When I arrived at Vox Populi, the artists’ cooperative in Callowhill, the door was locked. A handwritten sign pointed to the buzzer, which I duly pushed. After a disembodied voice told me to come on up, I heard the click of the lock and opened the door, letting in a small flood of people who trailed behind me, on our way to see Elba Hevia y Vaca and Tina Plokarz’s La Bolivianita, a work in progress.
We funneled into the narrow elevator and decanted ourselves onto the third floor, where a tiny black-box theater with just a few folding chairs for the audience awaited us. The stage area had a straight-backed wooden chair, painted black. On the floor to one side lay a red shawl, to the other side a ruffled flamenco skirt. Facing it from across the small space lay a red bowler hat and an elaborately decorated red velvet jacket.
The lights went down and, when they came up again, Hevia y Vaca, a tiny Bolivian dynamo, sat in the chair, tapping out a rhythm on her chest and beating the complex time with her feet, first on one side, then on another, changing the rhythm with each turn, accompanied only by the sound of her own snapping heels. For the next hour, she held us enthralled as she performed in word and dance the story of her life.
When she rose, Hevia y Vaca pulled a slip of paper from her sleeve. She wore a floating black duster with a deep embroidered border over black leggings and turtleneck. She read from the paper in a lecture tone, starting with a definition, teaching us the basics of her art.
More than rhythms
“Compás,” she said. The heartbeat of flamenco, it means more than the rhythms we hear in the steps—it is the pulse of emotion expressed through the dance. She removed the duster, dragged pieces of dance floor into position as an open square, and moved from one to the other, describing the rhythms of flamenco as she danced them: soleá is aloneness; alegría, happiness; sequiriya, death. The compás is a code for emotions, she said.
More strips of paper—the dancer took in the codes, the emotions, and released them again in the dance. During Hevia y Vaca’s youth in La Paz, Bolivia, children were not permitted to show their emotions, and she found in flamenco a safe and structured way to find voice for her powerful feelings. Precision, she said, drawing yet another strip of paper and asking us to appreciate the intensity of passion, the exactness of the rhythms. In the oppressive patriarchy of the culture where she grew up, she said that flamenco kept her sane.
Dance and motherhood
Then she took off her shoes and shared that, according to a DNA test, she is 48 percent Indigenous. She put on a bowler hat and danced as if in a dream, with an elaborately decorated jacket, to native Bolivian music. She talked about the rise of the cholitas, the once-oppressed Indigenous women who have become an important part of Bolivian public life. She employs women in her own dance company.
She picked up the mantón, the shawl, said it is another way to make the dancing impossible, and wrapped herself in it, giving a few flourishes. But it’s the ruffled flamenco skirt that is the key. “Mother,” she called it, crawled beneath it, and worked her way out head first, reborn, and fastened it at her waist. As she danced, still barefoot, the whole performance became about motherhood—her own doubts and fears as a mother, her sense of loss when her mother went to the United States to work and gave her to her grandmother to raise in Bolivia. They are strong role models, but not necessarily kind ones. Dance became a mother for a girl looking for a safe home—which always comes back to Bolivia, though she has seldom returned.
Time to find out
Back in her dance shoes, Hevia y Vaca told us that she is 60 now, and her passion for flamenco has cooled and become something else. It might be easy to liken this to a love affair at that time in life when the embers are cooling. But I think it is more that she doesn’t need the mother flamenco has been in the way she did when she was younger. She doesn’t need to be that mother. Time to find out what else she can be.
As La Bolivianita develops, I expect there will be changes, hopefully to include some mention of the hands in the dance. But I cannot say that I have ever seen a more powerful and moving exploration of a life in the arts.
What, When, Where
La Bolivianita, part of Marcando el Terreno: Flamenco and Feminism. Choreography by Elba Hevia y Vaca. Pasión y Arte. Presented in partnership with independent curator and Vox Populi member Tina Plokarz. April 6 and 7, 2019, at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 238-1236 or pasionyarteflamenco.org.
Vox Populi requires advance notice for a wheelchair-accessible ramp to be placed over exterior stairs. The elevator is narrow and will not accommodate all wheelchairs.