First Steps

A New Life for Flamenco Star Pilar Serrano

Pilar Serrano recalls the terror and struggle of winning a place on stage. Everybody is awkward at age 12, and Serrano felt stiffer than the rest. She was born to perform, she had to perform, she would perform. She just had the rest of the world to convince. Serrano made her first nervous steps in public with the help of Juanjo Linares, a performer, teacher, and currently choreographer with the National Ballet of Spain. "He was the only one who was saying, `Yes, she can do something,'" Serrano recalls. "Because nobody believed in me at that time. But he did. He said, `This is a diamond. We'll have to work at it. But it will be bright someday.'" Señor Linares was right. After several years of obsessive footwork, Serrano built a career with the renowned José Greco Company, emerging as the star of productions like last year's Duende del Flamenco.

That should be enough romance for one life, but in the meantime she's married a Spanish Count -- better known as Texas developer Joaquin de Monet -- made a new home in Austin, and is mounting her first production as director. "My feeling about Austin is that there is something about this city that's magical. It's full of beautiful angels. They're looking at us and helping us.... I've been working all over the world, and in Austin the people are so enthusiastic, like nowhere else." Of course, the troupe director is supposed to say that sort of thing on every stop. But something about the smooth timbre of her voice and her girlish smile make me believe her.

Pasión de España runs through July 6 at the Capitol City Playhouse, and Serrano needs her angels. She feels the old terror and struggle as she anticipates opening night. She hasn't performed in a year and worries, "When I put my first foot on the stage, I'll be scared. I'm wondering how the audience will react. I'm wondering, what is going to be my reaction?" Her reputation suggests these are little more than jitters. Lambros Lambrou of Ballet Austin describes Serrano with an aphorism: "All performers have courage to a certain degree and then there are those who are courageous -- Pilar is courageous."

And she won't be alone. Besides a faithful local crowd that's watched her bloom over the last five years, José Greco himself is flying in for the show, and Juanjo Linares has been in residence here for several weeks, rehearsing Spanish classical and folk dances for the show. The pasión in this crowd is more than a label. When Señor Linares tells me in Spanish that he loves Serrano like a daughter and will do anything for her and her family, she is digging in a closet for props, but suddenly she straightens up to grip his shoulder. He doesn't stop talking, he doesn't look toward her, but it's clear he feels her touch.

Serrano was born in a small town outside Barcelona and started dancing at seven, when her family moved to Madrid. Working with Linares from age 12 to 17, she concentrated on the flamenco, honing her campas, or rhythm, and lacing an innate energy with techniques from classical dance. It's a blend that Sylvia Keprta, who directs FlamencoAustin as the flamboyant Sylviana, still finds in Serrano's moves. "She has such a clean, particular sense of gesture. You can see the classical elements of her dance. It fits her personality."

Serrano's break came when she joined the Greco company for her first professional job in Morocco. "It was unbelievable, someone was paying me to do what I had been paying for." Going pro meant more than long hours and pressure; for Serrano it meant a change of identity. Her patronymic was Pilar Rospidé, but Greco -- a Bronx native who had assumed his stage name to capitalize on a Spanish craze in the 1950s -- said Rospidé wasn't flamenco enough. They decided to use her grandmother's maiden name, Serrano, instead. She's married now, so Pilar de Monet, born Rospidé and working as Serrano, has to remind herself which Pilar is on. "I have this confusion: Who am I? But mainly, I close my eyes and dance," she says, still sweaty and hyped from a post-rehearsal endorphin rush.

Serrano saw New York City for the first time with José Greco and learned from a master showman. "I was nobody in the company, not even a solo or anything, but I was watching everyone. When José Greco walked on stage, everything was going crazy. I was amazed, a man with charisma like that and what he's able to do." Serrano was more than amazed, she was edified. She found her own light when Greco's daughter left the company and Greco II, known as Pepé, needed a partner for duets. Pilar and Pepé ran a troubled and ultimately doomed romance offstage, but their dances stole show after show.

Austin audiences first saw Serrano and the Greco entourage by a lucky accident. Capitol City Playhouse artistic director Michel Jaroschy says that he caught the Maria Benitez company doing flamenco dance at a lunch for a local production of the opera Carmen. Benitez sold out a week of shows for Cap City and was supposed to return the next year, but she was sick and Greco took the dates instead. After packed houses during that week, Jaroschy instituted the month-long runs that have become a summer staple in Austin. The rumor mill says Greco and Jaroschy had such an intense friction that Greco refused to come back this year, but those same mills say that Greco has finally entered a deserved, if unofficial, retirement after 60 years of work.

