In addition to celebrating ecstatic highs, the flamenco form is well-suited to capturing life’s sorrowful moments. Jacinto, which flamenco artist Carmen Romero choreographed and performed recently at The Theatre Centre, drips with sadness and the kind of wandering confusion that accompanies a death in the family. It’s a highly personal interpretation — the Jacinto of the title is Romero’s father, who died suddenly in 2014.
Supporting themes of memory and mystery, there is an abundance of both flamenco song and dance in Jacinto. A trio of musicians — Alejandro Céspedes on percussion, Scott Metcalfe on keyboards and Benjamin Barrile, who is also musical director, on guitar — remain onstage throughout, often interacting with Romero. They are joined by Vancouver-based singer Stephanie Pedraza (who also dances), a fine cantaora with a soaring voice.
The opening scene isolates Romero on a bench lying on her back, face tilted to the audience, with the light narrowed to focus on her hands and fingers making delicate circles and spirals. The scene is lovely and goes on long enough to cue the audience to the idea that this won’t be a conventional tablao (the flamenco floor show that tourists generally experience in Spain and the format traditional flamenco shows in lively centres such as Toronto often follow).
Many small details of this staging, directed by Karin Randoja with additional choreographic input by Oscar Nieto, reference Romero’s father and the circumstances of his passing. For the first part of the show, an empty armchair sits, spotlit, on one side of the stage, a hat and jacket resting on it and an old leather suitcase parked nearby. Several times the numbers 6:35 (the time of Jacinto’s death) are projected on the floor. The suitcase plays a prominent role later as an object of mystery — “Open it” the musicians exhort Romero (who at this point has embodied Jacinto by donning his jacket, hat and, possibly, mannerisms). The suitcase has become a physical metaphor for the mystery of how and why Jacinto led a secret life in the Dominican Republic for twenty years, a fact that only came to light upon his death.
But for all the particulars there is universality in the subject matter — Jacinto could be any father keeping a secret who dies suddenly, and loss is a profound experience for everyone. And it’s here that Romero’s flamenco maintains its mainstream footing — in movement that is capable of vast expression, and also infinite consolation.
As a piece of experimental theatre, Jacinto is a curious blend of the abstract and the literal, but the most successful moments go unabashedly one way or the other. On the abstract side of things, there are many beautiful moments — such as a slow-moving solo Romero performs late in the show, in which she is draped with a fringed white mantón (shawl) to resemble a bird, a dove maybe, or an angel.
On the literal side of things, I especially loved the percussion break between Céspedes and Romero, a delirious blend of beating on the side of cajónes (boxes), stamping feet and palmas (the rhythmic hand clapping with which flamenco artists keep the beat and support each other).
In a more traditional context this drum-off would have gone on much longer. In fact, many of the performance moments in Jacinto feel truncated in favour of progressing the narrative or switching up the mood. For me, this created a certain amount of tension, and though uplifted, I felt slightly dissatisfied by the end of the show.
That “wanting more” feeling may also arise because Romero is a real performance star — completely confident in her technique and fully committed to the movement. I was particularly fascinated by her footwork — the articulation of lower leg, ankles and feet so fast and clear — and just wanted her to keep going.
If Jacinto isn’t entirely successful in melding its diverse treatments of Romero’s tragic material, her exhilarating performance does amply demonstrate the centuries-old message of flamenco’s cante jondo — in spite of loss and disillusionment you carry on.
Romero’s work with this production situates her as part of an experimental new wave that is sweeping flamenco internationally. Elements of theatre, narrative and other disciplines are being used to push and prod a dance form that has been shown mostly in traditional presentation frameworks into an unknown future. Like Myriam Allard of La Otra Orilla, Rosanna Terracciano in Calgary and artists such as Israel Galván and Olga Pericet, she is participating in an exciting moment for the form, carving her own artistic path, flamenco roots rock-solid, but creatively open to all kinds of expressive permutations.