Martíne Santangelo’s remarkable career in flamenco got off to an ominous start. In the summer of 1989, the New York-bred actor was cast as a chorus member in Teatro Campesino’s Rose of the Rancho.
“What happened,” Santangelo says, “was the lead actor and a bunch of guys went up to San Francisco. They were hanging out in the street and a gang drove by and shot the lead actor. He couldn’t continue. So they put me in.” (The original lead actor recovered.)
Santangelo had two days to learn the lines and the flamenco dance steps. “I was scared s***less,” he says.
But luck favors the prepared. Santangelo’s Argentine mother was a dancer, and between the impressionable ages of 3 to 8, “two of the best artists from Spain lived with my mother in New York,’’ he recalls. They were influential Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer, Mario Maya, and his first wife.
Santangelo’s upbringing in ’60s and ’70s New York– with its blossoming of art and politics, culture and protest– also prepared him for Teatro Campesino’s core use of art as a political and social tool.
“When I saw what Luis [Valdez] was writing, it blew my mind,” he says. “It’s not theater for theater’s sake. It was community-oriented. You open your mouth to sing for a reason. You don’t do it to– excuse my language– masturbate on stage.”
After awakening and honing his talent for flamenco, Santangelo moved to Spain to study the art. There, he met his future wife Soledad Barrio in class– “It was love at first sight”– and together they would form Noche Flamenca.
Noche Flamenca’s mission statement recalls flamenco’s “ancestral cultural repression and racial expulsion.” True story. The art form was born as a folk music called cante gitano (“gypsy song”) in the 16th century among the poor and persecuted of Spain’s southern provinces, including Andalusians, Gypsies, Moors (Arabs) and Jews. Flamenco didn’t make its way to the capital of Madrid until the 1860s– but once it arrived, it caught fire in the cantinas (neighborhood pubs).
That’s the vibe Teatro Campesino and Noche Flamenca want to recreate in the upcoming show, La Plaza. Noche Flamenca has toured the world, playing the American Dance Festival, the Hollywood Bowl and last weekend at UC-Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. But the San Juan Bautista shows are more intimate, seating only 100 per performance. At Saturday’s show– a benefit that’s higher priced but pours on the Spanish culture– the theater space, a converted 1950s packing warehouse, will be transformed into a Spanish-Mediterranean cantina. (After the performance, the two companies trek over to Spanish Basque restaurant Matxain Etxea for a dinner party; audience members are invited.)
“It’s a kick to be on a big stage, but I prefer a smaller theater,” says Santangelo. “It’s a whole other trip. You can see the facial expressions.”
All the better for the audience. The show’s dozen singers, guitarists and dancers are led by headliner Soledad Barrio, who has won awards in 12 countries, including the Bessie Award.
“This is like going back home,” Santangelo says. “I’ve been after Phil [Esparza] to bring my company to El Teatro for six years. It’s like a full circle.”
Adding more significance to the reunion is that the Saturday performance also celebrates the birthdays of associate artistic director Kinan Valdez and board member Esparza, who’s worked with Teatro Campesino for 40 years (at the 20-year mark, he directed Rose of the Rancho, where Santangelo made his surprise debut). Sunday’s matinee performance benefits the St. Francis Retreat of the Franciscan Friars.
Though the stage will be sparse, every element upon it is crucial: guitars specially made out of rosewood and cypress, hand claps and call-and-response, elaborate costuming, fiery dancing, and rousing singing. The first song is a rare political number about fear of Arabs leading to chaos. But most of the songs are expressions of pure feeling, from happiness to profound loss. “[Flamenco] is to express defiance,” Santangelo says. “Like samba. Like rock ‘n’ roll. Like blues. Like hip-hop, when hip-hop began.”
Santangelo, like a prodigal son, is emotional about his homecoming.
“When I was in Spain,” he says, “I missed Teatro, Phil and Luis. This is the first time my company and wife have been here. I want them to see San Juan.”
NOCHE FLAMENCA performs 8pm Thursday-Saturday, with a 7:30pm reception and 10pm dinner on Saturday and 2pm Sunday, at El Teatro Campesino, 705 4th St., San Juan Bautista. $10 Thursday (preview); $30 Friday; $60 Saturday reception and show, $20 Saturday dinner; $60 Sunday; RSVP. 623-2444, www.elteatrocampesino.com.