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Moving Portraits from Querétaro

Interviews with Maria Juncal, Mirta Hermida, Maria Pagés and Soraya Bruno & Martin Buczkó

reviewed by Toba Singer

A light rain dampens the cobblestones on the evening of the July 10 Mexico vs. Uruguay soccer match, but by 8:30, about 800 spectators have gathered in Querétaro’s Plaza de Armas because the ProArt Festival Iberica Contemporanea opens with a public performance by the Spanish flamenco company, Mariemma de Madrid. About 30 dancers in practice clothes and slippers take their places to rehearse as de Madrid faces the stage like an orchestra conductor. It’s all hurry-up-and-wait, with de Madrid hectoring dancers in a monotone truncated through a headset microphone. Audience members covertly check cell phones for game scores, but with eyes front and committed. As dancers prepare to perform, the rain recedes. Their moist costumes are a hothouse bouquet—brilliant yellows, ceruleans and emeralds offering a jaleo of their own to the reproach of an inky sky. A violin melody lights a fire that consumes the stage, as dancers match precision with crackling zapateos. When besotted soccer fans belt out “De Colores,” and lean on car horns to cheer Mexico’s victory, there is a tense moment for the soloist on the now-somber stage. It’s a quiet piece and she is a Spaniard in a colonial setting, dancing in front of a church built in 1810. The soccer enthusiasts join her new fans or recede into the outer reaches. The evening ends in victory for Mexico over Uruguay, and Flamenco over Soccer.

At the 2007 festival, Maria Juncal, a hazel-eyed maja, danced in a corrida in which a bullfight had opened for her. She had stood center stage as the sun set behind the craggy mountains for which Querétaro is named. Seated next to me was the Cuban ballet master, Fernando Alonso. He whispered, “She’s like Antonia Mercé, ‘La Argentina.’ La Argentina would stand absolutely still and exude such energy!”

Maria Juncal

What was your first dance lesson?

I started in the Canary Islands with my great aunt, Trini Borrull, from one of the most prominent flamenco families, with Danza Clasica Española, not flamenco. We moved to Tenerife, and I didn’t want to dance because I didn’t want to study with anyone but my aunt. A year later, I enrolled in the Rosalina Ripoll school and she told me “We’ve been waiting for you for one whole year!” My aunt had called her and said, “I want you to take care of her because she has something from our family.” Rosalina said, “You have to be here all day but you don’t have to pay.” When I was 15, an Ecuadoran gave classes, and three days before her show she told me, “I need another girl.” I had never thought about a performing career, but after working in a few hotels I went to Madrid to study: One of the best flamenco dancers, Joaquin Cortés, was performing in Las Canarias, and young and naïve, I just went without tickets to the stage door, thinking he would make me a star. I learned that the show was sold out. So when he announced a new show, I called the theater, did some fast talking, and they held a ticket for me. I waited for him. My mom was in a bar waiting for me. Joaquin Cortés never came. I was disappointed, but his Uncle Cristóbal noticed me, and so did the stage manager, who ended up at the same bar as my mom. He arranged a meeting with Cristóbal, who said “Can you dance Sevillanas?” “Yes, yes!” “Be at my bar in Madrid, and you can rent a room in my pensión.” We closed our Tenerife house and went to Madrid. My teacher wouldn’t give me a costume, so my family chipped in.

What happened in Madrid?

Amor de Dios—the best school! The owner, Joaquin San Juan mentored me. I instantly got what my life and work would be. On the first day, I left crying. I didn’t know tangos or solea, but soon I was dancing 8-10 hours a day. I counted the time in seconds because I was old for a beginner. Most dancers start at 11.

How did you start your own company?

I had been with other companies like Manolete, but I worked right from the beginning to establish my name. I wanted to be Maria and tell my stories. That was my struggle, and to keep some musicians, and do one dance in a bar. In the tablaos you have to dance alone. Before having a company you have to feel you can direct the orchestra. My first company show was in 2004, and when I saw Joaquín Cortés, I thought I want to have that music—Juan Parrilla’s—one of the greatest flamenco composers. I thought, “Next year I’ll be ready,” not willing to knock on a door unless I could answer at the same level. In 2008, I decided, “Now I’m going to knock.” I asked Parrilla to compose music for my next show. He said, “Let me see you.” He came, and said, “I want to do the whole show.” I called the show “La Hora de los Milagros.” [Miracle Time] By the second show, “Químera,” I’d nailed it. I told Juan, “I’ll write the lyrics and you write the music.” It made me grow up during a very difficult time, personally. I was under pressure to rehearse everything in two weeks, and do more than 30 shows in a month! Presenters from Belgium and Spain loved my work and organized my tour. Everyone was depending on me. I told myself, “You must respect yourself and not stop. Be at the studio.” Little by little I did it! The piece was fast and furious, but happy. I was rehearsing with two men, and for the first time, it all came together, and when we finished Juan gave me a big hug and said, “You make my music better!”

