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The Queen of Flamenco, the Soul of the Grassroots: Manuela Carrasco and Company Embrace Both Tradition and High Art in Rare Bay Area Performance

Like a flock of doves above her head, the delicate hands of Manuela Carrasco are enough to make audiences catch their breath and fall silent. Yet this international star, known in her native Spain as the Queen of Gypsy Flamenco Dance, remains strikingly down to earth, honoring the grassroots that sparked her art and maintaining traditions rarely seen on American stages.

Direct from Seville, Carrasco and her 10-member company headline the 2010 Bay Area Festival of Flamenco Arts & Traditions on June 15 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Theater with Suspiro Flamenco. Known for her great strength, unprecedented energy, and mesmerizing stage presence, the highly acclaimed dance icon has not appeared in the Bay Area for decades, making this Festival performance a rare and important treat for lovers of dance and flamenco.

Carrasco is a lively link in a chain of tradition going as far back as India to the subcontinental roots of the Roma people. She embodies this history and represents the enduring strength of a people who have survived by confronting disenfranchisement and discrimination with grace and beauty, poetry and dignity. True to Gypsy tradition, which places singing and dancing at the heart of family gatherings, Carrasco will appear on June 15 with her husband Joaquin Amador and daughter Samara at her side.

Guitarist Amador is a scion of the Amador clan of Seville, as well as a frequent accompanist to his sister La Susi, famous in her own right. Both husband and daughter form part of Suspiro Flamenco, Manuela’s latest project. Samara began dancing as soon as she could stand, and now—taking after Manuela—refuses choreography and moves with a profound and compelling inner sense. Her forte, however, is her singing, the depths of which belie her youth.

Enrique el Extremeño joins Suspiro Flamenco as the most sought-after singer for dance in Spain. His role, at the Festival, at home, and across the world, is to raise his voice as a sinewy command and rouse the idle to move their feet and bodies. El Extremeño is a versatile singer, both within the Gypsy tradition and under the influence of the countless countries where he has traveled to accompany some of the greatest names in flamenco, from Mario Maya to Eva la Yerbabuena to Farruquito.

The company is also joined by Rafael de Carmen, a sophisticated dancer and follower of the school of Gypsy dance made famous by Farruquito, star of the clan Los Farruco. The Farruco style stands apart from other forms of Gypsy dance. Where many dancers incorporate ballet and modern dance for a global audience, Rafael de Carmen accents the swells of the music with explosive and grand improvisatory steps, expressing a sense of pride in his flamenco roots.

El Torombo, who shares the spotlight, is a dancer of a different breed, with a philosophical sensibility. “Flamenco is a way of life, an expression of an identity for him,” Festival artistic director and flamenco expert Nina Menendez explains, “but he’s also a man of the 21st century.” El Torombo is a wild presence, a whirlwind of ecstatic energy undergoing an experience as much as providing one for others. Yet his attitude to flamenco has been called “Zen-like,” and he imparts his wisdom to students like a Buddhist master training novices.

This groundedness is at the center of the flamenco soul and at the nucleus of the Festival. Performances at the Bay Area Festival of Flamenco Arts & Traditions are significantly different from the highly choreographed stage shows which define flamenco for most concert-goers. Instead, the Festival celebrates a more improvisatory community-based flamenco which combines the refinement and artistic achievement of world-class masters with a deep respect for a creative heritage passed down through the generations.

Through the Festival and the Bay Area Flamenco Partnership that presents it, flamenco legends, the masters of song, guitar, and dance, rub shoulders with the lively Bay Area flamenco scene. For the visitors from Andalucía, getting to know their audience is as much a part of the journey as the performance itself. After the shows they often gather with local artists and aficionados to sample California’s local wines and savor the energy conjured up during the performances in impromptu all-night flamenco jam sessions.

“We’ve had many last-minute runs to the airport at the break of dawn,” Menendez smiles. “No one wants the moment to end.”

Festival info and tickets available at Other Festival events include a performance by renowned Gypsy flamenco singer, Manuel Agujetas on June 19th (8 PM; Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley).

The Bay Area Festival of Flamenco Arts & Traditions is funded in part by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

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