Dallas — On Thursday evening at Dallas City Performance Hall, the Orchestra of New Spain presented two related, but very different, performances simultaneously. One was a Baroque setting of the Catholic Mass composed in 1750 by Francisco Courcelle. The other is the flamenco troupe headed by San Francisco-based flamenco dancer Danica Sena. The two different art forms alternated. To add to the time warp, dancers from the Avant Chamber Ballet performed a modern dance expression of the mass. Modernist quasi-religious paintings by artist Juan Carlos del Valle, both striking and inspirational, were projected on a screen in the back.
The stage was divided in half with the bilayers and singers of the ONS as well as the cante (flamenco singer) and guitarist in the back half. The front half was dedicated to the two different kinds of dance. The flamenco dancers, Danica Sena and Emilio Ochando, wore a series of flamenco costumes. The Avant dancers wore brightly colored costumes designed by Fernando Hernandez. Behind everything, some dramatic paintings were projected on a full-size movie screen.
An aside: This alternation of wildly different art performances will remind opera buffs of Richard Strauss’ comic opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The plot revolves around a wealthy nobleman who is presenting an evening’s entertainment. One is the premiere of an opera seria (Ariadne auf Naxos) and, to lighten the mood, he also hired a group of street burlesque comedians. Everything is running late, so the nobleman orders that the performances need to be performed at the same time. In this opera, the juxtaposition of the two groups (which keep interrupting each other) causes much hilarity.
In the program notes, Artistic Director Grover Wilkins III calls his combination “From the Cathedral to the Street.”
Courcelle’s mass is based on a piece of chant called Ave maris stello (Hail Queen of the Seas). Its musical language is similar to other such works written in the Baroque era and uses the standard Catholic mass text. It is for a relatively large orchestra, playing on historically correct instruments, and a double chorus. The music for the two flamenco dancers is a cante (singer, in this case a tenor) and a guitar.
There are three elements to a flamenco performance. One is the baile (dancer), another is the toque and the last is the cante flamenco (flamenco singer). The origin of the traditional music that is sung is a combination of Andalusian folk songs, the music of the gitanos (Spanish gypsies) and the Persian/Arabic florid singing style.
The cante for this performance is Jesus Castilla, who has won many international prizes. His performance is so intense that his voice occasionally breaks and his hands tremble from the effort. The toque is the equally famous El Niño Manuel. The dancers are the internationally known Danica Sena, the embodiment of grace and strength, and Emilio Orcando, a sparkplug of a dancer whose feet move so fast that he is able to vibrate his way across the stage.
The Avant Chamber Ballet is a relatively new company founded by artistic director Katie Cooper, and has quickly risen to top billing. She separates Avant from other contemporary ballet companies by always using live music. I was unable to find a credit in the program for the choreographic interpretation of the mass, but it was very effective. Unfortunately, it was difficult to make out the words, so it was not possible to match up the movements with the words in anything but a general impression. Fernando Hernadez’s costumes were strikingly beautiful and atypical of dance costumes: Skintight top combined with tights and a panel of fabric in the front and back for the women and just in the back for the men.
All the performances were excellent. The ONS was in top form and intonation, always a problem with original instruments, was outstanding. This also goes for the singers, who are split on the two sides of the stage. The quasi-improvised singing of Jesus Castilla was nothing short of astounding. It owes a lot to Andalusian folk songs, Hebrew chant and also to the adhan (call to prayer) sung from the minaret of mosques. In an odd way, the constant and elaborate runs are reminiscent to what singers do in contemporary soul music.
The elements of the program are all so different that they never meld. Instead, the performance is more like a chunky vegetable soup, where each spoonful has something different in it. You will enjoy the performance more if you keep the title of the program in mind: From the Cathedral to the Street.