In her own words, flamenco performer, master teacher and choreographer Danica Sena “stumbled upon” the Spanish traditional art form without having ever sought it. The daughter of Serbian parents, she was born in the United States, thousands of miles away from the land of flamenco. Yet, dance, music and creativity were always part of her life and culture, as long as she can remember. “I was never bored as a child. I would gather everybody on the block and say: ‘Today, we are going to do Cinderella’ and my dad would type up the script from the story. We would hand it out and sell lemonade!” While in junior year in college and already fluent in Spanish, she received a scholarship to study at Complutense, the arts university in Madrid, for a year. Marking the beginning of her deep passion for Spanish culture, this experience laid the groundwork for her discovery and study of flamenco. Sena and I sat down to talk about her background, the culture of flamenco and the work that she will present at Dance and Diaspora at ODC Theater later this month.
Marie Tollon: What led to your discovery of flamenco?
Danica Sena: My freshman year in college, I took an African Haitian dance class. My teacher recognized a talent in me and encouraged me to pursue dance. Without having tons of technique at that time, I would go to audition and people would hire me. One day during my junior year in Madrid, I went to the gym in my neighborhood. I looked in a small room through a circular window and saw this short woman teaching some kind of dance. Those were Sevillanas, the folkloric dance from Seville. [The teacher] could see I could learn the steps very fast so she put me aside, in a corner, and taught me advanced steps separately from the group. Within two weeks, she took me to the feria at Plaza de Toros. That was my first experience dancing outside with a male partner. When I came back to the United States for my senior year, I read on a bulletin board: “Flamenco guitarist gives lessons.” I went to his class and he showed me a video of Carmen Amaya. It was as if somebody threw a firecracker inside me and it exploded. I asked him “Where can I do that?” He said I could either go to San Francisco or to New York. I came to San Francisco and studied with Rosa Montoya. She took me under her wing. Shortly after, I was in her company and she had me teaching and helping run her school. I went to Spain and lived there for 10 years, in Madrid and Cadiz.
MT: You will present three pieces at Dance and Diaspora, with guest artists musicians El Niño Manuel, El Gori and dancer Jose Carlos from Spain. Can you talk about meeting and collaborating with them?
DS: While living in Spain, I was hired to go on a contract to Japan. That’s where I met El Niño Manuel. We worked together everyday for two years. Manolo’s wife, Maria Jesús, danced with me. We basically became family. This past May I took a group of students to Spain and set up an experience including José Carlos and Gori. [These artists] work together all the time and that in itself creates a very special energy. Three quarters of one of the pieces [to be presented at Dance and Diaspora] were created by Maria Jesus last June and then I continued the choreography with my advanced students. The rest of the pieces were created together. What I want to showcase is mainly the artists.
MT: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned vocabulary and historical context that you would like to share with your audience.
DS: I want the audience to understand that each one of us, somewhere in our cultural history, is connected to flamenco. The gypsies [from India] were a key component [in creating flamenco]. But when they arrived in Spain other cultures had already influenced the music: Gregorian chants, the Catholic Church, the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Sephardic Jews, the Persians, the Arabs, the Chinese! The mantón de manila -[embroidered shawl worn by flamenco dancers]- had dragons originally and came from China! The fan is Asian in origin. Flamenco is a global phenomenon!
MT: In the way that flamenco was born, it was very much participatory, in terms of audience’s vocal presence and encouragement to the musicians and dancers. What do you feel happened to that element when flamenco was moved to the theater?
DS: It’s always hard for me to make sweeping generalizations. You can’t orchestrate what the audience is feeling. I strive to nurture that connection. When the audience sits in closer proximity, it’s of course easier to connect. Even then nothing is guaranteed. First and foremost you should leave your ego aside. As an artist, you have to understand what your venue is. Why does flamenco often not translate onto large spaces? If you are on a huge stage you have to present a theatrical performance. Many flamenco dancers don’t have other training, and by training I don’t mean a couple of workshops/classes here and there or studying Youtube videos. Depth and length of training increase possibility and output. It all depends on what choreographies/styles are in your repertoire. What do you want to communicate to your audience? What is your vision? How can you collaborate [with artists from other fields or genres] if you are not well-versed? Respect the venue and respect your audience. Nobody wants to see a solo that is 20 minutes long! Do your legwork and understand your limitations.
MT: Throughout its long history, flamenco has changed and evolved. There has been opposition between the purists, who want to preserve a certain vision of traditional flamenco, and the modernists, who have brought new elements to the art form. In an interview, you said that your dance is “contemporary and about your current situation.” You also said that for you “authenticity means delving deep into the tradition.” How do you navigate the balance between staying true to the form, yet allowing it to evolve?
DS: The nature of art is intrinsically to be free. I am a forward mover. I’ve never gotten involved in that debate because I’m looking for connections and authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t mean being fixated upon a generation you weren’t a part of. The younger generations in Spain have opened themselves to other movements. Many have full training in other movement styles in addition to complete training in all of the Spanish dance forms: jota, escuela bolera, clásico español and danza estilizada. The only authenticity that one has to have in flamenco is to understand the musical form. I first make sure that I understand as deeply as possible the musical format and the form of the singing. What kind of movements would lend themselves to the music? What wouldn’t work?
MT: In a recent article, Valerie Gladstone noted how “just as men like El Farruco, Antonio Canales and Antonio Gades did in past decades, it is the women who now dominate the field… and are “driving the art form.” Do you agree and if so, how do you explain this evolution?
DS: The major companies that I know around the world are run by women. Flamenco is a very powerful expression for women because it is not a submissive or passive art form. Beyond its sheer physicality and energy it encourages the expression of emotions and it is a place where many women can showcase their strength.
Next week, we’ll hear from world-renowned belly dancer Jill Parker, who is sharing the bill with Danica Sena at Dance and Diaspora.