WORDS LIN STRANBERG X LEVENT ERUTKU PHOTOGRAPHY
“One, two, three, four—good, let’s check our fingers once the arms are over our heads and make sure the energy’s there.” Flamenco artist Maria Avila and her student, both in all black, are practicing in front of studio mirrors at the Scotiabank Dance Centre near Davie and Granville.
Maria’s feet are beating out loud rhythmic patterns on the wooden floors, yet she remains graceful and erect. She coaches her student: “Your weight comes down hard but you don’t show it in your upper body.”
Tall and slim, with grey eyes and dark blonde hair, Maria is serious and passionate when she teaches the foundations of this expressive dance form. She is engaged and charismatic.
Flamenco originated in the Andalusian area of southern Spain centuries ago with roots in Indian, Arabic and Roma (or gitano) culture. In Spain, the dance form evolved under the influence of hundreds of years of intermingling with Moorish and Sephardic Jewish cultures. Today it’s popular all over the world, and Vancouver-born Maria has been studying, performing and teaching it for more than a decade.
Maria grew up in an atmosphere of creativity in Kitsilano. The family has Spanish roots; her Mexican father was an avant-garde clown with Cirque du Soleil in its nascent years, and the family name, Avila, is a city outside Madrid. As a young girl, Maria sang in Vancouver’s Bach Choir. Her path to flamenco dancing began later, because she wanted to learn Spanish, and she wanted to dance. It was a natural.
She began her secondary education by studying visual arts, first at Langara College and then at Emily Carr, where she graduated with a BFA: Visual Arts. She is currently working on earning her MFA: Dance from York University in Toronto. That initiative involved a lot of back-and-forth travel before this year, when she was able to settle down in Vancouver to write her thesis. She’s writing about the process of creating three short flamenco films in collaboration with filmmakers: “The Bull,” “The Rose” and “The Fan.” She dances in all three.
“In ‘The Bull,’ I dance the parts of both the bull and the bullfighter. I fought myself!” she says.
She has studied in Sevilla, Vancouver and Toronto, where she won a fellowship at York, and received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council. A highlight of her learning career is a mentorship she did with Myriam Allard, a highly respected and innovative flamenco dancer based in Montreal.
“I’m so honoured to get money to do what I love. I’m always keen to learn and grow from other dancers and I have a strong desire to be a student always.”
One of her current professional goals is to cultivate and teach a flamenco dance class in a Canadian university.
“The challenge is to find a balance between stability and creativity. I like variety and I love choreography and performance coaching—and I love teaching.”
Right now, she gives private and group lessons around Vancouver. Her classes range from beginners to higher intermediates, and she gives technique classes as well. She would teach more if she could.
“My big challenge is finding studio space. Flamenco shoes have little nailheads in the toe and heel, and studios are afraid of wrecking their floors.”
Scotiabank Dance Centre, where some studios have sprung floors, is a favourite, but availability is an issue. It’s a popular place.
Maria participated in the International Flamenco Festival in Vancouver and, as Group Calle Verde, she sings and dances in venues around town with fellow dancer Michelle Harding and guitarist Peter Mole.
“Flamenco is tied to the singing component,” she explains. “We move because of the song. Commercialization has pushed the dancer in front, but in the end it’s all about the song.”
In flamenco, the dancer is both the protagonist of the singer’s narrative and its interpreter. It’s an art form that’s stylized and very personal, relying on non-verbal communications to express emotions. Maria finds it constantly challenging. And she thrives on creative challenges.
“Flamenco dancing demands that you are entirely in the present moment. You have no time to think—you have to be totally present and immediately responsive to the decisions made by the singers or musicians. Things change constantly and the dancer must always be ready to improvise.”