Flamenco dance faces a tricky gender issue these days: there are too few male dancers compared with the large number of women involved.
It’s problematic for companies, affecting their choice of repertoire and tending to skew the overall look and feel of the genre. For her new production, La Tarara, B.C. dancer and choreographer Kasandra “La China” Lea has dealt with this imbalance by bringing two of Spain’s hottest male hoofers, Ivan Vargas and Emilio Ochando, to perform with her.
“In Vancouver we’re about 500 to 600 women dancing, and you can count on your hands the number of men,” says the founder of Kasandra Flamenco, reached at her home. “In Spain the ratio isn’t much better. But at this point in my life I want to be exploring duets with male dancers from there, performing different types of flamenco.”
Vargas and Ochando have backgrounds that are polar opposites, and as a consequence they dance in contrasting styles.
Ochando is a bailarín—a dancer trained in ballet and classical dance. “Emilio was formerly with the national ballet. He’s won six awards in Spanish dance, classico, and escuela bolera—the one with castanets and soft shoes—as well as flamenco. He’s from Madrid and represents how flamenco looks today—highly technical, and involving a lot of training. Emilio choreographed the title piece of La Tarara, a duet we perform that’s named after the song in [poet and playwright] Federico García Lorca’s Café de Chinitas series and made famous later by Camarón de la Isla. Emilio is very skilled at working with the bata de cola—the long skirt-train I’ll be wearing.”
Vargas is a bailaor—a dancer of flamenco puro, the traditional style of Andalusia. He was born in one of the legendary caves of Sacromonte in Granada to a Gitano Roma family steeped in flamenco and learned his art by a kind of osmosis. “Ivan’s uncles Mario Maya and Manolete are two of the most famous dancers who ever lived. He probably experienced flamenco in the womb, and grew up with it all around,” Lea says.
According to Lea, it’s easy to see the difference between the two styles. “Emilio, for instance, would do seven or nine pirouettes in a row, whereas Ivan does one or two. This is a production that could never happen in Spain because dancers of these forms of flamenco don’t meet there. Emilio and Ivan have two duets. The show opens with a footwork duel between them; later on, they display their expertise in the use of props in another face-off—Emilio performing with castanets, and Ivan dancing with the rarely seen bastón or flamenco cane, a percussive instrument that’s tapped on the floor like a third foot.”
The pair are not the only Spaniards in La Tarara. The music is written, directed, and performed by one of the best-known flamenco composers, guitarist Gaspar Rodriguez from Málaga. “And we have an amazing cajón player, Davide Sampaolo, who’s moved here from Rome, and is the best in Canada,” says Lea. “We do a footwork and cajón face-off that shows his virtuosity. Our cellist, La Sirena, is someone I’ve worked with for 15 years. And the singer is Vicente Griego from a Roma family near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also dabbles in rumba, Latin, and rock, so we have an amazing finale together where he’s worked out a very old Cuban song but added rock elements. It shows our versatility in the music.
“We have a really interesting mix of people who perhaps wouldn’t have met in Spain,” she adds. “What also makes this show great is that all the guests are male, which adds a different flavour, and we’re having a lot of fun with that, to tell you the truth.”
Kasandra Flamenco presents La Tarara on Thursday and Friday (May 4 and 5) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre.