Carola Zertuche is hardly the first artist to recognize the kinship of flamenco and African diaspora traditions such as blues, son, spirituals and jazz. But the incandescent dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Theatre Flamenco might have found a new way to bring together cultures forged in oppression with “Soul y Alma,” a collaboration with Glide Memorial’s gospel choir.
Presenting its 53rd home season Saturday at Herbst Theatre, Theatre Flamenco’s “Soul y Alma” represents another bold step for Zertuche, who has turned San Francisco’s second-oldest dance company into a creative cauldron. In realizing her longtime ambition to set dance to Glide Memorial’s spiritually charged gospel, she’s seeking to connect African-American soul with duende, a hard-to-translate Spanish term referring to the pure self-expression embodied by flamenco “when you dance with your soul,” she said.
“It’s the magic, when the music and dancers are putting their alma in, the duende comes to you. In gospel it’s the same, there’s so much about the energy that’s so beautiful. Listening, you get that duende.”
Joining Zertuche and some three-dozen Glide singers are music director, guitarist and composer Juani de la Isla, percussionist Diego Alvarez, and three visiting artists, including powerhouse flamenco vocalist Amparo Heredia. Hailing from a great flamenco clan from Malaga, Amparo is making her Theatre Flamenco debut. “Her voice is very strong, very rrrr,” Zertuche said, making a low growl. “She has the perfect voice for this project.”
Dancer Eduardo Guerrero lives in Cádiz, and San Francisco-reared Cristina Hall, long based in Seville, Spain, has carved out an impressive career dancing and performing in that country over the past two decades.
When I caught up with Zertuche, who was raised in Torreón, a city in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, she was deep in the choreographic process with Hall. After a rehearsal session with the Glide choir two days earlier, “Christina and I were so inspired,” she said, noting the similarity between palmas, flamenco hand-clapping, and the choir’s use of body percussion. “Right away they start to use their bodies, and the energy is so powerful.”
While created primarily by the Gitano (or Roma) people whose roots trace back some 15 centuries to Rajasthan in northern India, flamenco draws from the overlapping Moorish, Jewish, and Christian civilizations that shared and shaped the Iberian Peninsula over the past millennium. The tradition was born out of the hard-scrabble struggle for sustenance in Andalusia in the declining decades of the Spanish Empire, providing a vehicle for transforming pain, loneliness, want and heartache into communal revelry. Much like the blues, it’s an alchemical art form that embodies the spirit of a people who still face marginalization in Spain and across the continent.
No one did more to connect the spirit of flamenco with the African diaspora than Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who had stopped in Cuba after a trip to the United States in 1930, when he wrote his influential treatise on duende. “The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a struggle and not a concept,” Lorca wrote. “I have heard an old guitarist, a true virtuoso, remark, ‘The duende is not in the throat, the duende comes up from inside, up from the very soles of the feet.’”
In San Francisco, flamenco took root in the late 1950s, when the Spaghetti Factory in North Beach became a magnet for bohemians fascinated by the soul-bearing music and dance. Building on the interest in flamenco sparked by legendary dancer José Greco, Theatre Flamenco became the first U.S.-based company to stage full productions of Spanish dance when Adela Clara launched the company in 1966.
Longtime artistic director Miguel Santos, who performed with both José Greco’s and Lola Montes’ companies (and appeared with Greco in the Academy Award-winning 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days), joined the company shortly after it was founded, and played a guiding role for the next four decades. An award-winning dancer who performed for several years with Theatre Flamenco under Santos as a guest artist, Zertuche has expanded the company’s creative mission. As will happen for Saturday’s performance she often brings in artists from Spain for collaborations, while adding an experimental edge to a company that was known for its traditional bent.
Major productions at venues like Herbst and Brava keep Theatre Flamenco in the spotlight, but some of the company’s most exciting work takes place in the company’s Mission District studio on South Van Ness. At a time when many arts organizations are priced out of San Francisco, Theatre Flamenco regularly stages intimate performances featuring visiting artists, Zertuche’s top students, and her own riveting dance.
Those tablado-style shows tend to explore various facets of flamenco tradition. Saturday’s Herbst show is a creative stretch for everyone concerned. “One of the choreographies was very hard to create, but when we finished I was really satisfied,” Zertuche said.
“Working with another music is not easy. You can’t just put flamenco movements on it. We tried things and then we started to feel good with the movement. It’s scary, but as an artist I like to keep growing.”
With Zertuche, Theatre Flamenco’s evolution is grounded in duende and soul.
Theatre Flamenco’s “Soul y Alma” with the gospel chorus of Glide Memorial Church, 8 p.m. Saturday, February 1, Herbst Theatre, $25-$55, (415) 392-4400.