Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Airbourne: Carlos Saura and Jota

A scene from J: Beyond Flamenco, directed by Carlos Saura.

Director Carlos Saura has done it again: he has used dance as a source of inspiration for one of his masterfully made movies. But instead of fiery flamenco -- the subject of the trio of dance films, Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986), which first made him internationally famous in the 1980s -- Saura, now 84, has turned to jota, a lesser known dance and musical genre born of his native Aragon.

J: Beyond Flamenco (also known as Jota de Saura), a 90-minute art-driven documentary that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, tells the story of jota (the j is pronounced like an h), a traditional dance performed in rapid 6/8 time and to a variety of instruments, from Galician bagpipes to Castilian guitars and castanets. Jota, as Saura proudly shows, is the dance of the Spanish people, what they have performed since the 1700s at burials, weddings and street festivals like the one reenacted for the camera at the film's end. But over the centuries it has morphed into an art form of great intricacy, delicacy and poetic expressiveness. The high elevations and airborne allegro movements – including sautés, jetes, cabrioles and entrechats – show jota (the word means "jump") to have a strong affinity with ballet. The artistry is elegantly sublime.

Saura assembles some of Spain's greatest exponents of jota, past and present, to show how a historic dance form has remained vital over the years. It remains a still potent expression of Spanish heritage and Saura is on a mission to make it better known around the world. The opening sequence shows an accomplished senior jota dancer – Miguel Ángel Berna, also the film's choreographer – teaching children in a dance studio the quick hopping steps and curved arms of a dance they will likely dance for the rest of their years. Jota is a way of life, danced by young and old, artist and lay person, as can be seen in a film that takes pains to situate jota in history, enduring Franco and the Spanish Civil War to emerge as a symbol of resilience.

Saura obviously feels a great deal of affection for this dance and musical genre that, while originating in Aragon in the north of Spain, has many iterations as a result of having grown roots in other regions and countries like Cuba and the Philippines. Adopting at a times an academic approach, Saura traces the history of jota from its primitive origins as a peasant dance performed at harvest time, as seen in museum-quality paintings, to its popularization in the early 20th century by the likes of Imperio Argentina, the legendary actress whose early sung performances of jota are preserved in vintage black-and-white film footage from 1935 which Saura splices into his own film. A group of contemporary jota dancers, among them Manuela Adamo, who also helped choreograph, sits in a darkened room watching the old-time movies, analyzing the dancing style to see how it has changed from then to now. The arms are lower than they are today, it is noted aloud, and the castanets played with the middle finger, which is the traditional way. This focus on the tiniest of details informs an understanding of how jota continues to evolve, but at the expense of appearing didactic. Saura better communicates jota's many splendid qualities when he abandons the schoolroom for an evocatively lit black stage with a painted set design of his own making. This is where Saura lets the dance and the music speak for itself.

A master at filming dance, Saura positions his camera at a respectful distance to give the performers plenty of room in which to move, sing and play their many instruments. As he does in all his dance films, Saura uses mirrors with a curved reflecting surface to amplify the dance imagery and intensify an emotional connection between performer and audience. With this film he again employs the mobile camera technique used in his flamenco trilogy to capture the fluid energy and driving rhythm of jota from a variety of angles, including overhead. Set pieces of choreography, among them the spidery "Tarantula" and the electrifying solo flamenco star Sara Barras dances with Berna weaving around her performing jota, flow seamlessly with staged musical presentations with a range of styles, including jazz, classical and traditional song, as chosen by musical director, Alberto Artigas.

Saura bathes the performers in golden light, making clear his intention of bringing jota out from under flamenco's shadow and letting it shine. More than just a folk dance, jota is an art form with legs. This film will make sure it gets noticed.

J: Beyond Flamenco premieres in Spain on October 7.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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