Author Archive | Micaela Nerguizian

La Tania: A Flamenco Story

A dancer’s stage presence can be powerful enough to absorb the audience to a point where they forget the notion of time and place. La Tania, founder and Artistic Director of La Tania Baile Flamenco, makes her presence felt when immersed in this Spanish dance. There comes a moment in her performance when she strikes a pose on stage and holds the audience breathless as she gracefully releases her upper body. In that split second you come to realize that she is in her element.

For La Tania, flamenco is not just a hobby. It is her full time work, her absolute passion and a means to expressing her innermost feelings that cannot be conveyed through words. When she is completely engrossed in the dance she is able to tap into her emotions at the cellular level. “Our bodies are the carriers of the deepest emotions, which are the hardest to express in our daily life. Flamenco enables me to express them and feel like I am being heard.”

After an evening of flamenco classes at City Ballet School in San Francisco, La Tania and I were engaged in a full night of conversation as she shared stories from her past and present, slowly painting a portrait of her life. Raised amongst the gypsy flamenco culture in southern Spain, she was exposed to this art form at a very early age. Aside from family and community gatherings, she acquired a great deal of knowledge from observing her mother Julia, who became a professional flamenco dancer herself. Her grandmother Judith Deim, who was an important matriarchal figure throughout La Tania’s life, as well as an accomplished painter, encouraged her children and grandchildren to practice self-expression through the arts. Sooner than later, dance became her vocation. Flamenco became her way of life.

The extensive amount of traveling La Tania did during her formative years until today, both with her family and as a professional flamenco dancer, can hardly be summarized in a paragraph. From Europe, to Africa, to Asia and the Americas, she has been exposed to a variety of cultures and danced on numerous stages and tablaos (flamenco performance cafés/bars). In Spain alone, she has lived in Moron de la Frontera, Sevilla, Granada, Mallorca, and Madrid, making a name for herself wherever she performed. By 1993 she moved to Northern California and began La Tania Flamenco Music and Dance, which toured throughout the States and abroad, inviting on stage international flamenco artists. After a two-year sabbatical in Spain, she returned to San Francisco in 2006 and decided to establish herself as a full-time teacher and dancer, launching La Tania Baile Flamenco. “I found the Bay Area to be a place I could finally settle down in. I found a lot of people I could relate to and a lot of diversity.”

Executing a Musical Score with Your Feet
“I dance to escape the reasoning mind, the intellectual self. I create movement that feels organic, instinctual, musical, and visceral.” Dance evokes in La Tania a sense of freedom and a whole range of human feelings that can be expressed at any moment. It’s as if an accumulation of her life comes forth each time she performs. “To me dance is an image that appears and disappears. It only exists as a piece of art in a split second. You do it and then it’s gone.”

While respecting the pure art form of flamenco and the structure of the palo (style of song), La Tania explores both the traditional and modern format during her creative process. There are several palos under the umbrella of flamenco, such as Alegrias, Soleares, Tangos, Siguiriyas, and Bulerias, to name a few. “I choreograph by intuition and hardly ever sketch out what is in my head. I do not have a structure or theory. I might be daydreaming and all of a sudden I visualize a certain movement that I’d like to add to one of my choreographies.” Her choreographies and presentations have received many awards, including the Irvine Fellowship in Dance, the Guggenheim Fellowship, two Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, as well as Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

One of the beauties of flamenco is the constant battle between the lower body, with its elaborate zapateado (footwork) and the upper body, with its softer brazeo (arm movements). Exhibiting this control between the graceful and the fierce is a skill that La Tania has mastered and that she aims to teach her students. As stated by LA Times writer David Gere, “La Tania’s combination of restraint and release are capable of unleashing the extraordinary.” In order for her students to understand how the dance fits into the structure of the cante (song) and the guitarra (guitar) she likes to include the musicians in her classes. They are crucial in the learning process. For La Tania the cante is like poetry in movement, weaving together non-linear verses that incorporate such themes as hardship and lost loves. She keeps in mind the ups and downs in the music as she choreographs movements. “It’s about learning to execute a musical score with your feet and interpreting the nuances of the singing.”

