For many of us, the dream of living in a romantic European city to pursue a life of passion is just that, a dream. But for Vancouver's Lia Grainger, that ambition turned to reality six years ago when she uprooted her life to move to Seville, Spain to immerse herself in the culture of flamenco in the Andalusian capital.
"It is this bohemian dream to be an artist and live in Europe," says Grainger, lead dancer in the award-winning music and dance ensemble Fin de Fiesta Flamenco. "I get up late, go to the studio and dance, then I do some of my writing work in the afternoon and try to go see some artists in the evening. But, also, I come home and I live in a really tiny apartment and I move around all the time, and I come home (to Canada) and see people with, like, houses and kids and stuff. The grass is always greener."
As improbable a story Grainger's is, it is not entirely unique. The 38-year-old former basketball player has joined a growing community of ex-pats that have ventured to flamenco hotbeds like Seville and Madrid to study the ever-evolving art form at its origin point. Her ensemble, while based in Spain, is a mish-mash of international influences, including a Vancouver flautist, an Indo-Canadian dancer, French-Roma singer and Cuban percussionist.
"Culturally, it's interesting because we mostly met in Seville," explains Grainger. "We all bring different mentalities to the group."
With such a diverse set of backgrounds and musical influences—not to mention the limited time the group has to work together, meeting up in Spain or France a few times a year whenever schedules align—you would think wrangling all those different opinions into something productive would be a fool's errand. But, according to Grainger, although the perspectives may vary, it's a deep passion for flamenco underlying the group's creative process that ultimately wins out.
"It's interesting because I think our dancers are really aware of the musicality of flamenco, and our guitarists, singers and flautist are used to working with bands, so everyone has an opinion and has something to say," she says. "In Seville, I'm working alone in the studio on my choreography and my dance, so, for me, it's so fulfilling to come together as a group because there's this exchange where people have thoughtful ideas about where to put a piece of music, or how the dance should punctuate this particular part of the song ... and because we're so in love with the art form, when someone has this weird, original idea that works, everyone gets so excited and it's so fun."
At its core, flamenco has always been something of a far-reaching discipline, borrowing from the folkloric traditions of southern Spain, and specifically, the Spanish Romani, along with influences from Islamic, Jewish and West African musical traditions. Combining the complex rhythms of Spanish guitar with a highly expressive dance form, percussive hand clapping known as palmas, and deeply emotional singing, flamenco is a delicate interplay between players that is constantly mutating in the heat of the moment.
"We're all reading each other. It's kind of like jazz or a language in that way," Grainger explains. "You learn to speak these different cues and then you speak them to each other and you make up the music and dance on the spot and it all goes together. In Spain, it's still very much alive."
As well versed as she has become in the language of flamenco, Grainger will always come at the art form as an outsider, something the group processes in its latest live show, Sempiterno.
"That is something I think about a lot because I definitely feel [like an outsider]," she says. "I'm really tall, I'm 6-1 and blonde, and it's super obvious that I'm not from there. I look different than what the typical Spanish dancer does.
"But at the same time, I think that it's become something that's [more accepted]. It's beautiful. You can do your own thing. There are people from all over the world interpreting it in their own ways. It's an art form that's always changing."
Fin de Fiesta Flamenco play Whistler for the very first time on Saturday, July 20 at 8 p.m. at the Maury Young Arts Centre. Tickets to Sempiterno are $25, available at showpass.com/sempiternowhistler2019.