Dance Classes

ProArt hosted flamenco master classes headlined by Olga Maria “La China” Marcioni, Cristóbal Reyes, and Manolo Marîn. Cuban teacher Mirta Hérmida team-taught ballet with ProArt’s Silvia Sussarrey. Soraya Bruno from Berlin Staatsballet, would teach a group of girls from Parras de Fuente Coahuila, a little town 10 hours north. They had been giving small performances and selling things for a year to raise enough money to attend the classes. Fernando Alonso, 96, the ballet master who trained Cuba’s dance luminaries, observed and offered coaching.

I invite Mirta Hermída to discuss Cuba’s approach.

Mirta Hermída

How did you become a teacher?

Understanding that dancers’ careers usually ended at the age of 30, Fernando and Alicia taught us how to teach, even as we learned. So, by 19, I had begun teaching. The development of dancers simultaneously as teachers assured the continuity of the Cuban school and style. It conferred the stamp of Alicia Alonso and her accomplishments on both the company and the school.

What lessons from Fernando Alonso remain with you?

He was director of both the school and company, and in 1978-79, turned the school over to Ramona de Sáa. I have been with her all the way—colleagues and friends for over 50 years. Fernando’s direction assured continuity of the development we were able to achieve with Ramona’s help. She developed the beginner curriculum with my help. Fernando has that eagle eye. He attends classes, rehearsals and helps coach the girls, to assure that those standards are not lost. Cuba has created a system that we can carry across borders, not only teaching students, but teaching students to teach.

Is Ramona De Sáa’s work well recognized?

Oh, yes! She has taught in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, and Venezuela, where she has introduced the Cuban method to broader and broader layers of international students.

Are you concerned that because some dancers have left Cuba there will not be a sufficient number to teach future generations?

Our students receive a firm base in the Cuban School, which has taken the best from the Russian, English, North American, French and Danish traditions, and the dancers can go anywhere in the world—as we have seen with Lorna Feijoo in Boston, Lorena Feijoo in San Francisco, Carlos Acosta in London and José Manuel Carreño in New York—and then bring an amplified experience back to Cuba without losing the values of the school or our pedagogy.

Isn’t there resentment that everyone in Cuba invests heavily in the future of the nation’s dancers, and if some leave, the fruits of Cuba’s labor are then harvested by companies and audiences in other countries?

Not at all: That enriches us! Everyone’s horizons are broadened. Schools and companies in other countries see what we do, and we see what they do, and we have demonstrated our capacity to absorb all of it without losing who we are. We have nothing to fear from such exposure. This year is the 50th anniversary of our school. We’ll have our annual Encuentro de Academias during Holy Week, but to celebrate our 50th birthday, we’ll host an international competition, and are inviting students from all over the world to join us. To go, contact Paradiso Agencias de Viajes, Havana, Cuba.


Pirámide del Pueblito

Rain clouds hover over a field leading to an enormous lit pyramid, the backdrop for tonight’s program. The pyramid’s luminescence heightens in the dusk that blankets the sunset. We wait in the quiet night for the world’s best flamenco artists to dance.

Maria Pagés dances to a poem by José Saramago. A nocturnal mermaid, she swims through her steps to music sung by Ana Ramón, accompanied on guitar by José Carrillo. Pagés grows larger onstage, her arms suspended from lifted elbows. I have one day left, and questions to ask her.

Maria Pagés

Did you study other art or dance forms?

When I was 15, I took classes with Maria Magdalena and folklorico classes with Pedro Azorín and Juanjo Linares. In Seville, you stay with your teacher out of loyalty, but in Madrid, I was able to go to different teachers. I’m interested in the infinite elements of the stage. I am becoming more curious about lighting to create different worlds inside. I feel I can translate what I see into my way of doing things. Dance is an expression, and in a way, you are an actress but in a different dimension.

Do the elements you use challenge the orthodoxy?

The arts share an objective of creating in different worlds elements that bring up the same emotion. I’m working on a project based on the work of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. I had never before gone inside something of this kind. Flamenco is pure anonymous literature and poetry, an expression that has been in you all your life: How a word is said, how strong it is in capturing an emotion, direct from the heart of the people, and flamenco is a popular art. The arts that inspire me most are literature, poetry, and painting, because you think in images. A painter’s choices are like choreography: Where does he place the people? How does he drape or color a dress? What is the setting? In Caravaggio or Velásquez, you see how they create light. I take notes on what I see. I notice how somebody laughs or sits, and find inspiration there.