Despertar es un Color
Finding the balance between teaching and performing, doing less of the administrative and focusing more on the creative aspect of dance are goals she looks forward to as she gazes into the horizon. Unlike her first company which focused on touring and working with international artists, her current company, La Tania Baile Flamenco, focuses on her involvement with her dance school and the local community of students and artists. Aside from offering classes in San Francisco and Oakland, she is committed to providing professional and emerging dancers with an array of performance opportunities, from yearly student showcases, to monthly tablaos, to new and innovative productions. This spring, she will grace us with her stage presence once again as she presents her latest work of art, Despertar es un Color (Awakening is a Color).

The production Despertar es un Color will take the audience on a 90 minute journey of beautifully staged flamenco performances. La Tania, along with five accomplished company dancers, will perform a combination of ensemble and solo pieces based on traditional flamenco, with some modern elements. They will be joined on stage by acclaimed guest singers Kina Mendez and Felix de Lola, guitarist Roberto Aguilar and violinist Tregar Otton. In a description of her new work she writes, “Despertar es un Color tells the story of how a shared passion can color the landscape anew and organically form communities that become home to our hearts and spirit. It is also the story of the awakening of a new phase of life. It represents the multi-faceted expression of ourselves as individuals and the connections we develop with the world around us. As we do this, seeds are planted, roots are spread…we awaken, grow, create, inspire, and we are able to see the colors.”

La Tania Baile Flamenco will present the world premiere of Despertar es un Color on Sunday, April 22, 7pm at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.

Micaela Nerguizian is the Production Associate for World Arts West, presenters of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

Travel to move: An Interview with Zenón Barrón

Viajar libera la mente.
Traveling frees the mind. For Zenón Barrón, Founder and Artistic Director of Ensambles Ballet Folkórico de San Francisco, travel is a linchpin to creativity. “When I board an airplane, a train, a bus…I drift into an emotional state of being in which I become very sensitive to the arts. My thoughts begin to take shape and my creative process is set in motion.” Sometimes all it takes is a short escape or trip, to reawaken his imagination and plant the seed of ideas for his new productions.

Through dance that ranges from ceremonial to celebratory, Barrón brings to life stories from Mexico’s rich culture and history. “Once my vague ideas concretize, I begin threading together all the components to form a storyline. It is very important for my pieces to tell a story.” Among his repertoire of choreographies, which often incorporate social, religious and political themes, he has re-created elaborate depictions of Mayan rituals, staged folk dances from 18th century-old Mexican festivals, and masterfully brought together six local ballet folklórico companies to present a suite of dances commemorating the Mexican Bicentennial.

In an interview over coffee and tea, at a café in the Mission District, the topics of travel and creativity were a recurring theme. Barrón recalled that as a young boy he did not have many opportunities to travel because they were, as he put it, “so many” in his family. By “so many” he meant 17 children. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Barrón’s earliest childhood memory of dancing was when he was five years old, attending the rehearsals of his town’s religious festivals during the month of May. Participating in indigenous and folk dances were common activities within the community. These dances were passed down from one generation to another. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father knew the basic steps. Dancing was as natural as eating and walking.

As a young boy his biggest dream was to someday become a classical dancer. He remembers how strongly he was drawn to this style of music when he heard it at home on the radio. “Classical music transported me. When I asked my family what I was hearing I received brief explanations. They didn’t go into much detail about its meaning and origin…and I yearned for more.”

Mentores. Guías. Maestros.
Mentors. Guides. Teachers. They are essential in Barrón’s life. When it came to matters concerning his vocation and purpose in life he turned to them for support. Barrón believes it is very important to have a mentor and be guided by someone who will look out for your interests and help you get ahead. It was not so much his parents that guided him to pursue a dance career, as other individuals he met along the way. Among the numerous mentors he had during his formative years, Jaime Bernard was a key figure and the first person to truly inspire him to seek a career in the arts.

Mr. Bernard was the dance teacher at the school in Puerto Vallarta that Barrón attended when he was 12 years old. “After my father’s death, my mother could not raise 17 children on her own, so some of us went to live with our paternal grandparents in Puerto Vallarta and continued our education there.” During this period, he had the opportunity to take courses such as painting, drawing, design, and contemporary and traditional Mexican dance. Mr. Bernard noticed he had a passion for the arts, particularly in dance, and guided him to follow his dream. “He pushed me to accomplish things I had never imagined possible. He informed me about scholarships and encouraged me to audition for a dance company that would eventually open the door to tour internationally.”

