Keeping it in the family

After a whirlwind decade, Israel’s preeminent flamenco couple is back to make its mark here.

flamenco keren avner pessah dancers 311 (photo credit: Eyal Landsman)
flamenco keren avner pessah dancers 311
(photo credit: Eyal Landsman)
Flamenco, it could be said, is not for the fainthearted. There are few visual art forms that exude such ferocity of emotion, and in such an in-your-face manner. That was eminently and corporeally evident last week at a rehearsal of the Remangar dance company at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel.
Seven female dancers and one male dancer entered and exited the practice fray in quick succession, as Keren and Avner Pessah led the dancers, singers and guitarists through their paces ahead of the Israeli-Spanish coproduction of the new Remangar show, Entre Dos (Between Two), which premieres at the Jerusalem Theater on March 23 (9 p.m.). The Jerusalem date will be followed by shows at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center (March 24) and Mercaz Habama in Ganei Tikva on March 25. The production also features one of Spain’s top flamenco singers, Jose Anillo.
If I had any doubt at all about the robustness of flamenco dancing, it was quickly dispelled as the studio space floor, and probably the walls and ceiling too, shook with every stamp of the dancers’ powerful feet. At one point the six female support dancers started a frenetic display of synchronized movement, which was soon augmented by Keren’s polished and highly emotive contribution. If that weren’t enough, Avner soon added his masculine peso’s worth, while three guitarists powered their way through the score – part of which was written by Avner – and two singers ululated with commensurate expression. Entre Dos is obviously designed to set the heart racing.
The principal dancers, wife and husband Keren and Avner Pessah, say the show will be “intimate, rhythmic and revealing.” But, surely, that must be a bit intimidating. Why would a married couple want to let the public in on their intimacy, albeit in a structured artistic format?
“We do it all the time anyway,” states Avner simply. “The show is really a collection of memories. Each part portrays a memory from our life as a couple. There is no differentiation between the two, between our partnership as a couple in life and on stage. Our relationship came into being because of flamenco, so it’s only fitting.”
The Pessahs took very different routes to what eventually became their joint profession. Ra’anana-born Keren had been active in dance, across a wide spectrum of styles, for some years before she settled on flamenco. “I have been dancing almost ever since I can remember, from the age of 10,” she says. “I did jazz, classical, ballet and lots of other stuff, but when I was 16, I decided flamenco was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Meanwhile Avner, who hails from Ramat Rahel, was into martial arts and playing guitar and only became interested in flamenco dancing after becoming temporarily incapacitated. Mind you, he also had some cultural heredity that helped point him in the right direction. “My mother comes from Chile and my father spent some years in South America on shlihut, and he is descended from anusei Sefarad [Marranos], so there was a lot of Ladino culture at home. I was into flamenco guitar and one day I cut my finger badly when I was at work in the kibbutz carpentry shop. I couldn’t play guitar anymore so I started looking for something else to do. One day someone suggested I try flamenco dancing, and that was that for me.”
By then Avner was already in his mid-20s, so he had to get a move on if he was going to make his mark on the genre.
Naturally, he headed for Spain as soon as he managed to scrape together enough cash for the plane ticket and for three months’ living expenses. Unbeknownst to Avner, Keren had relocated there two weeks earlier, to further her flamenco training at the Amor De Dios dance school in Madrid. Avner was initially more interested in the musical side of Spanish culture and headed for the town of Jerez, where he hungrily imbibed some of the gypsy musical vibes. After a while he made tracks for Madrid and the two met at the dance school.
“Our relationship started there, in 1996,” explains Avner, “and we have been together ever since.”
The name of the new show, Entre Dos, may be something of a misnomer. “Entre dos has two meanings,” explains Avner. “It can mean ‘between two,’ between a couple, referring the relationship between two people, and it can also mean what is between the couple. We have a four-and-a-half-year-old son, Yarden, and he comes between me and Keren. This comes through in the show, in a metaphorical way. So, in that sense, it is really about Keren and me, both as a couple and as parents.”
As far as Avner is concerned, there is very little between art and everyday life. “We do our best to ensure that our performances feed off the reality of our lives. That way we can bring ourselves to the stage in the most genuine and honest way possible. We dance the flamenco puro style, which comes from the farrucero style which was devised by the Farruco family of Seville. It is a style that is very close to real life.”
After around three years at the school in Madrid, the Pessahs relocated southward, to Seville, with the express purpose of furthering their studies with the Farruco gypsy family. This is where the Pessah couple’s dance story began in earnest, although the odds against its working out were stacked heavily against them. In fact, the incentive to hook up with the Farrucos came from here.
“We received funding from Israel to put on a Spanish-Israeli coproduction in Israel. That was in November 2000,” Avner recalls. “So we went to Seville to, hopefully, learn with the Farrucos and bring them to Israel.”
