Since its inception 13 years ago, Santa Barbara’s Flamenco Arts Festival has evolved into what can only be described today as a coveted destination for the world’s finest flamenco artists.
In the beginning, founder and artistic director Vibiana Pizano made talent-scouting trips to Spain in hopes of attracting rising flamenco stars to her budding event in the relatively unknown city of Santa Barbara.
Today, Pizano has them knocking at her door.
With flamenco festivals now popular all over the world — Google “flamenco festivals” and pages unfold — how has Santa Barbara become a bull’s-eye on the map for master performers?
A distressed Spanish economy may have inspired its dancers to look abroad for opportunity. And word has clearly spread to overseas flamenco circles that Santa Barbara, despite its size, offers big-city cultural arts sensibilities, with a large, enthusiastic audience that will likely pack a house when “Flamenco” is on the marquee.
But the festival’s success is also a product of Pizano’s unwavering resolve to invite only true, awe-inspiring talent, often on the cusp of unattainability. This year, that comes in the form of 28-year-old Jesús Carmona and his company, making their U.S. premiere at the Granada Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 28.
Carmona, who has become one of Spain’s hottest young flamenco stars, has never set foot on United States soil. “I imagine Santa Barbara is a beautiful place with the beach and all its Spanish roots,” Carmona said, speaking in Spanish. “It makes me so happy to hear that there are so many flamenco schools maintaining and growing that passion for flamenco. I’m thrilled that our U.S. premiere, and my first time in the United States, will be in Santa Barbara.”
A former principal “lead” dancer of the Spanish National Ballet, Carmona is on everyone’s radar these days as the one to watch in the flamenco world.
Last year, he premiered his company’s first production, Cuna Negra & Blanca (Black & White Crib) at Spain’s most prestigious flamenco festival, la Bienal, in the beautiful city of Sevilla, and shortly thereafter in Jerez de la Frontera. Both cities are in the southern region of Andalucía, considered the birthplace of the flamenco arts. Both performances received rare and thunderous standing ovations from what can safely be described as the world’s most erudite flamenco audiences.
“Standing ovations are very rare in Spain,” said Timo Nuñez, the highly acclaimed American dancer who began his flamenco training in Santa Barbara and has performed at many festivals here and in Spain. He was particularly impressed by the audience’s reaction at la Bienal. “The Spaniards see so much of this all the time, so they are very picky, very critical. They are not going to stand up unless they feel like these people really deserve it.”
For Carmona, who grew up in Barcelona but is now based in Madrid, that grand affirmation was life-changing.
“It was a very important moment in my professional life, to be received and approved by Sevilla and its public and critics at the world’s most important flamenco festival,” he said. “It was so incredibly thrilling and emotional for me. And it has opened many doors.”
Including those to the Granada Theatre.
Each year, Pizano and her fellow boardmembers, John Haro, and her father, Alberto Pizano, along with an advisory committee, consider dozens of portfolios, proposals, and solicitations from artists all over Spain. “The hardest part is having to turn down so many wonderful artists,” she said.
What stood out about Carmona?
“It was his personality, his energy on stage, that just really shines,” Vibiana Pizano said. “He’s so powerful and has such a special stage presence. He has just embarked on his own solo career and is receiving all these amazing reviews from critics all over. He is a rising star in the flamenco world, and in future years, the Festival can claim early recognition of an artist who was on the cusp of flamenco stardom.”
“Over the years, we have slowly become recognized by Spain as a major flamenco festival, and it allows us to attract the best,” she said. “We have people on the lookout there for us now who know what Santa Barbara offers.”
And it is also true that the festival has had a great impact on young flamenco dancers in Santa Barbara. Nuñez, who was recently heralded as America’s No. 1 Flamenco Dancer on the popular television show, So You Think You Can Dance, said the Flamenco Arts Festival’s first event 13 years ago is what inspired him to pursue a flamenco career.
Flamenco studios along the central coast encourage their students to attend the festival, including the workshops that are always offered by the visiting artists. Linda Vega, the flamenco dancer and teacher who runs a large studio and youth performing company, Flamenco Santa Barbara, said, “There are a lot of flamenco festivals out there, but this one is really a little gem. Vibiana and her organization have really strived to bring us the very best of the best, and it’s a privilege for us to have someone like Carmona come right into our community. We need this level of top-notch flamenco to inspire us, encourage us, to really see what we’re striving for.”
When Carmona left the top ranks of the Spanish National Ballet last year to embark on a solo flamenco career, he took a great artistic risk, starting his own company and choreographing his own production (Cuna Negra & Blanca) described as a study of the extremes of human nature.
According to Carmona, Cuna Negra & Blanca “is not a love story, nor is it a tragedy with an ultimate happy or unhappy resolution. It is, rather, a study of human nature and of the emotions that all humans struggle with, expressed through dance and music. It is a study of pessimism and optimism, a journey, a breaking through the void or emptiness of life (black) into the fullness or plentitude of life (white).”
The challenge for Carmona is to capture this duality of emotions on stage and transfer them to the audience. Carmona believes these facets are part and parcel of human existence, from cradle (cuna) to grave, and hopefully, most people learn to put them in their proper perspective, including the Santa Barbara audience.
“I truly hope the public enjoys this and is able to feel all of the array of emotions, and that they leave content having seen a high-quality show done with much love and dedication,” Carmona said. “We’re going to give it all on the Granada stage, and we just hope it’s well-received.”
The 2013 Santa Barbara Flamenco Arts Festival takes place Saturday-Sunday, September 28-29, at various locations. Jesús Carmona y Compañía perform Cuna Negra & Blanca at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, September 28, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit flamencoarts.org.