Flamenco meets fairy tale in Peter Pan
Looking at the costume racks sitting in Karen Flamenco’s atmospheric West 7th Avenue studio, it’s obvious that there’s a kind of fusion here you won’t find anywhere else in the city. The outfits for the troupe’s upcoming Peter Pan explode with extra frills off the hangers. Standing nearby, Noel Echavez is dressed as the lead character and looks pretty much straight out of the J.M. Barrie storybook in his green top with its zig-zag edges. But it’s his traditional black flamenco footwear, which will pummel the stage, that are the give-away. Still, it’s not until artistic director and choreographer Karen Pitkethly starts pulling out garments for the female dancers that you can fully start to see the true mashup of flamenco ruffles and fairy tales. Captain Hook’s pirates are fiery women in swishy skirts, Tinkerbell has a few extra tiers on her glow-green dress (it’s the only short one in the show), and Pitkethly has designed a 15-member mermaid number around the Spanish art form’s trailing bata de cola skirts.
“That’s going to be a highlight for sure. It’s quite an ethereal, mystical section; there’s a smoke machine to give the illusion of water,” Pitkethly says. “And just to see 15 bata de colas walking across the stage at the same time is going to be something.
“They’re playing castanets, and I’ve brought shawls into it, too. They’ve been working really hard on it,” she adds, explaining that the long, ocean-blue skirts can easily trip a dancer up. Apparently it’s “like having another leg to work with”.
That’s Karen Flamenco: a company unafraid to mix storylines with the classic Andalusian-born music and dance form. In the past few years, the school and company has mounted everything from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge.
“Mainly it’s because of my ballet background; at the end of the year we always did a production of Snow White or Cinderella or something to show everything we’d learned,” Pitkethly says, sitting in the mirrored dance studio where the raven-haired performer teaches dozens of classes to Vancouverites of all ages every week. “There’s nothing wrong with traditional flamenco. It’s just a different way to entertain the audience. I think one of the things that really lends itself to storytelling with flamenco is that all of the dances are about feeling. So there’s happiness, there’s sorrow, there’s some sort of tragedy—and you can look inside any story and find those within that.
“It’s challenging to piece it all together into a show, but it’s working so far.”
As for the flamenco passions she’s pulling from for Peter Pan, Pitkethly says there’s the spark of love between Peter and Wendy, the jealousy of Tinkerbell, and the stamping rage of Captain Hook.
Karen Flamenco’s year-ending shows are getting bigger and bigger. Aside from the 90-plus dancers in Peter Pan (with the eight leads played by company members, and the rest Karen Flamenco students), there’ll be the world-music group Tambura Rasa, two flamenco guitarists, three singers, and other musicians. Actors Peter Anderson and Gerardo Avila make appearances, and an elaborate set will conjure London and Never Never Land, helped by projections.
Yes, with this production, Pitkethly is taking flamenco far, far away from the sun-baked, white-plastered tablaos of Spain’s south. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a full appreciation for that other, rawer style. You can catch her on any given week bringing the house down, old-school, at the Kino Café on Cambie Street. And so the artist has managed to have it both ways: she can go it solo in café performances and then push way outside of the box in big theatre shows with her company and school (which she’s run since 2009).
“This is just a way for me to be more expressive—and I think that’s what you expect in a theatre,” she says of works like Peter Pan. “I do feel that tablao-style productions do work better in a smaller setting.”
Through shows like Peter Pan, and through her school, Pitkethly is determined to bring a bigger audience, and more practitioners, to flamenco. She’s especially keen on appealing to children. Her classes are starting to see more boys, especially, and she’s proud that Peter Pan will give a strong showcase to both them and her stars Echavez and Nikola Tucakov (who plays Peter’s shadow). “Actually, if you go to Spain, the male dancers are much more prominent than women,” she says and then adds with a laugh: “It’s always hard to get guys into the dance studio….But it’s a manly dance!”
Pitkethly, who heads to Seville on a Canada Council for the Arts grant this September to further hone her skills, still runs into people who aren’t familiar with flamenco—and even more who had no idea they could learn it here. By taking a cue from ballet and using flamenco to tell stories on stage, she’s spreading the word.
“I think a lot of people do think it’s a ballet,” she says of those who have been calling her office enquiring about Peter Pan after seeing posters or ads for it. “But when they hear it’s flamenco, they’re intrigued. We’re definitely melding a lot together here.”
Peter Pan is at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (June 16).