emotion….we embrace all emotion.” Love, anger, joy, passion, grief, fear and sadness are all emotions that are expressed in La Bolivianita.
At one point, Hevia y Vaca shed her beautiful chemise and Flamenco heels for a maroon bowler and ornate Bolivian kid vest, as she dances silently in bare feet, channeling her inner self as a child learning to move in community gatherings in Bolivia.
She then demonstrates some basic step patterns on three tap boards, slowing down the steps, while discussing the meaning behind the arms-braceo and finger choreography and that smoldering Flamenca gaze. Even though she admits that some of the footwork is more difficult, pitching out of it with a laugh, the technical artistry and sculptural expression are exquisite.
Then, Hevia y Vaca speaks of her “tough relationship” with the bata de cola, the traditional flamenco gowns with the heavy ruffled trains that are rooted with symbolism. The dress sits on the floor in front of Elba, who wryly states “well, we’ve had an interesting relationship, she feels what you feel. If you are nervous, she will act out.” She picks it up and caresses its layers of fabric to her face, then flings it to the ground and walks away. The dress is on the floor as she crawls under it as if she was borne through it. The way she arranges it, looks warily at the train, and circles around it is almost as though she is chasing her own tail to keep it out of her way.
There is an acknowledgment that Flamenco was a liberating, safe space, even if life in dance, choreographing and creating a company is a never-ending work. “Feminism was always part of flamenco, especially in patriarchal cultures. “We were dance warriors on stage,” Hevia y Vaca recalls, “but subservient to men at home.” And for many reasons, she explains “I came to America to start an all-female company.”
Hevia y Vaca’s oral history recalls some painful memories of her childhood. She contemplates what Flamenco meant for her then and what it means to her now. She questions her privilege growing up in wealth in Bolivia and expresses her joy that the country has seen social reform in her lifetime, but worries that inevitably “power corrupts” and that currently, her native country is experiencing a return to social injustices.
Some remembrances were so personal they seemed difficult for the soloist to give voice to while dancing. As this piece develops, some of the text will inevitably be tightened or expanded.
Perhaps the most stunning passage occurs when Hevia y Vaca is covering herself in a gorgeous red silk shawl with long laced fringe, the mantón, a garment of protection for women in her culture in its utility for “warmth, swaddling an infant, carrying food,” she explains. But, for the Flamenco dancer, she reminds us, “it’s another thing to make us work harder,” and of course to create art, as she circles dramatically, swirls it around her body and flares it over her head in all of its liberating majesty.
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