Flamenco may have originated in southern Spain, but it has become as New Mexican as the Zia symbol. On any given night, a bailaora is performing on a Land of Enchantment stage, fusing intense passion, emotion, and technique in this singular art form. It is only fitting, then, that the next major exhibition at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art is Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico, opening on Sunday, Nov. 22.

Among the exhibit’s over 150 objects are playbills, albums, photos, paintings, instruments, and costume sketches. A Sevillan feria (fair) street scene will be re-created, as will the bedroom of Betty Serna Cárdenas, the 1948 Reina de la Fiesta de Santa Fe, in which Cárdenas’ flamenco sheet music and costumes attest to the multifaceted nature of the dance. Visitors will be able to play with castanets, try on costumes, and watch instructional videos to learn palmas (handclapping) and the cajón (a percussion instrument). If inspired by what they see, they can try out their own flamenco skills on a small dance floor.

The exhibit’s interactivity undermines assumptions that flamenco is solely a performance art. It is visual, aural, tactile, and thoroughly dynamic. And it is at its heart a folkloric tradition, explains Nicolasa Chávez, curator of the exhibit and author of its accompanying book, The Spirit of Flamenco: From Spain to New Mexico (Museum of New Mexico Press). “It began with the families; it began with the people,” Chávez said, speaking to Pasatiempo of flamenco’s Andalusian roots. The chronology of those roots is debated, but flamenco is believed to have developed after the Gitano, or Gypsy, people came to Spain from the east during the medieval era and intermingled with the cultures already there, including Moors and Sephardic Jews. 

Colorful, intricate costumes are interspersed throughout the exhibit, dating from 1888 to last year. Highlights include eight costumes from the company of José Greco — one of flamenco’s biggest stars — and a collection of María Benítez’s early costumes, such as her first practice skirt and the bata de cola (dress with a train) she wore on the cover of Dance Magazine in 1984. Benítez is a principal figure in the establishment of New Mexico as a flamenco center, having cofounded (with husband Cecilio) Santa Fe’s María Benítez Teatro Flamenco and Institute for Spanish Arts.

One of the exhibit’s most surprising costumes is a bata de cola made of recycled wedding kimonos, designed by Tokyo dancer and costume designer Hawhiko Okuhama. The dress is a testament to the popularity of flamenco internationally, and particularly in Japan, where there are hundreds of Spanish-dance schools. Flamenco “has a universal feel because it captures every human emotion,” Chávez said. “It is happiness, it’s sadness, it’s pride, it’s despair. It everything anyone can feel. If you can’t express it in words, you certainly express it in dance and music and song via flamenco.”

Notwithstanding its universality, there is something particular about flamenco’s strong ties to New Mexico. Those ties are strong, but they are not as far-reaching as they are sometimes thought to be — Chávez writes in the exhibition’s accompanying book that the notion that flamenco “came to the state along the Camino Real with the Spanish conquistadores and friars” is a “popular misconception.” In reality, flamenco arrived in New Mexico in the 20th century, in the years following the turn-of-the-century U.S. pop culture “Spanish craze.” Even at the time of its entry into the United States, Spanish dance spanned the arts: John Singer Sargent painted El Jaleo — with a central dancer who makes Madame X look quaint — in 1882, and Thomas Edison filmed the dancer Carmencita, the “Pearl of Seville,” in 1894.

The 1940s and ’50s were transformational in flamenco in the United States. Spanish companies came to America to perform, while films such as Sombrero (1953) widened the audience for Spanish culture even further. That film showcased the talents of Greco, whose company was among the first to perform shows exclusively of flamenco; another company to do so was that of Barcelona-born dancer Carmen Amaya, the “epitome of pure, raw, untamable Gypsy flamenco,” writes Chávez. (Greco was born in Italy and raised in Brooklyn.)

One young viewer of Sombrero — a clip of which is in the Spirit of Flamenco exhibit — was Santa Fe’s Vicente Romero, whose inspiration from the film set his life’s course. In 1964, after training and performing around the world, Romero debuted at the now-defunct restaurant El Nido in Tesuque, which quickly became a hotbed of Spanish-dance artistry. During the opera season, he would perform twice nightly, and he began bringing singers and guitarists over from Spain. “A lot of local people got their firsthand experience learning flamenco via these performers, because after the shows, there would be all-night jam sessions,” said Chávez. Romero began partnering with Benítez at El Nido in 1969. After Romero departed to found a show at El Gancho off Old Las Vegas Highway (also now closed), Benítez took over at El Nido, often performing to sold-out audiences. The exhibit features items from each of these key developments in flamenco’s history. These include early playbills of Greco and Amaya, video footage and film clips of both, a painting of Romero by artist Bernique Longley, and photographs of Benítez at El Nido.

In the ensuing decades, New Mexicans have made their home state the unofficial national center of flamenco. Albuquerque hosts the Festival Flamenco Internacional de Albuquerque, founded by dancer Eva Encinias-Sandoval in her hometown in 1987 and put on by Albuquerque’s National Institute of Flamenco, also founded by Encinias-Sandoval. The festival brings in talent from around the world for nightly performances and dozens of workshops. Encinias-Sandoval began teaching flamenco classes at the University of New Mexico in 1976. Today the department of theater and dance at UNM offers the only undergraduate and graduate degree flamenco programs in the world. The state’s many resident companies include Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe, which established an innovative partnership with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2014; Entreflamenco, co-directed by Antonio Granjero and Estefania Ramirez; EmiArteFlamenco, dancer Emmy “La Emi” Grimm’s company; and Jesus Muñoz’s company Casa Flamenca. 

Flamenco provides a rare opportunity to see the evolution of this local history — and national and global history — in objects. Flamenco’s heritage will also be celebrated in the exhibit’s opening events, which will feature performances. Events later in the run of the exhibit will extend the education and celebration. For instance, on March 20, 2016, Uxía Nars, a group of Basque and Galician musicians, will perform songs that incorporate the poems of Federico García Lorca, who contributed to the spreading popularity of flamenco through his poetry, plays, and writings on the concept of duende, the intense passion and emotion that emerge during artistic expression and originate from something deep and timeless.

Given flamenco’s folkloric ancestry of being passed down across generations, the exhibit fits squarely within the tradition it celebrates. Like those all-night jam sessions in 1960s Tesuque, it offers attendees a chance to learn about, celebrate, and share their appreciation for this timeless art form. ◀