I first heard Rosario Ancer’s story about life in a large and loving Mexican family when she wrote an article in the Personals section for the Vancouver Dance Centre’s members’ newsletter in 1995. The focus there was mostly on Ancer’s move to Spain in order to “breathe and eat flamenco” and only touched on earlier days: her grandmother, Mama Lolita; the cinema her father ran, where she saw Lola Flores singing and dancing flamenco; how she was the first woman in the family to have a paying job, at a bank; and how, when her parents died, as the oldest unmarried sister she had to look after her younger siblings. In “‘Mis Hermanas’: Thicker than water: My Sisters and I” at the Roundhouse Community Centre, the focus shifts to this early time when Ancer was “the sandwich sibling” — growing up surrounded by five younger and five older brothers and sisters.
Ancer, artistic director of Flamenco Rosario, is Vancouver’s flamenco diva, and the ninety-minute show is half voice-over memoir and half — the best part — dance. Yet the memoir, written by Ancer, does offer a unique framework for the seven spirited flamenco dancers, plus Ancer herself, to let loose in solos that were fresh, fun and often fabulous. In fact, they’re hardly solos, intimately accompanied as they are by a stellar line-up of musicians sitting in a row stage left: singer “Angelita la del Lito” and her husband, guitarist Manuel “El Lito”, percussionist Alvaro Rubio, and guitarist Victor Kolstee, who is Flamenco Rosario’s well-loved musical director (and Ancer’s husband).
“My sisters get together every Tuesday for coffee” begins the voice over. This repeated line tells all: forget sibling rivalry, “Mis Hermanas” is about sisterly support. One by one, a potted biography — smoothly narrated by actor Carmen Aguirre — introduces each sister and the dancer who represents her. These biographies sum up the sisters’ many good qualities and offer a personal tidbit or two: one suffered the loss of her son, another could drive a tractor and a third briefly became a nun. Photographs from the past appear on an upstage screen, and sometimes there is film or photos of the town or region in Northern Mexico where the family lived.
The opening staging has seven dancers sitting upstage on four straight-backed chairs and one divan; Ancer sits downstage in a rocker that makes clear her status as the oldest among them (this seemed a bit of an overstatement: how many fifty-somethings are ready to sit by the fire in a rocking chair?). Surprisingly, of the seven, only one is not Canadian: Marién Luévanos, from Mexico City, who starts her portrayal of spunky sister Rosalba — “the one who bakes” — with a red fan nestled in her bosom. The six Canadians hail from across the country — three are members of Flamenco Rosario, with three guests from outside the province.
The company members — Veronica Stewart, Nanako Aramaki and Afifa Lahbabi — are cast as the youngest sisters: Maricela, Matilde Elisa and Alejandra. Aramaki begins and ends her solo in red sunglasses, a nice character touch, and these Vancouverites are splendid in a trio that concludes their section.
Fiona Malena from Calgary, Claire Marchand from Winnipeg and Myriam Allard from Montréal stand in for the revered older sisters: Anadelia, Rebeca and Guadalupe (Rosalba is the fourth). I can’t say if it’s also true of the sisters — it wasn’t clear how much the dance was channelling their personalities and how much was pure flamenco expression — but the dancers were real powerhouses with individual approaches. Malena had the hard task of getting things going with the first solo but her gentle face was full of smiles by the end as she spun round in triumph. Actually, they all ended in triumph! Even Marchand, who began by looking very austere — with a serious face, black form-fitting dress and long thick black hair — made a slow, sweet transformation into joy.
Allard is the only one of the guests I’ve seen before — and, once again, I found her unique among flamenco dancers. First, she’s trim and slim, with a body full of angles, not curves; also, this time she dressed down in a plain blue top and tight beige skirt with not a flounce in sight. She turns like a general and swoops like an eagle, and is the most contemporary of flamenco dancers, fierce and frank and extraordinary to witness.
Ancer, too, takes a hot solo turn. Toward the end, she delicately taps around the stage in pearls and black Spanish shoes, and though Ancer’s mature body is no longer slender and light, she seems to be floating, suspended in the music, perhaps.
The story of these vibrant young women living together in one Catholic household in Mexico during the 1950s and 1960s is a great family narrative with lots of heart. But Ancer doesn’t work this rich material deeply enough, and she describes feelings rather than finding a way to let us feel things ourselves. And while it was fair treatment to bring the three brothers into the narration, there really wasn’t room even for the brief mention they’re given — though it was good to hear the men are beginning to join the sisters on Tuesday for coffee.
What the “Mis Hermanas” script does do very well is provide an unusual biographical reason for eight women to take a centre stage turn and do her damnedest to call forth the power of duende — which, in that 1995 article, Ancer called “the ancient soul of flamenco”. Happily, duende was lurking around all evening, descending regularly.