BWW Reviews: AL SON SON Rouses at Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Ever seen the real Roma, the homegrown flamenco of Spain? It's the kind of harmonic and choreographic precision that leaves a theater breathless, with countless eyes in a daze trying to follow each step of a dancer, pluck of a guitarist and intonation of a singer.
Not only is the local virtuosic artistry, as it is well known in Spain, untouchable to so many aspirants unable to devote their entire lives to the niche discipline of flamenco as a form of music and dance, but there is also the essential foundation of belonging to a family, a people.
Roma people speak a unique language, Calo, and share a common history. Still today, Romani communities remain one of the least-respected minorities in the world. Too many are fated to disaffected youth, the economically marginalized and the socially stigmatized.
Yet, the Roma culture, like every unassimilated culture, is a source of inspiration for its people, and its young people especially, to rise up and contribute beauty and life to their community, as to the greater society.
The fact that the contemporary flamenco arts are well received by audiences around the world is a nod, not only to the impeccable continuity of artistic traditions livened by world-class performers, but also to recognizing the struggle of a people to survive.
At the core of this experience of Roma culture is the preservation of the family, where the roots of tradition run deepest. It is no wonder that audiences are stunned and moved when a flamenco concert ends with an open invitation.
The music is for all, and the invitation only affirms the respect Roma people deserve as part of the shared, equal citizenry all people should rightfully enjoy within their respective homes, whether in Spain, England, or India.
Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández are a truly thrilling duo. With the soothing cadence of Fernández, and the earth-shattering footwork of Olla, they fused to create a force of nature unparalleled within the communal round of what is a traditionally welcoming New York flamenco scene.
Together they have inspired audiences not simply to return to see the art in top form again and again, but to their continuing delight. They have moved the public to don themselves in full flamenco regalia, to dance and clap to the rhythms of olé!
Al Son Son brought together some twenty student dancers who studied intensively for three months prior to the show. They clacked their heels and snapped their fingers in unison, showing off floral dresses and suave suits with a lithe sincerity.
"The entire flamenco community turned out to give their support, so the feeling was really good," Judy Myers wrote in an email just after the show.
Myers is a writer of film and flamenco. Her special weakness for flamenco is due to her ventures as a dancer and singer. She also sings in a large ensemble called the New York Andalus Ensemble, a lush musical tapestry performing traditional Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish songs of Andalusia.
Flamenco was born in Andalusia, a region in southern Spain, around the time of the Inquisition, when Spain shed its thousand-year rule as a Muslim country, and Jews were forced to either flee or convert to Christianity. One wonders how the crypto-Jewish culture, whose members continued to be an integral part of the social fabric of medieval Spain, may have contributed to the emergence of flamenco.
"The flamenco community completely fell apart when Fazil's closed, so last night was like a breath of fresh air," wrote Myers, referring to the still sorely missed premier NYC flamenco community haunt that closed in 2008.
"Ismael, Bola, and Sonia are truly amazing. They really exemplify why family is so important in flamenco tradition," Myers added. "I broke out in goose bumps when Ismael and Bola sang together. It was astonishing that Sonia was able to get such musicality in her footwork, while dancing on marley rather than a wood floor. And what she was able to get out of her students was truly amazing."
It was clear to spectators how above and beyond Ismael and his son Bola carried their stage presence, just as they carry the tradition itself. Together with Sonia, the famed Fernández family spirit brilliantly demonstrated the inclusiveness and openness of the flamenco arts community, and how gaining interest from around the world only strengthens its source in the Roma people of Spain.
Ultimately, there's nothing in the performing arts quite like flamenco to cause hilarity. The comedic edge, especially delivered so tastefully by Ismael, really exhibited the resilient character of the Roma people, which in this way can be compared with Jewish humor.
Enduring histories of survival have hardened Roma and Jewish cultures alike. Although many pieces in Al Son Son dove into the depths of the heart, to emerge prideful and colored with the profundity of tradition in a tragic song, the air at Tribeca Performing Arts Center was light. As true for Jewish people, that the Roma have survived into the present despite historically unfavorable conditions in Europe is partly due to their ability to laugh at themselves despite it all.
Judy Myers also contributed research to this article
Photo: Angélica Escoto