Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Photo by Ester Babb

Soledad Barrio and husband Martin Santangelo’s Noche Flamenca company has been performing to sold-out shows at Theater 80 on St. Mark’s Place since June.

Demystifying flamenco for Nueva Yorkers

By Bonnie Rosenstock

Flamenco dancer Soledad Barrio, 40, and her small troupe of singers, guitarists and male dancers, have been performing to sold-out shows at the intimate Theater 80 on St. Mark’s Place since June. It is the eighth or ninth time her company, Noche Flamenca, has performed at this venue since she founded it with husband Martin Santangelo in 1993.

The two have very different personas on and off stage. Barrio, who hails from Madrid, has a commanding presence before audiences. Her arms flow like liquid silk, her facial contortions lay bare her soul and her rapid-fire footwork attacks with strength and resolve. Off stage she is laid back, quietly humorous and family-oriented.

Santangelo, the artistic director of the company, is outgoing and expressive. He is a born and bred New Yorker of Argentine descent, a former flamenco dancer and current stage actor in Spain. He and Barrio live in Madrid, not far from her mother and sisters. They have two daughters, ages 5 and 11, who are living with them temporarily on the Lower East Side until the show closes July 30.

Are you payo or calé? [Gypsy words for non gypsy or gypsy, respectively]

Barrio: Payo.

There’s a perception in some quarters that in order to dance flamenco, you should be gypsy. What are your thoughts?

Barrio: Flamenco is handed down from generation to generation in some families. For this reason, they say that it’s in the blood, but you can also arrive at flamenco through love because you choose it.

Santangelo: Paco de Lucía’s brother did a study on the origins of flamenco. It started with twenty-eight cultures, one of which was gypsy. Paco de Lucía and Sabicas [flamenco guitarists] aren’t gypsies. A lot of gypsies are Jews. A lot aren’t full-blooded. They originated in India. I get very extreme about it because I feel it’s racist. The whole mystique about duende [a mysterious inner feeling for flamenco that García Lorca wrote about and popularized] doesn’t exist in flamenco. Lorca and other flamencos [flamenco experts] made a big mistake.

So how would you define it?

Santangelo: It’s passion. It has to do with a whole other human sense of being oppressed, screaming. Their scream became a song, and the song became flamenco. That’s it. We have to know why they are dancing, singing or playing. It’s not about selling out a theater. It’s not about selling gypsies. It’s not about Spain. It’s about being honest about where any people were repressed. It could be about Jamaica and reggae. It has no mystique, no mystery.

What is the most difficult aspect of dancing flamenco?

Barrio: The most difficult is to integrate the movement with the song and the guitar. In flamenco, it’s all live music, so at any moment it can change. You have to adapt. You don’t learn this in class. You learn it onstage. When you dance with a partner, it’s more choreographed. When you dance alone, you can improvise everything.

How do you prepare to step onto the stage?

Barrio: First, physically. I warm up, do exercises. Then mentally. But in flamenco it’s not good to think about many things.

In your company dancers, singers and guitarists have equal solo time.

Santangelo: The dancers became more and more the protagonist, and they aren’t. The guitar exists to express the song, and the dance exists to express the guitar and the song. The guitar and the dancers should be egoless and just get out of the way and let the song take over.

Barrio: I prefer to learn from my compañeros than do something narcissistic and dress up. [Barrio dresses in simple black and other subdued colors.]

Theater 80 is a small venue. Why do you perform here?

Santangelo: First, I like this theater, but economics always defines everything. Either I can bring a lot of people who are average and pay half of what I’m paying everybody, or I can bring some of the best artists I can find in Spain and pay them a lot. Pure flamenco has to do with communication. Ninety-five percent of what we have seen in flamenco for the last forty years onstage is non-communicative flamenco. It doesn’t matter if the musicians are there or not. You don’t know who they are, what they look like. It’s all about the dancing. It’s important that the public leave feeling that they know the people on the stage.

How have you been received by New York audiences?

Barrio: I think they really appreciate pure flamenco when there’s only a dancer, singer and guitarist onstage without fusion or other instruments. I try to give them the best I can. I feel very welcome in this city. I don’t miss Spain when I’m onstage here.

When did you start studying flamenco?

Barrio: I started late, at age 18, but it’s not common. Normally you start very young. I take classes all the time in Madrid. You have to practice and work all the time. But I have two daughters, and I don’t want to work all the time and be out of my house every night.

Where are you staying in New York?

Santangelo: We are renting an apartment on Rivington and Ludlow. It’s terrible. Thirty-year-old rich kids come down and do coke with the Puerto Ricans. There are police there twenty-four hours doing drug busts. Don’t get me wrong. I love New York. I was raised on Grove Street. I love the Lower East Side. But this isn’t it. It’s so fashionista, so silly. And it’s very, very, very loud.

Do you have any plans to retire?

Barrio: I always think it’s the last time that I’m going to dance. It’s a drug, like tobacco [Barrio smokes]. I always think, no more, but then I continue. But it’s a great effort with two children.

Do they study flamenco?

Barrio: They don’t go to flamenco classes, but they have seen me dance. They are going to have it a little more in their blood [laughs].

Noche Flamenca, Theater 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues, until July 30. For tickets, call 212-352-3101, or theatermania.com

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