When the couple arrived in Seville they soon learned that there were no available teachers and no vacancies for more students at the Farrucos’ school. “We sat on a bench in Seville, lost and in tears,” Avner recalls. The bench reappears in Entre Dos as one of the memory scenes.
It was then that the do-or-die, or Israeli hutzpa, approach kicked in. “I told Keren to stay there and went to the school,” says Avner. “I was met by a formidable-looking Japanese woman who told me she ran things there but I said I had to talk to a member of the Farruco family.”
The Japanese director wasn’t too thrilled with the idea but Avner’s insistence paid off. He was granted an audience with Farruca, the matriarch of the family, and managed to persuade her to admit him and Keren to the school.
“Gypsies make up their minds quickly,” says Avner. “She shook my hand and when she saw Keren she said: ‘You and I will dance on stage together.’ I knew meeting Keren would convince her to take us in to the school, and Farruca gave us a special low tuition fee. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to survive in Spain.”
The Pessahs spent the next seven years at the school and made great progress. “We learned how to be as genuine as possible on the stage, without mimicry and any alien forms of expression, and just to let things happen of their own accord,” says Avner.
That sounds anathema to the whole premise of flamenco dancing which, the lay person would presume, is based on carefully choreographed patterns. “That can happen in solo spots,” explains Keren. “When the whole group or a couple is on stage, that doesn’t happen.”
Avner begs to differ. “I think there can be some unexpected interaction when two people dance as a couple too. Yes, there is a plan and we know what each other is going to do, but there are delicate nuances. We allow the body to react, as far as possible, spontaneously. You have to keep your body centered, like an energy bomb, but in total control. At the same time your face should be tranquil and you should be able to differentiate between different movements. Then you can allow things to happen. I think that’s the secret to the whole thing. The more anchored you are, the more you can allow yourself to let loose. It’s the same in life too.”
That also demands a certain degree of maturity. “It’s very difficult, when you first get on a stage as a young dancer, to find the courage to improvise,” adds Keren. “It takes time. It takes time to reach that level.”
KEREN SAYS it took her a lot of hard work to reach that elevated point of her emotional and professional development. “After we’d been in Seville for seven years, Farruquito, the head of the school, put on a new show called Alma Vieja – ancient soul – and decided to include me in it. That was a really big breakthrough for me.”
That happened at an important juncture in the Pessahs’ life. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do at the time,” Keren continues. “We’d thought of coming back to Israel, and then Farruquito told me he’d got the funding for the new show and that I was going to be in it.”
That really put the Pessahs on the map. “Avner joined the show as stage manager and we toured all over the world for two years with it. I’d been performing on stages since I was little, but it was when I was in Alma Vieja that I finally felt the freedom to let things go, and to be in a position where I didn’t always know exactly what I was going to do next on the stage. That was a wonderful feeling.”
For Avner the reality-art combination is key, and offers oxymoronic communication value. “For me, what sets flamenco apart from all other dance forms is to know how to dance flamenco without being a dancer.”
How so? “You really reach an audience when you are totally real,” he continues. “You have to be, say, 80 percent a dancer and 20% a human being. I think you really connect with the audience when you do something that doesn’t come from a dance academy, when something comes out that you didn’t learn at school. You can have amazing technique but still can’t touch your audience. You have to take risks sometimes.”
Besides technique, the Pessahs say their seven-year sojourn with the Farrucos taught them the added value of closeness and intimacy for their art. “We started out as junior level students but we eventually became part of the Farruco family,” says Avner. “Farruca is our son’s godmother, they come here every year to do workshops and we go to Spain every year. We learned from them that the bond between members of a family, between people, on stage is very important, and we bring that intimacy into everything we do, and of course into Entre Dos.”
The opening scene of the new show features the “legendary” bench in Seville, from which Avner went to try to gain entry into the school, and from which the Pessahs’ artistic odyssey took an incremental leap and set them on the road to becoming top class dancers.
“There are scenes in Entre Dos that are about Avner and me as a couple, and there is a scene which is about me as a mother and about Yarden,” says Keren, adding, however, that it is not always about intimacy. “Sometimes I see Avner as someone dancing with me, and sometimes I see him as my partner in life – and then I can be moved to tears.”
Now Keren and Avner are back in Israel, and say they want to want toachieve their next career leap from here. “We want to succeed in Israelbefore we really go on the road, outside the country, again,” saysKeren.
Meanwhile, Avner says the name of the dance company, which also runs aschool in Tel Aviv, spells out the couple’s intent. “Remangar means togather or collect. It’s like rolling up your sleeves before you dosomething, or like gathering yourself before releasing your energy,there is this constant tension and release.”
That was tangibly clear at the rehearsal and, presumably, will come across at next week’s shows too.