Innovative, feminist flamenco

The Philadelphia Flamenco Festival is Monday to April 1. From left, Leslie Roy- bal, Rocio Sanchez, Eva Arriaga, Alicia Blumenfeld, Kumiko Koide. MIKE HURWITZ
The Philadelphia Flamenco Festival is Monday to April 1. From left, Leslie Roy- bal, Rocio Sanchez, Eva Arriaga, Alicia Blumenfeld, Kumiko Koide. MIKE HURWITZ (The Philadelphia Flamenco Festival)
Posted: March 18, 2012

As a longtime flamenco aficionada, I practically wept with joy when I heard about the forthcoming First Philadelphia Flamenco Festival, a two-week-long orgy of flamenco performances, classes, discussions, and films that begins Monday and runs through April 1.

To be fair, this won't actually be Philadelphia's first such festival; alert readers may recall the Ferias de Sevilla en Filadelfia (springtime Seville-style fairs) held some years ago at International House, that also included flamenco performances, classes - plus Spanish food.

Likewise, this series of events has nothing to do with the World Music Institute's 12-year-old Flamenco Festival, which annually brings artists from Spain to New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other U.S. cities - though, sadly, never our own.

The First Philadelphia Flamenco Festival actually focuses on one local troupe, Pasión y Arte. Established in 2000 by artistic and executive director Elba Hevia y Vaca, Pasión y Arte fills a niche: It is an all-female dance company that presents what Hevia calls "feminist flamenco."

Hevia explains her company's mission on its website ( "My work celebrates women as the protagonists of their own story and not just a form of seductress, sexual object, or a love object. I challenge all the historical roles that have been placed on women in the art form, and uncover . . . ever-present truths."

This may sound like heavy going, but Pasión y Arte is neither strident nor overtly political. It's as sexy, playful, and serious as any other flamenco group, it just doesn't include male dancers. Instead, it consists of an impressively international female roster: Hevia is a native of Bolivia who initially studied Spanish classical dance (think ballet with castanets), then went to Spain to study flamenco at age 15. She still goes to Seville for classes every summer. Other company dancers come from Spain, Venezuela, the United States, and Japan.

Over the last decade, Hevia has choreographed five hour-long compositions for her dancers, often involving videos and other unusual features. Several of her works have been presented at the Philly Fringe festival and - again, in line with the company's goal - they stress innovative movement and music, combining the traditional elements of flamenco with decidedly nontraditional aspects taken from modern dance, ballet, jazz, and other art forms.

At the Flamenco Festival, Pasión y Arte will present the world premiere of Cómplices ("Partners"), created for the group by Spanish flamenco artist Rosario Toledo. This marks the first time the company has worked with an outside choreographer.

Festival audiences will also see the U.S. premiere of Del primer paso ("The first step"), a piece made by Toledo in 2008 for her own company, previously presented in various Spanish cities and in Italy, France, Russia, China, and Japan.

Hevia saw Toledo dance years ago at a flamenco festival in southern Spain and took one of her dance classes.

"We clicked," she said in a recent interview. "I liked her way of communicating, her very contemporary approach. I also liked the way she moved- her particular style of comedy." And, Hevia noted, Toledo creates "woman-centered" choreography, with "a great balance of male and female elements."

Live music is as essential to flamenco as dancing - in fact, many would say it's much more important. And in Del primer paso, festivalgoers will have an opportunity to hear two distinguished Spaniards: guitarist Dani de Morón (who also composed much of the music for both pieces) and flamenco singer José Valencia. Morón will also play for Cómplices, for which Barbara Martínez will provide the vocals.

Both paso and Cómplices will be performed eight times: March 22 to 25 and March 29 to April 1, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, Second and Market Streets. Tickets are $10 to $25; for information, call 215-921-8126 or visit

All other festival events are free and open to the public. These include master classes with Toledo at Temple University and Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges (March 19, 27, and 28, respectively); a flamenco symposium (March 24) with Toledo and two other experts; and Flamenco Movie Night (March 26), featuring two documentaries by female directors: a short work by Lise Raven examining the process by which Toledo taught her new work to the Pasión y Arte dancers, and Carolina Loyola-García's film-in-progress concerning the history of flamenco in the United States.

The First Philadelphia Flamenco Festival is being sponsored by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance.

Watch Pasión y Arte dancers rehearse for the festival at