Dance Festival Turns Seven
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
This Saturday, the grandniece of one of history’s most revered flamenco dancers takes the stage at the Lobero to open Santa Barbara’s seventh Flamenco Arts Festival (FAF), California’s original annual celebration of the powerful Latin art form. Miami-based flamenco bailaora Omayra Amaya carries with her the legacy of Carmen Amaya, the electrifying performer of Spanish gypsy heritage who traveled worldwide with her extended family, bringing the pride and passion of flamenco to Hollywood and Broadway in the 1930s and ’40s. On the second Saturday of the festival, Sevilla’s Israel and Pastora Galván, two representatives of another internationally renowned flamenco family, join forces in a performance that illustrates the divergent styles of contemporary flamenco. This chance to see such world-class flamenco artists on America’s West Coast comes thanks to yet another family with a passion for flamenco that spans generations. Festival founder and artistic director Vibiana Pizano Smith credits her entire family for the support and the vision that have made FAF an ongoing success.
Family has always been at the heart of flamenco. The folk art form of music and dance emerged in southern Spain in the early part of the 19th century as an expression of the passionate emotionalism and rebel spirit of Andalusian gypsy culture, with regional variations developing around the traditions of particular families or castas, each of which developed and preserved its own distinctive style.
Santa Barbara’s Pizano family understands the powerful ties that bind a flamenco family together. Vibiana Pizano grew up in Los Angeles dancing Mexican folklórico and began dancing flamenco as a teenager, discovering a passion that has directed her family’s life ever since. So close were her ties to her parents that when her father’s employer moved him to Santa Barbara in 1978, she followed with her own children. When I met with the local flamenco promoter last week to discuss the festival, she came accompanied by her father, Alberto, and her daughter, Jaclyn. Her son Pablo, 26, is one of the performers in this year’s festival and a rising star in the flamenco world. Alberto is cofounder of the city’s Mariachi Festival. A lifelong supporter of the performing arts, he’s eager to discuss the prominence of the Latin arts in this community. “Spanish culture is part and parcel of Santa Barbara — the city was founded by the Spanish, and Spanish dance and music have always been part of the cultural agenda here,” he pointed out. Interest in the Latin arts is far from new, but Al believes we’ve reached a tipping point. “Flamenco is essentially a Latino function,” he said. “When the Latino community is more affluent, they can develop their art form.” The FAF has proved that the audience for flamenco exists in Santa Barbara alongside a solid core of performers — when Vibiana moved to Santa Barbara, she found three flamenco studios. Today there are more than 10.
Over the years, Vibiana has aimed to expose Santa Barbarans to the surprising variety of flamenco styles. Past festival programs have included 30-member companies and solo performers, puro flamenco artists and modernists. This year’s brother/sister team Israel and Pastora Galván represent two sides of a divide. Pastora has stuck close to pure flamenco tradition, while Israel has achieved celebrity status as a radical innovator by fusing modern dance choreography with more familiar forms. The debate over whether or not innovation belongs in the world of flamenco is nowhere more charged than in Sevilla, Spain — the true heart of flamenco culture and home of the Bienal de Flamenco where the Pizanos regularly travel to see the world’s greatest dancers. In hosting the Flamenco Arts Festival half the world away from Sevilla, the Pizanos hope to expose U.S. dance companies and local performers to many of the finest flamenco artists in the world who represent the entire range of styles, infusing American flamenco in general — and this community in particular — with excitement and renewed commitment to the art form. Their goal is to develop Santa Barbara into a strong base for flamenco training, from which dancers can attain professional levels of performance and go on to tour internationally. “When people ask me whether I think American dancers will ever dance like the Spanish,” Al said, “I say that unless Spaniards have an extra bone or a muscle we don’t have, there’s no reason we can’t do it just as well.” Cultivating an environment that can nurture talent is vital, and as Vibiana noted, “that exposure and training is what we’re all about.”
The festival isn’t only for aspiring flamenco artists, of course; the program includes a children’s show; master classes for dancers and guitarists of all backgrounds; and a class in the popular Spanish dance form sevillanas, open to everyone including those with no prior dance experience.
Jaclyn Pizano’s experience as a flamenco dancer and as an observer sums up her family’s attitude toward their chosen art. “When I dance, I feel like I’m taken to another place,” she said. “The passion, the lack of inhibition, the ability to express powerful emotions — it’s very moving. When I went to Spain, I saw it. It’s hard to explain. People need to see it.”