Your musicians and vocalists are virtuosos. What were you looking for in them?

Each person I have collaborated with has a different story. I must love the person, and feel that he or she touches me—essential for every dancer, singer, or guitarist—because we create the music and the choreography together, and so we need to work closely. When I heard Ana Ramón, I was sure I could work with her. We’ve worked together for 15 years, and I still love her and can see how she has been transformed. The same applies to the dancers and guitarist. If I don’t like them, I can’t work with them.

What surprises have you encountered on tour that have changed you?

I learned a good life lesson on tour: Emotions are the same everywhere, though expression is different, depending on culture and taboo, and so, I don’t worry about getting a standing ovation. In Japan, 95% of the audience is women. They are shy and don’t show emotion because of their upbringing, but after the show, I have seen them go crazy! In India, I danced in a theater where they had never seen flamenco. No prejudices, completely virgin. They had exactly the same reaction as sophisticated audiences. Dance is very important in Indian culture. I learned things that made me think about why I dance. I dance because it gives me pleasure and to meet my needs. After awhile, I began to think that this is not only for me alone, but more util [useful]. In Spanish, that word has a social meaning as well as a practical one. I am creating a foundation to extend the util impact of my work and to connect with other art foundations.


At a festival in Cuba, I was lucky enough to see Soraya Bruno and Martin Buczkó perform the comic piece “La Casa de Bernarda Alba.” I want to interview them together before they perform it here so that I can see the piece more through their eyes.

Soraya Bruno and Martin Buczkó

Can you give some examples of what working together is like?

MB: I created a program called “Shut up and Dance.” In our third season, we did the piece “Will.” So, we began working together and found that everything moved forward in a natural kind of flow. Our daily mood determined the speed of our process. We didn’t force it, just let it go at its own speed.

SB: It helped that we liked and respected each other personally and professionally. I found it easy to work with him. We would try something a thousand times, and then one of us would say, “Are you tired? Yes? So am I.”

When one of you has a different interpretation of the character the other is dancing, how do you resolve it?

SB: We don’t have strong opinions because the character is presented by whoever is staging the work. You put something of your own into it, but you have to adapt because it’s already created, depending on what they ask for. If they say you feel angry, you have to compare the way in which you feel angry with Juliet’s anger, for example, and talk it through. In the end, it’s the piece that counts.

MB: It’s all in the steps. Maybe the ballet master has an opinion, but he’s not dancing. I am. Sometimes I change steps because they don’t work. I believe I’m free to do that, depending on the evening, the mood of the characters. With “Swan Lake,” we’d tweak the story to keep it fresh. The character mainly comes out of what you feel like in that role.

SB. There are things that you do in rehearsal that are different than what you can bring onstage. You have to have the capacity to improvise. Your personality determines the end result.

MB: If there’s a blooper, it’s part of the art—the same as a painter working a goof into his painting. Good artistic directors encourage more, not less independence.

What lessons have you learned from each other?

SB: I learned to be more relaxed with the steps, enjoy myself, react quickly, and trust him. I trust him one hundred percent in my personal life, career, and the pieces we do. If I go onstage nervous, it’s just me and him, and he calms me down.

MB: I enjoy having a reliable partner, to have complete trust. I’ve had partners who didn’t trust me and having this trust with Soraya makes it more fun. You can read the other’s mind. You know by a preparation or lateral move that there’s harmony and that gives me pleasure. When we are on tour, we cannot stop laughing, have a great time, and always find something funny. Guestings are not about the performances, but the total experience.

SB: We go to the beach, get sunburned, then regret it when we have to do lifts, and never learn. It was the same in Cuba and Houston, at Dance Salad.

Does the audience become a third partner more in a comic piece than a dramatic one?

SB: I hope so, because the idea is for them to be one of us, laugh and cry with us. We forget about the public because everything is so intense, like a private joke, but the idea is for the public to enjoy it as much as we do.

MB: I can feel when the audience is open to being touched by the drama and jokes. They seem to say “Bring it on, I want to be entertained.” Then there are those with no expectations who will absorb anything.

What about your teaching responsibilities here?

MB: I give a framework, so the students aren’t lost and add something different every day so they feel it belongs to them—and they’re sore the next day [laughter].

SB: It has been amazing. I prepared for one level and it turned out different, and I had to think about what their takeaway would be. So, they ended up teaching me! I see them improve each day. They are excited and asking for more. I gave them exercises, and they said “KilI us!” I said, “OK do it 30 times,” and they said “More!” When I leave class, they repeat the combinations themselves.

You forget how hard it is in places like Mexico. But they remind me when they say “Kill us!” They remind me of myself when I was small in Argentina. Class is to learn how to work, even if they keep just one thing.

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