It's no secret that San Francisco in the mid-1960s was a hub of counterculture. Yet the flower children of Haight-Ashbury were just one expression of a massive shift in American society. Out of that same era emerged many forms of creative expression that had hitherto been virtually invisible to the American mainstream -- among them the Hispanic arts.
In 1966, a group of artists began to offer flamenco performances in San Francisco. They were the first American company to stage full productions of Spanish dance in the U.S. They called themselves Theatre Flamenco. Today, the company is one of the oldest dance troupes in California. On Saturday, Nov. 8, Theatre Flamenco comes to Mountain View.
Their latest show is "Solo Flamenco," a production that draws together some of the best-known flamenco dancers ("bailaores" and "bailaoras"), singers ("cantaores") and guitar players ("tocaores") from the U.S. and Spain. Artistic Director Carola Zertuche, who also dances in the production, explained that though flamenco originates in the gypsy culture of Andalusia, it is an art form that speaks to artists and audiences across the world.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Zertuche studied flamenco in Mexico City and in Spain and toured internationally before settling in San Francisco and taking the helm of Theatre Flamenco in 2007.
"Flamenco is a very strong art form -- it's emotional and personal -- so even if people don't understand the lyrics of the songs, they feel the language of the music and the dance," she said.
In selecting artists from across the world to collaborate on a single production, Zertuche has relied on new technology: Digital video footage helps dancers see the choreography and helps musicians know how to complement the energy and expression of the dancers. Real-time video conferencing lets Zertuche talk with the cast across oceans and time zones.
"That's the good thing about this era," she noted, adding that though there is a lot to coordinate in advance, flamenco also relies on improvisation, and each artist will be given the space to respond spontaneously in the moment.
The name of the show, "Solo Flamenco," indicates Zertuche's focus on traditional flamenco as well as her vision of presenting each dancer in the show as a solo artist. The lineup of international talent is one of the most extensive Theatre Flamenco has yet presented. Among the performers Zertuche will bring to the Peninsula is internationally celebrated Sevillan dancer Manuela Ríos, who is also Zertuche's former flamenco teacher and one of her artistic role models.
"To me, she is the best representation of a female flamenco dancer," said Zertuche of Ríos. "She is super-feminine, she's strong and she's very expressive. When she dances, you can tell she's telling you a story. She stands on the stage and her presence is so strong that you get goosebumps -- and she hasn't even moved."
Joining Ríos and Zertuche onstage will be performer, choreographer and teacher Alfonso Losa, who Zertuche describes as "an elegant dancer with exquisite footwork," and Cristina Hall, a San Francisco native now based in Spain who's a regular Theatre Flamenco collaborator.
In addition to the world-class cast of dancers, Zertuche is bringing to the Bay Area Ismael Fernández and José Méndez, singers from two of Spain's most famous flamenco families. Fernández is the nephew of Curro Fernández, a patriarch of a flamenco dynasty in Seville, while Méndez hails from the legendary Méndez clan of Gypsy flamenco singers from Jerez de la Frontera. They will be joined by guitarist José Luis Rodríguez, who is considered one of the best flamenco musicians and composers of his generation. Zertuche spoke in glowing terms about Rodríguez's contribution to the show.
"I have been working with him for three years, and every time he plays a note it's like you want to cry," she said, adding that Rodríguez also has an unusual ability to interpret a dancer's movements and deliver just the right musical tone.
"As a dancer, when you have that support you feel like flying," she said, struggling to find the right word in English before resorting to her native language. "The word in Spanish is 'arropado,' or blanketed, like when you pull up the covers in bed."
That sensation of being surrounded by the music -- or filled with it -- has a special term in flamenco: "duende." Ask a flamenco artist to define the word, and you'll get poetic descriptions of connection and focus, a sense of soaring or oneness of spirit.
"Duende is a magic that happens on the stage," Zertuche said. "It's when you feel something you've never felt before. You are there in your own world with the music and the singing, and then when you finish it's like you come back to reality."
Flamenco audience members report a comparable experience of being transported -- it's one of the reasons spectators often cry "Olé!" in the midst of a performance.
According to Theatre Flamenco's board president and former artistic director Miguel Santos, who at 89 years old remains intimately involved in the company, duende isn't limited to flamenco.
"Duende is experienced by all kinds of artists," he said. "It's a deep feeling that comes from the soul."
Santos has been with Theatre Flamenco since 1968, two years after its inception. He spoke of his performing career, when he toured internationally, danced in films and even performed in Spain for then-dictator Francisco Franco ("They told us to stop dancing when he walked into the room, so that's what we did," Santos recalled).
As Zertuche sees it, having Santos' institutional memory is a great benefit to Theatre Flamenco.
"It's motivating," she said of Santos' energy and dedication to the company he joined nearly 50 years ago. "If he's still involved, then I know I need to do better, to keep it going."
As part of "Solo Flamenco," Alfonso Losa and Manuela Ríos will teach workshops at Zertuche's San Francisco school, La Solea. Santos, who still teaches classes himself, plans to attend the workshops. "I'm almost 90, but I don't feel that old," he said proudly. "I'm still jumping around. I can out-dance my dancers."
Luckily for prospective audience members, neither Santos' dance ability nor his intimate knowledge of flamenco are required in order to enjoy the performance -- or even, if you're lucky, to experience duende.
What: Theatre Flamenco presents "Solo Flamenco"
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Saturday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m.