Flamenco dance project unites music, art, poetry and story-telling

Poster Design by Pixels and Pulp, