An ambitious new production of Beauty and the Beast, a thriving children’s program, an expanded studio, and a new weekly venue to showcase flashing ruffles and clacking castanets: Karen Flamenco has a lot to celebrate on its 10th anniversary.
Reflecting, artistic director Karen Pitkethly says watching her young students develop in the past decade stands out. “To me, that’s the most rewarding thing,” she tells the Straight over the phone. “I have girls who have studied with me and now I trust them to teach and perform, and I bring in a choreographer once or twice a year to set a piece on them. They’re young and vibrant and they have really intense choreographies, and the girls can pick it up.”
She’s been able to develop the Karen Flamenco Dance Company out of those young talents. Its members are seen regularly at the company’s recently launched Teatro Intimo del Flamenco shows on Saturday afternoons at Granville Island’s Improv Centre. A mix of theatre-style seating and bistro tables gives it the feel of a traditional Spanish tablao setting for live flamenco dancing and music.
“It’s what we were missing,” Pitkethly explains of the shows hosted by local actor Gerardo Avila. “It gives us a venue to present the company in a way I’ve always wanted to: as a whole company, but in an intimate venue.”
It’s another big step for a company that started on a small scale with its Mount Pleasant studio 10 years ago. Demand for the kids’ classes at the facility has grown so much that this year marks the first time Karen Flamenco’s child students (about 90 of them, some as young as three) outnumber the adults training there.
Pitkethly thinks word of mouth has been a big part of it. “Definitely, flamenco is way more popular in Vancouver; any festival or outdoor event has it,” she adds. “Overall, I feel flamenco is getting younger, too. Just the agility and the way it’s been transforming, there’s a lot more athleticism involved. The last time I went to Spain, the studios are young—there’s a surge of youth happening in Spain as well. And of course, you can see them on YouTube, and it’s catching on.”
Over the years, Pitkethly, who once taught ballet, has also attracted young fans of the form with interpretations of popular shows such as Grease, West Side Story, and Pinocchio. In each case, Pitkethly gives the stories a flamenco twist, with live music, demystifying the historic Spanish-born art form for local families.
The upcoming production of Beauty and the Beast will continue the tradition—though it’s brought more than the usual challenges, Pitkethly admits. Belle, played by Aysha Majeed, can easily have extra ruffles on her iconic blue dress and white apron, but what about the hit cartoon and Broadway musical’s anthropomorphized teapots and candlesticks?
“I had it on the back burner because I wasn’t sure how we were going to portray these household items,” she says with a laugh. The solution was traditional flamenco costuming with accessories like a candlestick fascinator.
Interspersed are such surprises as a tap-dancing Beast, narration and magic acts by Avila, and Disney hits like “Be Our Guest” with a flamenco flair. It’s all done on an unprecedented scale—all thanks to the expansion of the company and school, not to mention flamenco itself, over the past decade. “Each year, because the school is growing, the show tends to grow,” Pitkethly says. And so, it follows, will the sounds of pummelling feet here on the West Coast.
Karen Flamenco presents Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and Sunday (June 15 and 16) at the Vancouver Playhouse.