Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company’s creation Quimeras (‘chimeras’ or ‘figments of the imagination’ in English) premiered to a rapt Lebanese audience at Al Bustan Festival in Beit Meri last night. The Bustan 2013’s only dance performance, it marks Peña’s fifth appearance at the Festival. This, the twentieth edition of this prestigious and unique festival in the Lebanese cultural calendar, is also committed to celebrating the bi-centenary of Verdi and Wagner’s births and boasts the first ever performance of a Wagner opera in the Middle East, Das Liebesverbot.
Quimeras deals with the treatment of African migrants in Europe and aims to show how flamenco and traditional Western African dancing and music, seemingly so different, can fuse harmoniously. “The two types of movement are very different: flamenco is structured and connected to the earth, the African movement instead leaves the earth, it dances around and is more fluid. They come together thanks to their common understanding of rhythm, and their differences are also beautiful. I fitted the two songs and spirits together and discovered that it can work, though it is tough, because soleares is so flamenco,” explains the charming and humble Peña, in the café of Hotel Bustan.
The two-hour performance begins with Peña’s flamenco guitar solo, throughout which he is surrounded by musicians and dancers in complete darkness. The solo guitar then gives way to percussion and dance, with flamenco and African dancers and musicians playing and dancing alongside each other with dazzling energy. However, initially the music and dance portray a strident contrast and conflict between the two cultures, with flamencos representing power and authority, and the African dancers embodying immigrants travelling towards the Spanish frontier. “The choice of white and black dancers is clearly symbolic. I designated my own culture as the vehicle for authority, power, status quo,” Peña explains. As the show gathers speed and momentum, the two traditions start to bond, and, by the end, to blend perfectly together.
The second half starts with a bar scene in Spain. A group of flamenco dancers and musicians are holding a fiesta. They are served by African waiters who have managed to cross the border and gain employment. When the customers leave, the waiters start dancing, and are joined by one of the Spanish customers (dancer Angel Muñoz), who begins an enthralling duo with an African dancer, which reaches an extremely moving climax. The fast-moving, dynamic performance is interspersed with many costume changes, accentuating its theatrical qualities. It also includes recorded monologues by the African immigrants, intended to make the plot clearer.
Quimeras is the first show ever to fuse flamenco and African traditional music and dancing. Peña, a native of Córdoba, “a city from which many people pass by,” was prompted to create this show by an incident which involved a group of young thugs trying to burn a female immigrant alive. “I found this episode so strong and so moving that I really wanted to find a way of expressing the terrible reality of present-day migration, with all its dangers and risks,” says Peña.
He continues: “I wanted to clearly establish that migration is a reality which has been taking place for thousands of years. People move to look for work, which should lead to the improvement of their and their families’ lives. I think this is an honorable pursuit.” The message is that cultural exchange and union are positive things, and that each local culture can be enhanced and influenced by other cultures. “Maybe it is a utopic idea, but I believe in it. Opening borders and frontiers helps societies to improve,” says Peña.
It is interesting that such a piece should be performed in Lebanon, home to many migrant workers, whose rights are often neglected. Peña clarifies that “this is not a strongly political performance: as an artist I represent reality as it is and comment upon it. It wasn’t my purpose to put the show on specifically in Lebanon, but I am glad that it could happen. Moreover, the Middle East has contributed immensely to the development of flamenco. Phoenicians and Arabs travelled to Andalusia and established their roots there. I cannot deny the positive aspects of migration.”
The creative process began with Peña listening to African music and researching African dance in order to decide how best to use it in Quimeras, and how to link it to flamenco. He chose music from Senegal, Guinea and even Mali – countries that are deeply connected to Spain and Europe, and whose musical traditions have contributed a great deal to European music. “The main aspect of the creative process is the whole musical mapping, when I decide which elements of music and dance I want at a given moment.” This took place through a long period of rehearsals, improvisations and experimenting, with the company’s participation and the gradual development of the choreography, “until I felt that I was starting to ‘get there’. I needed a loop of the whole picture: not only flamenco, not only Africa.”
Interestingly, Peña is also responsible for the choreography. “I had two helpers, not choreographers as such, but rather assistants who made sure that the process was following my purpose.”
Peña answers eloquently when asked what he feels when he plays flamenco: “for me, flamenco is almost like life. I’ve always grown up with it, it is inside my culture, it is a very emotional music that represents many different states and emotions. It is a message from inside, it is my people, my tribe talking and singing. It is like a well that you dive into and swim into. When I play, I’m happy and I feel that I’m exploring this well and trying to express it honestly. It is my life, my language, I cannot be without it.”
Highlights of Al Bustan other than Quimeras included the premiere of the play Remembering Ghassan, which was written, directed and interpreted by Roger Assaf, in homage to journalist, diplomat and politician Ghassan Tueni. There have also been performances by UK vocal ensemble Stile Antico, the Geghard Choir, the Mezwej Ensemble, and a performance by men’s ensemble MoZuluArt that combined parts of Mozart’s repertoire with traditional zulu music.
Festival Al Bustan will continue to be staged in various venues around Lebanon until March 27. For more information, call 04-972-980 or visit the website.
Quimeras is not the only flamenco delight Beirut has to offer this March. Fadia Yared’s initiative Flamenco En Beirut, the first and only flamenco school in the Middle East, is currently hosting a workshop by Lori La Armenia. Armenia is a flamenco dancer, choreographer and actress of Irina Brook's DreamTheatre, who grew up with Romanies and is based in between Seville and Paris.
Lori la Armenia’s flamenco workshops run until March 29. On Saturday 20 at 8.30pm, there will be a Fiesta flamenca with Lori at Eme Chill, Mar Mikhael. For more information, call 03-588-766 or visit www.loriflam.com