The floor of the New Ballet Ensemble dance studio -- once an old icehouse on Central near Cooper -- shakes like the foundation is splitting. Spanish guitar chords thunder and swirl. A violin moans and shrieks. A lone dancer raises her hobnailed heels and drives them into the floor again and again, banging out tango rhythms. Her torso is erect, her arms alternately reaching out to or pushing away from some invisible force. She is both dancer and drum: storyteller and conductor.
Noelia Garcia Carmona, a native of Barcelona and now a resident of Memphis, is rehearsing for her performance at a Spanish-themed event at Grace-St. Luke's on January 30th. For Carmona, this occasion has dual significance. It is a return to her roots as a dancer steeped in Spanish tradition. With musical support from multi-instrumentalist Roy Brewer and Paul Turnbow, a violinist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, this performance is also Carmona's official coming out as a Memphian.
"Flamenco really has a lot in common with the Delta blues," says Brewer, who was turned on to the form 20 years ago by a cousin from the West Coast. Brewer traces the musical tradition from Spain's "Deep South": back to a time before the guitar was flamenco's primary instrument, when voices carried the tune and fiery rhythms were beaten out by revelers clapping their hands and stomping their feet.
In its earliest recorded form, flamenco's primary component was the canta, an often tragic song performed without any musical accompaniment. While the Gypsies (Flamencos) are widely considered to be the fathers of the form, infusing it with elements of Indian music and dance, Spain was a Muslim-occupied country for 700 years, and its music, like its art and architecture, is steeped in Arabic traditions. Like the blues, flamenco was born out of poverty and a hybrid of ethnic traditions. It has since been touched by the bossa-nova rhythms of Latin America and American jazz. And in Spain, the form has been nearly irreparably damaged by the demands of tourist culture.
"Think about it," Carmona says. "They are selling Mexican hats on Los Ramblas [the wide pedestrian boulevard in Barcelona]. Right next to where they are selling the Mexican hats, you might see some flamenco dancers, but this is for the tourists. If you want to see real flamenco, you have to go to the theaters."
Carmona started studying ballet when she was 4 years old. She wasn't much older when she became interested in flamenco and the more formal "Spanish dancing."
"I remember when I started working with castanets. I'd cry because I couldn't get the rhythms," she says. "They were so hard." She later moved to Madrid where she spent seven years studying all aspects of dance, from flamenco to modern, and for a decade, Carmona worked with a company in Barcelona that fused elements of ballet, flamenco, and modern dance.
"Our concepts were modern," she explains. "And we didn't dance in the dresses or with flowers. It was more minimalist. Because of this, we could take flamenco to a contemporary dance festival in Germany and fit right in."
When Carmona moved to America, she and her dance partner were given the opportunity to perform with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
"But my partner didn't want to live in Las Vegas," she explains. "And [Cirque] said they wanted a duo, not a solo." Carmona was disappointed but not devastated, and she started teaching dance in Memphis.
A year ago, Brewer, who had moved temporarily to Eugene, Oregon, returned to Memphis to play a show at Otherlands. He wanted to do a program of flamenco music but realized he was a little short on material.
"It was late one night, and I went to my computer and typed in 'Memphis' and 'flamenco,'" he says. "And that's when [Carmona's] name came up. I already had my guitar out of its case when I [went to where she was teaching]. I was standing there with my guitar and I asked, 'Will you please play with me?' She said, 'No.'"
Brewer didn't give up, and when he performed at Otherlands, Carmona danced. They later added Turnbow to the ensemble and started playing arts-related events around town.
"For me, it was very hard," Carmona says. She'd spent a long time as a modern dancer, incorporating aspects of flamenco into her work, but a return to a more purist interpretation of the form was a little intimidating, especially in her stripped-down ensemble.
"Usually there are singers and people clapping hands and guitars and percussion and more dancers," Carmona says, suggesting that flying solo with only two musicians for support leaves her feeling a little naked. But when Brewer strikes a chord and Turnbow sustains a long, trembling note, Carmona's eyes smolder, and she starts clicking her heels against the floor. There are no signs of fear or trepidation.
"This is a passionate thing," she says. "You can't put a wall between you and the audience. You have to be free and expressive."
Flamenco performance with Noelia Garcia Carmona, Roy Brewer, and Paul Turnbow at Grace-Saint Luke's Episcopal Church, 1720 Peabody (272-7425). $10. 7-8 p.m. Sunday, January 30th