Fiery Karen Flamenco goes wintry in Snow Queen
Karen Flamenco company member Noel Echavez admits he stumbled on the fiery dance form by accident. He was just four years old when he started studying martial arts in his native Quezon City in the Philippines. Having taken classes in everything from the stick-combat style known as escrima to sabre fencing, he was looking for a capoeira instructor seven years ago when his life took a U-turn.
“I walked into a flamenco studio thinking it was a capoeira class,” Echavez says in an interview along with fellow dancer Michelle Wood and company founder Karen Pitkethly at her sunny studio. “They told me the capoeira place had moved. I was with my sisters, so they did the flamenco class and I watched. I told myself, ‘That’s something I could do.’ I wanted the challenge.
“I went back and started learning about the intricacies involved,” he adds. “To be a flamenco dancer, you’re not necessarily a product of a school but heir to a full history of marginalized people. To be an heir is also to present their suffering, so to dance flamenco and embody that expression, you have to pull it from very deep.”
Echavez is starring in Karen Flamenco’s upcoming presentation of Snow Queen. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, it tells the story of a young boy, Echavez’s Kai, who has been abducted by a wicked queen (Pitkethly). Aided by the Spring Sorceress (Wood), Kai’s friend attempts to rescue him.
Pitkethly has fused flamenco with fairy tales before. Incorporating students from her school into its performances, her seven-member company has presented Andalusian-influenced versions of Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Romeo and Juliet, to name a few, all to rapturous response. But this is the first time Karen Flamenco will mount a winter show.
And if the explosive dance style typically associated with smoky cafés seems at odds with the sparkly snowflakes that come with holiday-season entertainment, Pitkethly says what makes it work is the underlying emotion at the heart of flamenco itself.
“A lot of ballet companies do an end-of-the-year show like The Nutcracker, and I always wanted to do a winter-themed show,” says Pitkethly, who also performs frequently at the Kino Café. “Audiences get carried along with the story line, but with flamenco, a lot of the songs are about feelings. There’s love and tragedy, and people can relate to that because there’s so much emotion.”
Music draws audiences in too. The family-friendly Snow Queen features live accompaniment by flamenco guitarists, singers, and a pianist. Then there’s the rhythm of the dancers themselves. Wood, who joined the company last year and dances when she’s not teaching high-school science in West Vancouver, says the percussive beat of flamenco’s footwork adds to the form’s appeal to performers and audiences alike. “I like the fact that I’m not just dancing; I’m making music as well,” she says.
Snow Queen is also the first show in which each of the members will have a solo. Pitkethly will perform new choreography, as well: after receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to further her studies, she recently travelled to Spain and learned a dance called taranto.
“A solo is the next step for the dancers; they’re ready for it,” she says. “Flamenco is something you’re always learning; it’s not something you pick up overnight. I wanted a challenge. We’re all doing something new in this show. We’re excited about it. It feels like the start of the holiday season.”
Karen Flamenco’s Snow Queen plays at the Granville Island Stage on Friday and Saturday (November 16 and 17).