Flamenco dance may have its origins and epicentre in Andalusia, but it’s become an international art. And while its rhythms, steps, and movements remain firmly rooted in traditions from Spain’s southernmost province, they’re inspiring some fascinating cross-cultural adventures.
Vancouver dancer and choreographer Karen Pitkethly has taken the basic outline of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and set it in the Mexico of a hundred years ago, incorporating flamenco dancers, singers, and musicians. “I took the core story from the play and transferred it to a narrator, Gerardo Avila,” says Pitkethly, whose stage name is Karen Flamenco, interviewed at her studio in Mount Pleasant. “He’s a storyteller and adds a comic element to the piece. There’s no dialogue, just dancers dancing. Because the majority of my students are women, the two families—the Martinez and Castillos—are gangs of feuding banditas.”
Karen Flamenco’s production of Romeo & Juliet, which plays at the Surrey Arts Centre this Friday (November 12), features Pitkethly as the heroine and lead dancer, with one of her students, Nikola Tucakov—better known as the leader of Vancouver soft-rock band Capade—performing the role of the doomed lover from the rival gang.
It’s not the first time Pitkethly has been involved in twinning Shakespeare plays and flamenco. She choreographed the dances for this summer’s Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. And the literary link continues. Pitkethly also provided the choreography for the recent production of Don Quixote at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage.
“Peter Anderson, who’s an actor and has been studying with me for three years, was one of the cocreators [of Don Quixote] and wanted flamenco in the production,” she says. “It had a flamenco feel all the way through. A lot of the songs are tragic or passionate, and they work really well with that story as well.”
But most of Pitkethly’s time these days is taken up by the students she teaches at the Karen Flamenco studio. “I’ve been teaching for 10 years now, four of them on my own, and having this place for the past couple of years has been amazing,” she says, as the tape of an unaccompanied flamenco singer plays softly somewhere in the background. “I more than doubled my number of students within a year, and it’s been growing ever since. I teach all levels of the dance, to all ages—my youngest student is five. It’s traditional flamenco, though I also have classes in Clásico Español, which is more like a ballet-style flamenco.”
But working as a choreographer and teacher doesn’t keep Pitkethly away from the public. When she’s in town, she performs at the flamenco evenings held on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at Kino Café on Cambie Street.
“It’s so great to be able to present all the work I do to people like that,” she says. “When I started, my intention was never to make flamenco my livelihood. I took it up as a hobby, and it became a passion. The opportunities to perform were amazing. It’s been overwhelming at times, but I love it.”
Romeo & Juliet plays at the Surrey Arts Centre next Friday (November 12).