flamenco dancers grouped together holding fans witht he script word 'prophecies'

The Chicken or the Egg?—A Creative Process for Flamenco (“Prophecies” at the Long Center January 11, 12, 17, 18 & 19, 2014)

Olivia Chacón is the Artistic Director of A’lante Flamenco Dance Ensemble. The group is performing “Prophecies” in the Rollins Studio Theater January 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19, 2014. For tickets to the show, please visit our event page. For more information about A’lante Flamenco Dance, please visit their website.

As a flamenco dancer, music is at the core of everything I do. Whether I’m practicing alone, giving a class, or performing, my mind is full of the rhythms and melodies associated with each flamenco palo (song style). Since I actually get to take part in the music as a percussionist, and also get to call a lot of the shots during an improvised dance number, it’s important that I know the musical possibilities inside and out. Of course I have my favorite way to do things, which doesn’t always match up with the way my musicians like to do them. It can be frustrating during a performance when things don’t come out the way I envisioned. But that’s the beauty of a traditional tablao (small stage) flamenco show—everyone gets to improvise, try things out, without asking permission from anybody else. The moment—for better or worse—passes in an instant, and we’re on to something else. When I first started performing tablao flamenco, I would turn around and glare at the musician in question when something didn’t go as I thought it should. In my panic I would allow the unexpected to distract me and throw my dance into disarray. Over the years, I’ve learned to relax, listen, and enjoy the ride.

As much fun as I have with my musicians in the tablao, sometimes I need an opportunity to stretch my wings creatively. I like the concept of using flamenco music and dance to tell stories, pushing the boundaries of how flamenco can be appreciated. That’s why I created A’lante Flamenco Dance Ensemble. By bringing our art to a theatrical setting, I get to experiment choreographically with a great group of dancers, dance with carefully composed original music, and develop work that explores themes and stories. Hopefully, these pieces won’t be ephemeral—they’ll last for at least a season of performances, and perhaps for many years in our repertoire.

A’lante dancers practice a choreography for “Prophecies.”

But making original music for original choreography is a chicken-and-egg process. Which comes first, music or dance? As a choreographer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my music director, “I’m thinking we need X type of piece (a flamenco style like alegrias, solea, etc.) to produce such-and-such a mood. Why don’t you guys start on something and let me hear it before I choreograph?” Only to hear, “No, go ahead and start choreographing and then we’ll compose something to go with it.” On many occasions I start my choreography having in mind my own idea of the music—fortunately, flamenco’s traditional song styles offer a rich fund of material to draw from, and give me at least an outline of the music that A’lante’s excellent musicians might eventually produce.

Guitarist LuisMa Ramos and singer Isai Chacón work on LuisMa’s composition for “Prophecies.”

However, what I’m humming during rehearsals with my dancers often bears little resemblance to the music we end up dancing to on stage. That’s because A’lante’s music director, Isaí Chacón, usually has his own concept of how the number might develop. When he first tells me his ideas—sometimes directly conflicting with my own—I usually listen in stony silence. It takes time for me to change the movie playing in my head to accommodate a new soundtrack. At first, hearing musical ideas that conflicted with my own vision made me crazy—after all, I already started my choreography! Slowly, though, I’ve learned to open my mind to new possibilities. It is also fortunate that my music director is also my husband. We both wander around the house imagining possible solutions to musical problems until the answer hits—usually while cooking a late-night dinner. I’ve found that the back-and-forth of this process often leads me to my most creative choreographic ideas.

So with the new material in mind, I get into the studio to continue with my choreography, setting sections of the piece on my dancers as we go. The A’lante dancers have to make do with pure rhythm and my bad singing until we finally get together with the musicians. The first rehearsal with the guitarists, singer, and other band members is always exciting—and sometimes stressful. It is the job of the individuals in the band—particularly the guitarists—to fill in the gaps in our imaginations with their own creations. As they personalize the compositions, we dancers adjust to hearing our footwork in a whole new context. The emerging melodies of the singing and guitar give our dance an entirely different feel. For me it is a tense, but often beautiful and satisfying moment to hear the music that until then I heard only in my own head. The final product continues evolving over the rehearsal process, until music and dance are inextricably linked. Hopefully, at performance time the audience doesn’t perceive the long creative process that lies behind each piece—only the emotion that completes the story.

A’lante Flamenco musicians learn one of guitarist Jose Manuel Tejeda’s melodies for “Prophecies.”

A’lante Flamenco presents “Prophecies” in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater January 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19, 2014.

For more information see www.alanteflamenco.com.

For tickets to the show, visit our website.

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