Jaroschy remains committed to bringing Spanish dance here. "It's an important cultural event," he says. "In the Sixties, we were all distancing ourselves, saying, `This is who we are now and that's what counts.' In the Sixties, we were trying to assimilate. In the Nineties, we're going back to recognize the importance of these individual traditions and what they have to offer." Domingo Chavez, an actor moonlighting as stage manager for Pasión de Espana, agrees. "I had never seen flamenco except on television. But for the Hispanic who comes to the show, it's gonna tingle them from the inside." Chavez extends a burly arm that responds as if on cue with goosebumps. "Not that we're usually into flamenco, but it's in the root of the tree we all come from. It's a romance, head over heels." Turning to Serrano, he looks for corroboration, and she nods, placing her small fingers on the back of Chavez's hand. "Yes," she says, "that is the passion."

Like Chavez, I'm an acolyte in the flamenco world. But we're surrounded by willing teachers talking with evangelical fervor. Serrano is drawn to flamenco by "the freedom. It's a dance full of feelings, you give of yourself... Obviously, you have a choreography, but sometimes you're looking at the guitar and saying, `Just keep playing.' I've said that so many times. For some reason, the magic is there and it's coming to you, and it's coming to the musicians, too, the audience is giving to you something, and you just say, `Keep playing because we're going to keep dancing.' And you stay there until you finish or the audience says, `Hey, go back. That's enough.'"

I get a chance to see this during an afternoon that's more like a jam session than a rehearsal. Serrano and the band (two guitarists, two singers, and a pianist) are working on the show's climax, a solea that starts as a dry lamentation and works toward a wail. Serrano shows the musicians a set of steps and they offer some chords to complement her moves; or they suggest a transition or crescendo to drive the dance. Around the small room, the band is hanging out. Jesús Torres takes off his shirt and props his guitar on its back against his knees. Luis Vargas, one of the singers, pulls on a cigarette between swigs from a tall-boy Budweiser and cracks jokes. He looks amazingly like Richard from Melrose Place, and he doesn't seem to be paying attention, but when his cue arrives, Vargas puts away boyish things and wails.

In the middle of the wisecracks, experiments, and false starts, Serrano remains in control. It helps that the band is sitting down while she paces in high heels and a floor-length black skirt, correcting, encouraging, and directing like a veteran. In the middle of the song, she stops the band and points toward Torres, for him to watch her feet. "Ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum! Si?" Torres nods and plays the lick.

These days, there are more women than ever heading their own flamenco troupes: Sylviana in Austin, Maria Benitez with an unquestionable resumé, Carmen Cortez, Pilar Rioja. Serrano says the trend will continue, "maybe because men have always had control and now women are coming up... Maria has done it for years, and more of us now are saying it's our turn." Right now, in Austin, who's in charge is secondary. Right now, there's a show to do. "I'm the director, yes, but I still need the men, and all the other dancers, the men and the women. We all make up the company. They just give you that name, director."

Serrano concentrates on the day-to-day realities of mounting a production -- costumes, studio rental, and marketing, besides the obligatory 10-hour rehearsal days. Two local restaurants, Serrano's and Pulpo Loco, are helping out, but her main patron is closer at hand. Joaquin de Monet got involved with Austin dance when Cap City approached him about supporting the José Greco visits. According to Jaroschy, he told de Monet, "I don't really know you, or what you'd need in return, but I need $10,000." De Monet answered, "I don't know you either, but I'm going to give you the money. You invite me to things I might be interested in." Serrano met her husband-to-be over lunch with other people from the show, and went away struck, although unsure. Her relationship with Pepé Greco was breaking up, but she thought de Monet was married. He was, in fact, divorced, and after exchanging letters, de Monet and Serrano met in Reno last October. He proposed to her in Austin in November, and they were married in March this year. While pasión clearly helped along this whirlwind affair, Serrano sees a pragmatic basis for her new love. "To be involved with someone in dance is too much. You live for dancing, you breathe it, but you need a rest, someone in real life."

It's hard to say how real Serrano is willing to be. She contemplates her future with vacillations. "Sometimes I think about having babies... but I don't know how to work and do that, too." She doesn't think she has the patience for teaching or the business tilt for promoting. She remains "made for the stage," whatever the demands and momentary discomfort. "Dancing is painful," she says, holding up a foot covered with calluses still in the blister stage because of the year off. "There is something after rehearsal. There's the sweat and pain, but I'm happy, because I know there's going to be a reward at the end: the show." n Pilar Serrano's Pasión de España runs through July 6 at Capitol City Playhouse.

Brett Holloway-Reeves is Director of Community Programming for KVRX and is at work on a book about white-collar crime.

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