Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Flamenco Fever: Interview with novelist Sarah Bird

Flamenco Fever

Former go-go dancer and novelist Sarah Bird learned the artful Spanish dance before she wrote her latest novel

It was love that led Texas novelist Sarah Bird to flamenco.

"I was 20, living in Spain and working at a German scuba diving camp on the Costa Brava," says Bird, who is now 56. "I was also nursing a broken heart from a boyfriend I'd left behind in Albuquerque." Some friends took her to see a flamenco performance, which affected her in profound ways. "It was literally the first physical manifestation I'd ever seen of my own interior emotional landscape."

The artful Spanish dance has been an obsession ever since and provided the inspiration for Bird's latest novel, The Flamenco Academy (Knopf).

The novel is the story of Rae and Didi, childhood friends in Albuquerque. At their high school graduation party, Rae meets Tomas Montenegro, a mysterious young flamenco guitarist. Tomas quickly disappears, however, but that single encounter haunts Rae and her desire to see-and finally seduce Tomas-motivates her to learn to dance flamenco.

Rae and Didi enroll at the University of New Mexico-the only college in America that grants a degree in dance with a flamenco focus -- where they study with Dona Carlota Anaya, a gypsy dancer who recounts her tumultuous life story while drilling her students in el arte. Dona Carlota hectors the girls, calling them burros, while teaching them the relevance of each complicated compas (beat) and brazeo (arm movement).

In a plot that sounds straight out of a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, Rae who earns the nickname "Metronome," and Didi, who's called "Tempest eventually duel and have a falling out over Tomas.

Bird’s writing career began in the 1980s with a series of five romance novels published under the pen name Tory Cates. Then came a run of comic novels that include The Boyfriend School, Alamo House, and The Mommy Club. Her critically acclaimed novel The Yokota Officer's Club (Knopf, 2001), about the daughter of an Air Force pilot who in the 1960s took his wife and children to live on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, was based on Bird's unusual experiences as a touring go-go dancer in Japan in the '60s.

Bringing the story of The Flamenco Academy to life, by contrast, required some fancy footwork. Over lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Bird's hometown of Austin, the author, who is married and the mother of a 17-year-old son, Gabriel, reveals that she took beginning dance classes at the Festival Flamenco at the University of New Mexico. The event draws the top flamenco artists from around the world for a week each summer to teach and perform. It's easy to imagine the leggy author, who is slim, standing close to six feet, getting the sinuous moves down. (Gabriel came with her and took flamenco guitar lessons. "He learned the rhythm structures of the music, and later back in Austin, was able to interpret them for me," Bird says.)

Though a few notable nonfiction books about flamenco have appeared, including Fernanda Eberstadt's Little Money Street (Knopf) and Jason Webster's Duende (Broadway), the art is notoriously difficult to capture. Among filmmakers, only Carlos Saura's works, which include magnificent flamenco interpretations of Bizet's Carmen and Lorca's Blood Wedding, are considered worthy.

Bird's very first writing assignments for pulp magazines of the 1970s, served her well in dealing with the exaggerated operatic nature of flamenco and its outrageous gypsy practitioners "Those magazines wanted blue collar, first-person anonymous stories, like 'I kidnapped my own child' and 'I seduced my parish priest,'" she says.

The hardscrabble Andalusian gypsies of The Flamenco Academy relish their working-class bawdiness. In one scene, a young gypsy, a girl who "likes to have sex in the wrong place" is nicknamed El Peste (The Stink). Later, a gypsy mocks another woman by suggesting her husband would prefer that drink some mint tea to fatten her nether parts so she can enjoy sex.

Throughout the novel, Bird tries to balance the sacred and the profane. Flamenco is alternately referred to in the novel as "tragedy in the first person," and less reverentially as "obsessive compulsive disorder with a beat."

The plot of The Flamenco Academy ultimately turns on a question about authenticity and whether puro flamenco can be performed by someone who is not gitana por los cuatro costaos, that is to say "gypsy on all four sides." Likewise, Bird says she's concerned that some aficionados within the flamenco community may find her depiction of el arte inauthentic. "They are the most insidery insiders you've ever met and they have these constant arguments about purity. Flamenco is as regimented as haiku, and the entire experience of trying to get the specificity down on paper was extremely intimidating. I've been worried by how the puro puros are going to take it since the start."

Like the sore backs and joint damage flamenco dancers endure from the constant stamping of their feet, that worry took its own toll on Bird, who rewrote the story five times over the course of 15 years. "I originally envisioned this as a novella," she says of the book which now runs to 381 pages. "First, I wrote it as a murder mystery. Then I did a version where two characters get married and have a child." She even turned the story into a screenplay that was optioned by Meatloaf, with J-Lo's husband Marc Anthony discussed as the possible star. "Finally," she says, "I just gave up and finished it."

She's spent as much time writing this novel as she has raising her son.

Bird's next novel, tentatively titled Weightless, depicts the world of Texas socialites and the internet bubble burst of the early 90s. The world is seen through the eyes of a woman married to a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to George W. Bush, and returns Bird, who also pens Texas Monthly's popular back page humor column, to the broad comedic tone that marked her books prior to Yokota.

Bird doesn't want to leave the impression that writing The Flamenco Academy was all hardship. Taking the dance classes at Festival Flamenco, she says, was "an uproarious amount of fun. One thing I can testify to is that I can really get my groove on and after ten days of flamenco hand twirls, my Carpal Tunnel was completely cured."

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