The wisdom of Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet' is translated into a new language: flamenco


In the 90 years since The Prophet first saw print, Kahlil Gibran's phenomenally popular volume of wisdom has been translated into more than 50 languages. This week, that total is expanded by one more, but don't look for it between the covers of a book. Local choreographer Olivia Chacon is taking the work from page to stage, as the basis for a new piece by her A'lante Flamenco Dance Ensemble. But Prophecies won't just be giving the work a flamenco flair; Chacon is updating it for our 24/7-wired world, with the book's titular figure being quizzed about the conundrums of Facebook friending and online etiquette. Chacon spoke with the Chronicle about the origins of the show.

Austin Chronicle: How did you come to know Gibran's book, and what sort of impact did it have on your life?

Olivia Chacon: I had seen the book around during college, but didn't read it until my husband mentioned it to me over a decade ago. His mother always kept a copy in her house when he was growing up in Mexico, where apparently Gibran's work was very popular. The text of The Prophet is very touching and powerful in its imagery, and to me, being obsessed with flamenco at the time, I instantly equated some of those emotions and images with flamenco. For instance, the juxtaposition of the sea and longing or nostalgia is a central theme in The Prophet, and that combination also characterizes one of flamenco's central styles, the Alegrías de Cadíz. Over the years, Gibran's text and imagery kept recurring to me, until I decided that it was inevitable – I had to do a show inspired by the book. I think flamenco and Gibran pair well together given the feeling of timelessness they each posses.

AC: The timelessness of The Prophet's wisdom is no doubt the key to the book's continuing popularity, but for this production you've chosen to align it with very specific questions about how we live in the digital age. What led you to connect Netiquette and cellphone manners to The Prophet?

OC: Gibran's character, the prophet Almustafa, is questioned in the book by the citizens of a city he has been visiting, about everything from "Eating and Drinking" to "Clothing," "Talking," "Love," et cetera. Each topic is the subject of a short prose poem – there are 26 in total. So I think Gibran thought of it as a kind of Guide to Life. In thinking about the concept of the show, I considered that a prophet should be able to tell us something about the future, or at least an up-to-date present, so I reimagined the book including questions we all have about modern life. Certainly for our audience, cellphone etiquette is as common a feature of life as many of Gibran's original topics.

AC: The concept of the production is easy to grasp, but not having a deep grounding in flamenco, it's a challenge for me to imagine it in terms of that dance. What did you have to do as a choreographer to translate this production concept into flamenco?

OC: Well, personally, I see flamenco in everything! It's important to remember that within the world of flamenco, no topic is off-limits. Like The Prophet, flamenco lyrics address every aspect of life – big things like life and death and joy and sadness and love, but also jokes, funny little everyday things, winning the lottery, eating and drinking, gossip ... I know of at least one flamenco verse about a cellphone. So most of the pieces in Prophecies were pretty easy for me to envision. A whole genre of flamenco comes from very old work songs, so the piece on "Work" I've had in mind for years. But my goal with A'lante is to use flamenco as a medium to talk about anything – tell stories and communicate with audiences regardless of cultural affiliations. We definitely get creative to try to do that, incorporating outside influences as well. Fortunately, we have a truly outstanding group of musicians and dancers who are willing to go from really old-school traditional to the most modern flamenco to meet the challenge. It is a lot of work, but we do it with love.

Prophecies runs Jan 11-19, Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.alanteflamenco.com.

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Prophecies, Austin dance, Olivia Chacon, A'lante Flamenco Dance Ensemble, Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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