When it comes to musical performance in Maine, Gregoíre Pearce and Lindsey Bourassa are cut from a rare cloth.
They’re among the handful of professional instructors and performers in this state that keep one of the masterpieces of human heritage alive: the sensually satisfying flamenco art form.
It’s time for a brief lesson in musical history and geography. Strongly associated with the Romani gypsies who allegedly migrated with the form of expression, flamenco dates back to 18th century Spain (specifically the southern Andalusia region). However, its distinctive style (and structure of 12 beats a measure) has captivated cultures across the world in places like North Africa, Japan, Venezuela, Paraguay and Mexico. Flamenco typically fuses toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping) and sometimes pitos (finger-snapping) for an experience that, if done right, is passionately expressive and subtly mesmerizing.
Thankfully, Pearce, a classically trained guitarist, and Bourassa, a flamenco dancer and choreographer, honor this unique piece of culture, by performing it superbly in places like Mayo Street Arts, College of the Atlantic, Frontier Cinema, Emmanuel Chapel and Blue. Both of them have dedicated their professional lives to practicing, teaching and performing flamenco, an art form they feel is too complex to be truly mastered.
“Flamenco is a lifelong affliction, you're constantly listening and learning,” said Pearce, who’s been practicing for 15 years. “Every day I wake up and eventually I’ll start clicking my teeth to different rhythms and thinking about flamenco.”
“Flamenco is like a beast that takes over you,” said Bourassa, who trained in Sevilla, Spain four years ago and now owns her own dance studio on Forest Avenue. “It has a lifelong quality to it. The masters say they are always learning. For regular dance there’s an early retirement age, but with flamenco the best dancers are the oldest. Your grandmother might be considered a better flamenco dancer than someone that’s physically more capable, because it’s all about experience.”
Bourassa and Pearce joined creative forces last May after agreeing to help on each other’s individual projects. Pearce had just finished his newest album, Pluviophile and needed a capable dancer to perform with him while he toured it across the state. Bourassa had started working on a multi-media, contemporary-flamenco performance project titled El Lobo y La Paloma and wanted Pearce to do the musical composition. It was an artistic match made in heaven.
“It was brilliant for me to find Greg and to be able to stay true to this art form,” said Bourassa, whose latest project explores the eventual journey toward death, the cycles of grief and the mystical connections between the physical and spiritual worlds. “Flamenco is all about transmitting emotion, and Greg and I are able to do that together.”
According to Pearce and Bourassa, if the people coming to see them perform aren’t students or friends of theirs, they’re newcomers who typically haven’t been exposed to flamenco and its intricacies before.
“Not too many people are familiar with flamenco in this corner of the world,” said Pearce, whose passion for the flamenco guitar sprouted after he studied in Las Vegas with classical guitarist Ricardo Cobo. “Cobo’s technique and musicianship blew my face off. My time with him helped cultivate that interest.”
Last week, I was one of those people that had never even heard of flamenco music and its dance component. And to be clear, I still know next to nothing. There are so many different cultural fusions, variations and rules regarding structure, melodies and time signatures, that it really would take a lifetime to get a full understanding of it, let alone a musical proficiency. Even Pearce, who likes to stay true to the art form’s roots, blends his own influences of jazz, Cuban and African rhythms into the mix. Fueling a curiosity of mine to see how a classically trained Spanish guitarist would be received in Portland, Maine, I attended Pearce and Bourassa’s latest performance at St. Luke’s Cathedral last Saturday.
As I walked down the icy sidewalk approaching the Cathedral, I was anxious to escape the frigid air, and warm my soul with an exotic art form that’s literally derived from the Spanish word for “fire,” or “flame.” Upstairs in the softly lit and beautifully ornate Emmanuel Chapel, a small crowd of about 22 people were getting cozy in their pews, while Pearce and Bourassa were getting ready for a 60-minute showcase of their passions. The audience was mostly older professionals who had heard about the flamenco performance during their church’s service. I learned later that the handful of younger people in the audience were students of Pearce's, and had come to see “the master at work.”
Pearce greeted the small congregation, sat on a small stool and broke the thick silence by starting the performance with a rendition of “Habanera,” by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza. While Pearce plucked an enchantingly complex melody, enhanced by church acoustics, members of the audience folded their hands and stared at either the guitar or the beautiful ceiling.
“Where’s Bourassa?” I thought to myself, before I noticed she was sitting behind me. Traditionally, Pearce plays a number of solo pieces from his favorite composers, first (like Leo Brouwer and Heitor Villa-Lobos), before he’s joined by Bourassa and the flamenco set truly begins.
“When Lindsay typically comes out, all hell breaks loose,” said Pearce after the performance. “If the room is miked the right way, the sound of her heels can be thunderous. When we’re both connecting on those beats, there’s no better feeling than that connectivity.”
But when Bourassa did find her spot in the center of the chapel and next to Pearce, it wasn’t to dance, but rather to do the palmas, or hand-clapping. According to Bourassa, the chapel’s tile floor wouldn’t provide the right acoustics needed, for a proper baile in her percussive shoes. I would have to witness that visually striking dance-form another day.
Bourassa sat down and started clapping her hands in a purposeful, repetitive manner, while Pearce began strumming the first notes to “June 5th,” a solea from his latest album Pluviophile. Like a musician trained with an instrument, each of Bourassa’s claps were resonant, uniform and perfectly timed. It was fascinating to see a pair of hands tuned and capable of many different kinds of pitch, as Bourassa had to clap differently depending on the mood and pace of the melody. It was also amusing to hear Bourassa’s organized, rhythmic claps followed by the chaotic and disruptive ones coming out of the audience after each song.
The intensely intimate performance continued with two alegrias called “Cursive for Adults,” a solea por bulerias titled “Pluviophile” and a tangos called “Cherry Pit Necklace.”
Somewhere in the middle of the performance, I lost track of time. I stopped taking notes, and I stopped snapping photos. Maybe it was the pleasantly bizarre setting of a tiny church chapel, combined with the dreamy sounds of Pearce’s guitar, but either way, the entire experience slowed down time and centered my thoughts on the present moment. Letting Pearce and Bourassa’s flamenco performance envelop my headspace meant for the first time that day, I wasn’t compelled to check my phone, or think about all the future tasks I had to accomplish. Instead I was focused solely on my current state of emotions. It seemed to have that effect on others as well, because many audience members started to close their eyes in a meditative sort of way. This wasn’t music to drink to, dance in a crowd to, or shout along with, it was purely music to think to. It was a performance that didn’t require anything from the listener, except open ears and an open mind.
My response to the flamenco performance seemed on par with the general function of the art form. Each of the 50 styles of flamenco has its own emotive quality to it, from solitude and despair, to happiness and love, to destitution and hope.
“It's a wide spectrum of emotions,” said Bourassa. “We try to perform a little bit of everything.”
Gregoíre Pearce’s new album Pluviophile is available (https://gregoireplaysguitar.bandcamp.com/) for $11. His next performance with Bourassa will be at Blue, 650 Congress St., Portland on Sunday, Jan. 31 at 6:30 pm.
Bourassa’s Dance studio offers personalized lessons and workshops starting at $15 and is located at 525 Forest Ave., Portland. Her multi-media contemporary flamenco performance entitled El Lobo y La Paloma is due for release in July.