This dance company that Barrón refers to was the Ballet Folklórico de México of Amalia Hernandez. In 1983 he joined her resident company and a year later became a first company dancer, launching his touring career in South America, Europe and the U.S. Previous to joining this company, he had studied with America Balbuena at the Universidad Autónoma de Guanajuato and a few years later graduated with a dance degree from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
His career as a professional dancer, trained in classical ballet and modern dance, opened numerous doors of opportunities and the desire to teach grew stronger year after year. Today, not only is he the artistic director and costume designer of his company Ensambles, which he founded in San Francisco in 1992, but also a dedicated researcher of Mexican and Latin American folklore. Just recently, in 2009, he received his PhD in dance, writing his thesis on indigenous communities from various countries.

San Francisco marca un nuevo capítulo.
San Francisco marks a new chapter. Barrón had first visited the foggy city by the bay in the early eighties and decided to move there in 1992, the same year his dance company became an official non-profit. One of the things he loved about San Francisco before moving there was the “mixture of races, cultures, food, and music.” He felt this city had the right vibe and pictured it as a huge door of opportunities, or can we say, as the Golden Gate of opportunities.
And he was right. With the help of his friends Jorge Pacheco and Amanda Almonte, who were already living in the Bay Area, they began generating ideas and discussing the possibility of forming a ballet. It took some time to create a structure, but soon all the hard work and dedication paid off. In 1996, Ensambles made their first appearance in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which Barrón believes pushed them to a new level and marked their “punto de partida” (starting point). Carlos Carvajal, co-artistic director of the Ethnic Dance Festival and good friend of Barrón, writes, “I have grown to admire Zenón as a performer, musician, costume designer, and choreographer over the years. He is very well versed in Mexican dance culture and audacious in his use of the traditional materials when designing and manufacturing costumes for his company. I feel he expresses the very best qualities of his craft and is always a positive element in any panel and community discussion. He is not afraid of failure, has confidence, and is fearless in wanting to bring dance that has never been seen before to our Festival.”
By 1999, the company began presenting their annual productions and just three years later, Barrón created the children’s class for ages 12 and under. “I forget the world around me and experience an emotional catharsis when I’m teaching the children. I feel my vocation has been to teach them…something I discovered late in life.” As he watches them grow and improve their dance skills, it brings back memories of his childhood. He works parallel with the parents and has agreed with them that in order for their kids to be a part of his company, they are required to keep up their good grades in school. “The class is like my semillero (nursery). I’ve been teaching some of them since they were five years old. My hope is that they stay on, continue to nurture their passion for dance and eventually join the adult company.”

What started out as a company of six dancers has grown today to about 22 dancers in the adult group and 30 in the children’s. Currently, Barrón’s classes are held in San Francisco’s LINES Dance Center (for the adults) and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (for the children). He works with many talented musicians from the Bay Area and from time to time hosts other folklórico dance companies from California and Mexico to perform in San Francisco.

Aside from designing his own productions, he enjoys collaborating with other dance companies and communities. Last year he partnered up with Duniya Dance & Drum Company, from the Bay Area, to present the production “Half and Halves: A Dance Exploration of the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of California.” Barrón, along with Duniya’s choreographer and artistic director Joti Singh, conducted several interviews and did a great deal of research on the Punjabi-Mexican communities founded in California in the early 20th century. As described in their program, they “explored themes related to farming life, marriage, immigration, and racial and ethnic discrimination.” The result was a brilliant combination of high energy Bhangra with Mexican folklórico dance.

Mirando hacia el horizonte.
Looking toward the horizon, Barrón has many ambitious projects in mind. When asked to dream big, he wishes to someday have his own academy and cultural center. On the topic of future dance collaborations he stated, “I would love to work with the Philippine and Peruvian communities. I think there are some ideas waiting to be brought to life there!”

While maintaining a realistic perspective during his creative process, he always aims to conclude his ideas, instead of leaving them hanging halfway. “As an artistic director I work with passion, dedication, discipline, and always look for an objective. A well thought out project, with good logistics, should have a beginning, middle, and end. I do not like to leave my projects unfinished. I believe they should always be concluded.” And as we brought our conversation at the café to a conclusion, he shared with me his plans for his upcoming 2012 production titled, “Las Pinturas de Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo en movimiento,” which will depict Rivera and Kahlo’s art in movement. Considering how essential travel is in stimulating his creativity and imagination, who knows what journeys the new year will bring?

Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco will perform on February 10th at noon at San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in partnership with San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts.

Micaela Nerguizian works in production for World Arts West, producers of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and SFJAZZ.

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