Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pilar Rioja

By Mary Sheeran

I’d never had much enthusiasm for flamenco. My knowledge was limited mostly to television westerns and vague memories of Walt Disney’s "Zorro", a collection of 30-second appearances that probably amounted to an hour out of my whole life. Then one day a few years ago, I was feeling pretty low and a postcard dropped out of my mail box about a performance of Spanish dance near where I live. Well, I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the artist I saw, who, simply by moving a toe could create a whole world. The performance was a thrilling theatrical blend of Spanish dancing, ballet, and modern dance with a bow to Martha Graham. I was overwhelmed. And I went back three times that season, bringing people with me each time, and they were overwhelmed.

Pilar Rioja is a life force. She has worked to keep the traditions of Spanish dance alive by both teaching and performing, and she has a loyal and enthusiastic audience in New York at the Repertorio Espanol, where she makes regular appearances each year. Her programs consist of about five or six dances interspersed with performances by the musicians who accompany her, and they take you on a tour of flamenco’s history that proves quite absorbing (it was nothing like "Zorro!"). PIlar Rioja possesses a magnificent control of her art and her body, and she seems to be able to do anything with the subtlest gesture or movement. Her magnificent face lights up with joy or freezes us with forbidding glances. In a space of a few minutes, I thought she looked like a vibrant young girl and an old, sad woman. To see her art is thrilling, and I can guarantee that you’ll be knocked out of the blues.

Last week, once again, I took several friends to see Pilar Rioja, who had never seen her before. What we saw first at the Repertorio Espanol was joy in performance, joy in being sexy, joy in dancing, and an appreciation of the human body as instrument to evoke human emotion. Now, that may not seem so wonderful; artists do that all the time, right? You may think you see that on Broadway. Not like this. Rioja sweeps you along in a way that grabs your soul out of your seat and never by telling you what to think. She brings you into her art, and her palpable respect of both her art and you is what provides the thrill that goes down your spine.

We saw five dances in our program. In the first, “Sevillanas Moriscas,” she stretched out her arms to hold a wide shawl, which she moved seductively, joyfully, and with great power. Sound like nothing? Uh uh. It was something. In “Gaujira,” a gorgeous white gown outlined her strong and beautiful body and enhanced her dramatic stance; she held two large fans, which she moved, her arms moving seductively, her stillness starkly punctuated by strong rhythmic footwork.

In the “Grave assai and Fandango,” she appeared in a ballet length gown of royal purple and glittering silver that brought gasps from the audience. This dance was indeed influenced by ballet, with graceful but light movement and rhythm that built throughout the dance, as did the footwork. In this one instance, the music was not provided by the musicians who always sit upstage but by a tape of music featuring harpsichord and guitar. It was an ideal dance to show the precise art of the castanets, which, as was explained, is more difficult than just clicking back and forth with your fingers. Those castanets are having a conversation with the music. So the fingers are doing different things on each hand, and the feet are doing something else. You try it.

The “Tener La Esperanza Muerta,” a deep song based on a story by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, was my favorite. The story concerned a young engaged girl who is abandoned by her fiancé, and, being in her late twenties, she knows she is doomed to spinsterhood for the rest of her life. At first, Rioja plays the young girl, happily dancing with her wedding veil, but in a flip of that veil, she transforms to a despondent, hard woman.

The last dance program was the jubilant “Tangos Andaluces,” incorporating African/Cuban rhythms and the cajon, the Peruvian box drum. Here was what we generally think of as “flamenco”, and Rioja’s footwork was strong and captivating, and her smile lit her face and ours. The performers were happy, the audience was happy. We left dancing.

Rioja was accompanied by a group of gentlemen who seem remarkably attuned to her dancing: flamenco guitarists Jose Luis Negrete and Arturo Martinez; flamenco singer and cajon (Peruvian drum) performed by Alfonso Cid, and flamenco singer David Castellano. They are partners par excellence, alert to Rioja’s every move, urging her on, and mesmerizing during the music they played while Rioja was changing costumes.

Rioja’s stunning and elegant costumes, by the way, were designed by Guillermo Barclay and executed by Susanna Ortiz and Graciela Castilo. Robert Weber Federico, who delivers his wry, witty, and informative commentary with understated modesty does the same with the lighting design that enhances the mood and celebrates the artist. His commentaries impress on the audience the understanding that Spanish dance has an international legacy. We’re all in there somewhere.

One other layer to the performances of Pilar Rioja: She was born in 1932 in Torreon, Coahulla, where she began dancing on stage and in taverns, and she became a celebrated performer in Mexico City. She continued studying dance in Mexico and in Spain and has for decades been considered one of he world’s pre-eminent Spanish dancers. But you do the math.

In 2005, Rioja began the first of many farewell tours, but that “farewell” language is missing from her publicity now. In this performance, I realized that her use of footwork has diminished -- she seemed to be saving up for the finale; she held back in the show’s beginning but was able to use the rest of her mighty arsenal – hands, stance, and her walk. Gradually, the footwork grew more powerful until the flamboyant last number.

One almost hates to say that her performances now have taken on the added layer of teaching us about aging, about taking on its limitations and using what one has learned to transcend the technique acquired in youth. It is also about art and how it can transform both performer and audience: in the Lorca piece, for example, we can see the young bride, we can feel her joyous dance, and we feel the more powerfully her despair (even though we have left the word “spinster” behind us).

Watching Rioja, you can come to a deeper understanding that art, however it may take us out of ourselves, is nonetheless human and beset by limitations and pain, even if it transcends to beauty and poetry – you suddenly realize that your own possibilities are much greater than you’d perhaps believed. But this is just one layer of watching what is an artistic performance without even considering the artist’s age. Combined with the integration of dance styles and an awareness of the evolution of Spanish dance, the gypsy wailing of the singers, the precise, specific, and powerful movements of hands, torso, and foot, Rioja is a force of nature, and that means that she is a spiritual force, or more accurately, shows us that the art that she and we practice is a spiritual force.

So I would say, go see her now. And if you need a further push, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npgBsa--sDY

Pilar Rioja performs through April 11 at Repertorio Espanol, 138 E. 27th St., between Lexington and Third Avenues. Tickets, which start at $25, may be obtained at the box office, by calling (212) 225-9085, or through the theater’s Web site, www.repertorio.org.

Singer/writer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory. Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006. Her next novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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