Flemenco comes to Aspen
August 3, 2009
ASPEN – Flamenco – no one really knows how and where this art form started. From Islamic chants? From gypsies who originally came from India, scattered nomadically throughout Europe and eventually settled in Andalusia in southern Spain, the heartland of flamenco?
It’s not even clear where the word “flamenco” came from. The Arabic term “Felah-Mengus,” which means a wandering country person? Was it the name for a knife or the bird, flamingo? Didn’t it mean Flemish? Was it a word that Spaniards used to describe gypsies?
Surprisingly, my love for flamenco music was born in Aspen. In the ’50s, when I was a teenager and we lived on what is now the North Star Nature Preserve, I discovered a record called “Penas y Alegrias de Andalucia” by a guitar player from Sevilla named Luis Maravilla. I would play it over and over again in the evenings after working on our ranch.
Some 40 years later, I found Luis Maravilla by pure chance, and we became good friends in the last few years of his life.
Now we are lucky to live in Santa Fe, which, thanks to the legendary Maria Benitez, is a hotbed of superb flamenco. A native New Mexican, Benitez discovered a love of flamenco at a young age and traveled to Spain to study. In the early ’70s, she and her husband, Cecilio, from Barcelona, founded the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco. They performed in Santa Fe in the summers, originally at El Nido in Tesuque, and toured extensively throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Germany, Holland, Spain and Austria. In 2006, she received Spain’s highest award, La Cruz de Isabel La Catolica.
In my view, her real legacy, however, is as a teacher and leader. I began photographing her some eight years ago and, as a result, have watched her develop and train a generation of superb artists. Juan Siddi and Carola Zertuche both worked under her artistic direction. Their company appears in Aspen Monday at the Aspen District Theatre, as part of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Summer Series.
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Siddi was born in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was from Barcelona and left Spain for Germany during the Franco years. Their home became a meeting point for the many Spaniards who had migrated there, and music was an essential part of that life. Juan began dancing at a young age and, by the age of 12, was making money dancing at local festivals. Flamenco has always been very popular in Germany.
Siddi came to Santa Fe to dance for Benitez in 2002 and became her lead dancer in 2006.
“Flamenco is in my blood. To me, it is very mysterious, elegant, majestic. The music, the singing, the women and the men dancing,” Siddi said. “I always loved it.”
Last summer he took the huge step of forming his own company, which has already made tours throughout the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
In addition to his dancing, he is a superb teacher and stresses the importance of training, technique and rhythm. “But you also have to have the magic in your soul,” he said.
Zertuche was born in Torreon, Mexico, but before even graduating from high school, she knew that she wanted to be a dancer. She went to Mexico City, studied with Pilar Rioja and Manolo Vargas, and danced at clubs like El Meson de Triana. She then studied in Spain but also danced for Benitez in Santa Fe in 2003. She and Siddi then did a national tour with Benitez’s company that included the Joyce Theater in New York City and the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Now she is the director of the Teatro Flamenco de San Francisco. She, too, says, “Flamenco is something internal.”
This summer’s production is ambitious, exciting and superbly organized. In addition to Siddi and Zertuche, there are five other dancers, two guitar players and two singers. Most of them have worked together for years; the result is a performance that shouldn’t be missed.