On Stage: flamenco of mythic proportions | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: flamenco of mythic proportions 

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As an art student at Columbia University seven years ago, Wendy Clinard visited a dance studio to sketch a friend who was practicing. She picked up her charcoal and positioned her sketch pad in her lap as the strains of flamenco guitar filled the studio. The dancer's feet began to move: bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp.

"I put my pencil down," Clinard recalls. "I said to myself, 'That's what I want to do.' I left school after the semester."

Clinard moved to Chicago to study flamenco with Edo, a local choreographer who's also a well-known flamenco master, and later moved to Spain for a year to perfect her technique. She supported herself teaching art through Gallery 37 and at several Chicago public schools, where she discovered a second passion: puppets. "In these classes I started doing small Indonesian puppets, then I got a commission two years in a row doing a Halloween parade with large-scale puppets," part of a city event, she says. "One of those years we did the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. At that moment I saw the two worlds together."

Those two worlds, ancient Greek mythology and flamenco, have never been seen together onstage in Chicago. "When I was living and studying in Spain I saw the Ballet Nacional do Medea," she says. "But it was more a theater piece with dance added. In New York I saw people doing experimental things with flamenco, but I never saw masks. I've seen storytelling with flamenco, never puppetry."

Clinard focused all her energy on the idea. "It was just there, around me, so completely I couldn't ignore it," she says. "It was blind. Even when I started choreographing, I still didn't know what the end of the piece would be. The end just came one day. Things fell into place. It was like a puzzle; we were putting things next to each other, the costumes, the theater itself, space and shape and line. Those pieces created the whole."

She decided to mount the Greek myth of the Athenian king Theseus, who slew the Minotaur. In June she formed the Olé Olé Puppet and Dance Theatre and began planning the show with her sister Susan, a sculptor. Susan made masks for the dancers out of papier-mache, crinoline, and rabbit-skin glue, which when dry can be sanded to shape a surface. The masks, some of them three feet tall, are supported by welder's masks and elaborate harnesses. Clinard sketched the costumes and moves. She cast beginners as soldiers and in other minor roles and more accomplished dancers as the major characters, then found singers and musicians to accompany them.

"Flamenco can't be a dance without certain music or singers," Clinard says. "It's a triangle. When a dancer closes, it's like a relay. All the while the dancer has been moving, the spirit gets caught in the singer's throat." This is born out of the flamenco concept called jaleo, Clinard explains, a spasm of sound that bursts from viewers and participants alike during a performance. When a dancer slams her foot down to close a movement, the singer explodes. "They have to sing it," she says. "It's the whole flow of energy."

Musicians and singers must also clap during a dance, a motion both spontaneous and necessary to its struc-ture. These claps, palmas, are done with fingertips to palm, claras, or palm to palm, sordas. The palmas set the pace and tone. How the guitarist strums, how the singer claps, and how the dancer stomps--each affects the others. It's a complicated mix, like the history of flamenco itself. "Real aficionados say people who claim to know where flamenco originated are liars," Clinard says. Flamenco singing has Moroccan, East Indian, and Arabic influences. "Some people say it's a Gypsy dance," she says. "There's a nomadic feel to it. It has traveled and landed somewhere."

It landed in southern Spain in the 14th cen-tury. But in the big cities of Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid, the tradition has been Disneyfied, according to Clinard. "They have these really cheesy flamenco tableaux for tourists," she says. "To see real flamenco, even in Spain, you have to go digging. You can go see theatrical fla-menco, which is incredible, but many Gypsies will spit on that. I actually studied in Seville with an old Gypsy family, the Farrucos." The family was featured in Carlos Saura's 1995 movie Flamenco.

Clinard settled on the myth of Theseus after she dreamed of a scene in which Pasiphae, hoping to seduce the white bull, hides in a transparent cow. In the show Clinard remains absolutely motionless inside the cow, yet she is blazing with energy. When she dances her duet with Karen Stelling as the white bull, they are a study in contrasts. Clinard is in complete control of every part of her body. Her fingertips are positioned just so, her hair and even her eyelashes seem to move in sync with her swoops and stomps. She is intense, her brow furrowed; a sensual seriousness envelops her. Stelling is a sprite, her physique less chiseled than Clinard's, her movements seemingly conjured ad lib. While Clinard struts boldly, her rib cage thrust forward, Stelling leads with her belly and hips.

"There's something in flamenco called duende," Clinard says. "It's when the dancer's personality leaves her body onstage. Flamenco is very internal. Everything is dancing. Edo always told me it is profound to dance standing still."

Ole Ole will present The Quest of Theseus at the Vittum Theater in the Northwestern Settlement House, 1012 N. Noble, Thursday, December 2, Friday, and Saturday at 8. There's also a Saturday matinee at 2. Tickets are $18, $12 for students and children. Call 773-278-7471, ext. 117.

--Michael G. Glab

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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