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Aga Khan Museum Flamenco Festival highlights the concept of ‘duende’

The classical side of the flamenco spectrum – a form heavily influenced by other kinds of Spanish dance – will be brought to life by guitarist Pablo Gimenez and dancer Sara Jimenez, both from Granada.

Rafael Estevez

Toronto's Aga Khan Museum is presenting its second Flamenco Festival this weekend and it's aptly named Duende.

Duende is a concept that's hard to pin down. Typically associated with soulfulness or presence, the term suggests a powerful essence that some performers exude naturally, and others can never fake.

For playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, duende is what distinguishes a true artist from an imposter. In his 1933 lecture on the subject (which, in typical Lorca-style, alternates between the poetic and the hysterical), he describes a dark, earthy force that operates independently of skill. According to Lorca, duende works best when channelled through a live, performing body. And so his favourite examples of the mysterious power are the flamenco singers and dancers of his home province of Andalusia, artists who perform with a moribund intensity that hurts to deliver and might hurt as much to watch.

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The festival is one of two Andalusian-themed events currently running at the museum; the other is an exhibition on the architect Alvaro Siza's design for the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Anyone who has visited the ninth-century UNESCO World Heritage Site won't be surprised by this confluence of Spanish dance and Moorish architecture. Opposite the palace's courtyards and sun-dappled gardens, the winding streets are dotted with countless flamenco lairs and caves. In fact, Andalusia might be best known for two things: its beautifully preserved Islamic buildings and its impassioned tradition of music and dance.

For Amir Ali Alibhai, head of Performing Arts at Aga Khan, the Flamenco Festival is ideal for showcasing the many tangents that extend from Muslim history and culture.

"People often forget that the Iberian Peninsula was one time part of the al-Andalus dynasty," Alibhai says. "In flamenco music, you can hear Arabic, Sephardic and Gypsy influences – the Gypsies, of course, being nomadic and originating in India. For me flamenco is a fascinating, multidisciplinary form because it involves singing, music and dance – in a way, it's like opera, very dramatic."

Planning Duende, curator Justine Bayod Espoz wanted to give Toronto audiences a sense of the range and diversity in the contemporary flamenco scene. "There's a clichéd notion outside of Spain that flamenco is limited to big skirts, a lot of stomping, excess passion. What that says to me is that people are seeing it and enjoying it, but aren't really understanding a whole lot of what's going on."

So, over the course of the three-night festival (Oct. 14 to 16), Espoz has programmed work that showcases three key categories of flamenco: classical, traditional and contemporary. On Friday, the classical side of the spectrum – a form heavily influenced by other kinds of Spanish dance – will be brought to life by guitarist Pablo Gimenez and dancer Sara Jimenez, both from Granada. Jimenez will perform partly with castanets, which, contrary to popular belief, is a departure from traditional flamenco, connected instead to the folk style Sevillanas.

On Sunday, those interested in a purer approach to traditional flamenco music can hear the voice of one of Spain's rising stars, Alfredo Tejada. "His career is completely blossoming," Espoz says, citing the numerous renowned dancers he regularly accompanies and the recent release of his first solo album, Directo, which was acclaimed by flamenco critics.

But Espoz speaks most excitedly about the Saturday program, an evening of contemporary flamenco featuring a young innovator from Madrid called Cristian Perez. Perez will be performing a double-bill called Mi Flamenco, which looks at flamenco through the lens of a millennial artist, tinted with irony and humour. Espoz describes him as radically creative.

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"He's won just about every award you can win," she adds. "He's always stood out to me, with all the charisma and personality necessary to draw people's eye on stage. And then he isn't afraid to be comedic."

All performances will take place in the museum's 350-seat auditorium, which has a geometrically subdivided muqarnas dome, a feature common to Persian and Arabic architecture. It's a theatre where Alibhai hopes to continue to program diverse performances that stretch the public's idea of the reaches of Islamic culture.

"I think of the theatre as a giant musical instrument," he says, gesturing to the long, harmonious lines of polished teak wood. "There isn't a bad seat in the house. It's design is so unique."

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