Karen Flamenco puts a passionate spin on Swan Lake

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In what may be its most ambitious hybrid yet, Karen Flamenco is taking the ultimate tutu ballet and reimagining it with ruffled skirts, castanets, and Spanish guitars.

After almost five years of drawing on story ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan for her company’s year-end creations, flamenco dance artist Karen Pitkethly feels ready to take on her biggest-ever challenge: Swan Lake.

Pitkethly says the story, associated with icy white ballerinas, at its heart actually fits the moods of fiery flamenco better than you’d think. “All the songs are about love, sadness, despair, and a lot of flamenco dance falls into that,” she explains, sitting in the lush, red-and-pink-accented lobby of her West 7th Avenue studio.

Still, she knew there would be big challenges, starting with somehow bringing flamenco rhythms to the famous classical score. “For me the hardest thing is the music, because it’s [Peter Ilich] Tchaikovsky and a lot of people go to ballet just for the music,” says Pitkethly, who trained in ballet before following her heart into the Spanish art form. “I really had to get the musicians on board.”

To weave together both threads of the piece—the classical strains and the flamenco—the company has brought in Vancouver’s Black Dog String Quartet to play live alongside performers like cantaor Mario Sota and guitarist Peter Mole. Sometimes, the string quartet plays straight-up classical versions of the ballet’s most famous numbers. But also on-hand is Andalucia-based guitarist Liron Man, who has composed several flamenco arrangements playing off the key Swan Lake themes. “So it’s recognizably Swan Lake but you can recognize those flamenco rhythms,” explains Pitkethly, who travels to Seville each summer to study her art form.

Expect to see tight rows of dancers in white swanlike dresses—except in this show, they’ll have big ruffles and long blue trains called bata de colas that flow together to form the lake. For Odette and Odille, the good and evil swan leads, Pitkethly uses flamenco’s fluttering shawls (mantones) to create “wings”.

There’s another slight departure from the ballet, as well: the prince, instead of being a dancer, will be a singer. When he finds out the lake is made from maidens’ tears, in fact, he’ll bring out a guitar to sing one of flamenco’s pain-soaked standards, “Lágrimas Negras”.

In tackling this cultural meld, Mai Furuhashi, who dances the role of Odette, the princess who has been transformed into a white swan, finds herself drawing a bit on her own ballet background for this role. She studied the classical art form from age three to 13, before trading the pink slippers in for shiny black nailed shoes. “Flamenco is more of a soul art, I find, whereas ballet is more based on technique,” she observes.

Either way, when the feet get stamping and the skirts get swirling, this Swan Lake promises a more passionate spin on the Russian classic’s prettiness. Admits Furuhashi, who has studied with the troupe for almost six years: “I feel like there’s big pressure for us, because a lot of people in the audience will have seen the ballet. I think what they’ll see is very different, but I think they’ll like what they see.”

Undaunted with this challenge, Pitkethly is onto an almost equally iconic work for her company later this year: after a wedding and her stint in Europe this summer, she’ll come back to prepare to mount a flamenco-stoked West Side Story. Stay tuned, amigos!

Karen Flamenco's Swan Lake is at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday and Sunday (May 31 and June 1).

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