El Arbol del Flamenco or the Flamenco Tree at Teatro del Soho
April 5, 2024

Community organisation uses flamenco theatre to combat social exclusion

By W2SFadmin

A few weeks ago, the WheretoSeeFlamenco team went to see a show called El Arbol del Flamenco or the Flamenco Tree at Teatro del Soho CaixaBank in Málaga.

Produced by Fundación Alalá, the Flamenco Tree was part of Teatro del Soho Caixabank’s Fourth Annual Flamenco at The Soho programme, made up of a varied offering of six shows. As I am an avid admirer of trees, and trained as an actor at Drama Centre London, where students were reputed to love “hugging” a tree, the Flamenco Tree was an absolute must-see show for me. I found the title intriguing as the development of flamenco is often likened to a tree, with its roots set in a wide array of musical traditions, including Gypsy, Jewish, Byzantine, and Moorish influences and with its branches being the various flamenco styles that have developed and evolved over the years.

The show’s story line told the tale of a group of schoolgirls who discover a beautiful tree in their local park. The girls soon find out that this is no ordinary tree. The tree is the flamenco tree and it has magic powers. It begins to teach the girls everything there is to know about flamenco. The girls see an official notice advising that the tree is about to be chopped down. Greatly distressed to find this out, the girls decide to do everything in their power to prevent the felling of the beautiful flamenco tree. They organise a protest around the tree and thankfully, by the end of the show, the flamenco tree has been saved for posterity.

This charming allegory was interspersed with “palmas” (clapping) and “cante” (singing) from a group of adult flamenco singers. It also incorporated flamenco dancing by a troupe of young flamenco dancers in vibrant traditional flamenco costumes. These young dancers performed a series of different “palos” or flamenco dance styles. These included lovely examples of the alegría, bulería, soleá, fandango, and so on. Both were accompanied by music from flamenco guitarists, together with percussionists playing the flamenco cajón or box drum. In between the various scenes, the duenda or spirit of flamenco flitted around the stage with sylvan-like grace, moving the storyline forward, whilst her contemporary dance style steps provided a counterpoint to the main action. For me, the duenda, beautifully danced by Alalá’s Dance Mistress Aroa Barea, was the most interesting character in the show for she seemed to encapsulate all the elements: earth in her barefoot connection to the soil and her resemblance to a wood nymph, water in the love, empathy, and emotion she brought to her actions and movements, air in the lightness of her dancing and the floating fabric of her costume, fire in the flame colour of her dress evoking the fire at the heart of flamenco, a fire that cannot be extinguished.

All the beautiful costumes worn in the show were produced by members of Fundación Alalá’s “Sewing and Singing” workshop and the set design was the work of their Visual Arts department. The grandiose figure of the flamenco tree with its grainy, wrinkled face was in a dominant position upstage centre highlighted by an engaging use of audiovisual projections. With the stage layout reminiscent of a traditional flamenco “tablao” set up, that is, with the guitarist(s) stage left (on the right from the audience’s perspective) and the singer(s) stage right, the dance troupe was free to use the considerable extent of Teatro del Soho CaixaBank’s stage to great effect. We had a fabulous view of the choreography from the front row of the “Anfiteatro” (first circle), always my favourite spot in any theatre especially when seeing a dance show.

The meaning of the word Alalá is “happiness” and the Flamenco Tree certainly did live up to the Fundación’s name. I loved how the Flamenco Tree not only showcased the various disciplines and styles of flamenco but also explored the highly relatable and important themes of environmental protest and protection, rehabilitation, and self-expression.

After the show I was keen to find out more about Fundación Alalá and their work. Fundación Alalá is an Andalusian non-profitmaking organisation founded in 2015, with branches in Seville and Jerez de la Frontera. Its origins date back to the Asociación Caracafé, run by popular Sevillian flamenco guitarist Emilio “Caracafé”, who offered the local kids in his area of Seville free flamenco guitar lessons through a small local “peña” or cultural association. To this day Emilio is Guitar Master and one of the guiding lights of Alalá. Fundación Alalá now provides free tuition to around 400 children, young people, and adults, in all the flamenco disciplines (guitar, song, dance, percussion). Some of the guitars used for tuition are provided by the Fundación Paco de Lucia, which continues the mission of late genius Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. Alalá also runs acting classes, as well as arts and crafts workshops, and the “Sewing & Singing” group mentioned above, which was started when some of the mums wanted to get involved! Alalá’s work is mainly directed towards individuals at risk of marginalization, from diverse backgrounds. It provides opportunities and a platform where children, young people, and adults affected by or at risk of social exclusion can develop self-esteem and self-confidence whilst acquiring performance and story-telling skills and a sense of belonging.

Live theatre is a truly collaborative activity whereby it is impossible to put on a live show without the whole cast and tech staff bonding into a company, in this instance forming a community within the community. This is the great value of initiatives like Fundación Alalá. What a fantastic opportunity for the 26 cast members of the Flamenco Tree, young and not so young, to perform at one of the foremost theatres in Andalusia, with its bright and spacious 896-seater auditorium.

This was WheretoSeeFlamenco’s first visit to Teatro del Soho CaixaBank. The venue and the site of Teatro del Soho CaixaBank themselves have a fascinating history. It has been through many changes. The earliest incarnation of a leisure venue on the site was Cine Pascualini which opened in 1907 and was the first to bring all the great Hollywood movies to the screen in Málaga. This building having been destroyed by a bomb during the Spanish Civil War, it became the site of a pleasure garden, the Crystal Palace in the 40s, then a summer outdoor cinema, the Terraza Alameda in the 50s, circuses even pitched their big tops here. Then in 1961 the Alameda Theatre opened its doors on the site, firstly to stage operas, and during the sixty years of its existence, it also put on performances of ballet, drama, comedy, and jazz. Having fallen into disuse, the Alameda was purchased in 2017 by Antonio Banderas. A native of Málaga city, Antonio Banderas accomplished a lifelong dream by opening a privately-owned theatre in his home town, with the aim of creating a space in which the unique cultural traditions of the area could flourish and develop. It is heart-warming and appropriate to see a performance by an Andalusian grass roots community theatre organisation holding its own on such an iconic stage. From the cinema showing Hollywood productions in the early 20th Century, to the local boy who achieved renown as a Hollywood actor, and has since returned to his roots to promote local talent, culture, and performance, things truly come full circle.