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The evolutionary artist of flamenco

Rocio Molina sees no limits to interpretation

Rocio Molina first danced flamenco at 3 and at 25 is renowned as both dancer and choreographer. Since her first appearance in Boston in 2002, she has formed her own company. Rocio Molina first danced flamenco at 3 and at 25 is renowned as both dancer and choreographer. Since her first appearance in Boston in 2002, she has formed her own company.
By Valerie Gladstone
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2010

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MADRID - A cold front whipped through the city early this month, bringing heavy snow and sending Madrileños into cafes for warmth. Rocio Molina stood among a group of men and women at the bar in the cozy Taberna Tirso de Molina, sipping a steaming café con leche and making calls in an attempt to find a place to rehearse that evening.

“I need to have a studio,’’ she said emphatically into her phone. “You promised me the space.’’ Sighing after she hung up, she said, “It’s hard, this life. But at least I do what I love.’’

Fresh from a holiday break with her family in the southern Spanish city of Malaga, Molina hoped to work on pieces for the Flamenco Festival’s “Gala Flamenca: Todo Cambia,’’ in which she will join other young and independent-minded dancers at the Boston Opera House this Saturday.

At 25, the baby-faced dancer bundled in a woolly red scarf, black turtleneck sweater, jeans, and sturdy boots hardly looks like flamenco’s latest sensation, a woman hailed as inaugurating a new era in female flamenco dancing. Her sweet, unaffected manner isn’t consistent with flamboyant flamenco stereotypes, and neither is her approach to the art form. “There are no limits to the ways flamenco can be interpreted,’’ she says. “It’s open.’’

Ella Baff, artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, is a longtime fan who invited Molina to the festival last summer. “Rocio’s an incredibly intriguing dancer,’’ Baff says by phone. “She always surprises. She can be by turns introspective, almost philosophic, and then transform herself into a voluptuous fireball. I love the way she finishes a solo, like a jazz musician ending a riff. She does what needs to be done, nothing more, nothing less. She just stops and then leaves the stage. It heightens the whole experience. She knows so much for her years; she’s an old soul.’’

Critics seem to agree with Baff. After seeing Molina’s performance with Belén Maya in “Mujeres’’ at Jacob’s Pillow last June, Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times declared: “Molina is one of the greatest flamenco dancers I have seen,’’ adding, “Dancing with her seems an act of poetic imagination. And of independence: You feel her at all points resisting stereotype, staleness, categorization.’’

In a booth in the back of the cafe, which is decorated with tiles depicting painted women in ruffled, dance hall dresses, Molina traces the steps of her career to its beginnings in Malaga, where she first danced flamenco at 3. She graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Dance in Madrid at 18, then joined María Pagés’s company, where she also began to choreograph. Looking for a challenge, she teamed up with the idiosyncratic Israel Galván for a performance at the Flamenco Festival gala in Boston in 2002. Since then, she has formed her own company and danced all over Europe, winning awards for her choreography and her performances. “I’ve been lucky,’’ she says. “I seem to have grown up quickly.’’

That’s an understatement. Rare is the dancer who hits her stride so young, and rarer still is one who doesn’t constantly refer to her predecessors. Far more than most flamenco artists, Molina opens herself up to challenges and is unafraid to question traditions. In a field where too many performers get caught up trying to answer the unanswerable “What is true flamenco?’’ she simply does what’s necessary to get to the truth of the emotions she wishes to express. “The movement is inside my body,’’ she says. “I work from the inside out, not the other way around. I’m not looking in the mirror or to the past.’’

Even while venturing out on her own, she continues to collaborate. Molina performed in choreographer Jacqueline Buglisi’s contemporary piece “Four Elements,’’ which was presented in Boston in 2005. “Rocio gave so much to the work,’’ Buglisi says, “even though she’d never done anything like it before. I asked her to try pouring water from a conch shell over her heart, and she didn’t hesitate to try it. She listens to her heart. She’s one of those dancers that Martha Graham called ‘an acrobat of God.’ ’’

After a concert in London last March, Molina stayed on to see performances of contemporary dance and ballet, and whenever possible slipped into studios to see what was happening there. “I don’t stick to what I learned when I was young in Andalusia,’’ she says. “There’s too much going on that I might use. Flamenco is a young art; it’s evolving. I like to study other disciplines. I want to see how other choreographers conceive things. The passion is already there. I want to learn more about structure. Structure and staging can amplify the emotion.’’

She searches for different themes. Last year she choreographed “Oro Viejo,’’ about the passage of time and old age, a section of which she will perform on Saturday. “I began noticing elderly people on the street,’’ Molina says. “Before I had just ignored them. I became interested. I wanted to feel something of what they feel. I dressed in older clothes and hid my face in scarves and sat in parks and walked the streets slowly like they do. And I noticed how no one saw me. It changed me completely. Young people run so much. They swallow time. It gave me an entirely new way of looking at life.’’

Molina picks up the phone again and gets an OK from the studio. She smiles, lifts her scruffy backpack filled with dance gear, ready to head to the street and nearby El Horno dance center, where she will be able to work on new pieces.

“Oh, I must show you something,’’ she says excitedly on the way there, ignoring the cold blasts of wind. In the entrance, she stops and stands against a wall. “I want to see what I can do when I confine myself in a small space, so in one section I will dance in a square wooden box and beat my feet up against its sides without moving my torso.’’

Her face glowing, she illustrates - and the intense pounding and drumming creates a thrilling new flamenco sound.

FLAMENCO FESTIVAL 2010

Featuring Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca on Friday and “Gala Flamenca: Todo Cambia’’ on Saturday.

Presented by World Music/CRASHarts at Boston Opera House. Tickets: 617-876-4275, www.WorldMusic.org