The Passion of Antonio El Pipa

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There is something mystical about flamenco. Federico García Lorca described it well by calling it, "…purely Andalusian singing, which already existed in germ in our region before the Gypsies arrived to it. It comes from Gypsy races, crossing through the cemetery of years and the depths of withered winds. It comes from the first cry and the first kiss…it is the soul of our soul."

The 6th Annual New York Flamenco Festival brought this marvel from southern Spain to New York, with various events throughout the city from January 19th through February 19th. I had the honor to attend a talk with dance legend, Antonio El Pipa, and then see his company perform at New York City Center.

During the talk, I had the fortune of sitting right across from "El Pipa" (who got his name from his grandfather who was perpetually smoking a pipe). He is a very charming man with a peaceful aura, but with a contradictory passion radiating from his light blue eyes. It’s like being in the calm before the storm – you are almost waiting for him to break out and dance at any minute.

Dressed in a black velour sweat suit and Puma sneakers, and sporting neatly groomed sideburns, he sat cross-legged and relaxed in his chair while he talked in Spanish about his life as a Gypsy in Jerez de la Frontera (located between Cadíz and Sevilla) in Andalusia.

"Jerez es una de las ciudades más importantes de flamenco," he began. "Es diferente de otras ciudades."

He explained that where he is from, dancing and singing are as normal as playing fútbol for a kid anywhere else. Gypsy families, as well as non-Gypsy families in Andalusia, use flamenco to celebrate at any gathering.

"En mi familia, todos hemos bailado…Yo no decidí ser artista. Cuando me di cuenta, ya era artista. Ya no puedo vivir sin mi trabajo…Bailaría mas si ganaría la loteria porque compraría un teatro," he said.

When someone asked him about an unforgettable experience he’d had on the stage, he talked about how his aunt, renowned deep-throated Juana la del Pipa, sang with such gusto and fervor that it actually paralyzed him – so much that he brought her to the middle of the stage and left the dancing to her.

The performance by Compañia Antonio El Pipa on the 19th was just as captivating as the dancer himself. Antonio choreographed and directed the production, which was entitled, "De Tablao," and it portrayed just that. Tablao flamenco is the traditional singing and dancing in cafés that has been popular in Andalusia for centuries.

Antonio’s set was simple – a few tables and chairs for the guitarists and dancers, and a backdrop of thin wooden curtains with sketches of palmas, dancers, roses…the standard elements of flamenco. Simplicity is key for tablao — it is the dance that takes center stage.

The dances consisted of jaleos, bulerías, tarantos, romeras, and soleás, and were performed by a superb cast. Guest dancer Concha Vargas danced elegantly in her beautifully ruffled and colorful dresses, alongside Antonio El Pipa, while Juana la del Pipa’s hoarse and chilling voice emanated throughout the entire space, just as her nephew had described it.

Respected Mariana Cornejo also made a guest appearance, and sang a lively and extremely brisk-paced piece that made the audience laugh, even though the lyrics could were not easily decipherable. Guitar players Pascual de Lorca and Juan Moneo were essential to the performance, and Joaquín Flores’s palmas (clapping) continually gave life to the show.

The costumes were beautiful and well thought out. The older women usually wore more simple clothes, resembling real life in Jerez, while the younger ones were in a variety of form-fitting ruffled dresses. The men were all in black pants and vests with white shirts, except for Antonio, who stood out in fancier black and even purple suits.

Antonio was right when he told us that flamenco was not always a sad form of expression. While dancing, he looked like he could not have his smile wiped away. In his fitted suit and slightly high-heeled boots, he danced as passionately as he spoke about his love – flamenco. Actually, his passion seemed to overflow at the end, because he didn’t want to leave the stage. He came back for not two, not three, but four rounds of applause. The fourth time he ran and jumped onto the stage, making exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions as he bowed. I think he overdid the passion just a little.

Antonio had said that a real artist is one who makes the public forget their problems. I can say that I did – I even got a laugh in at the end.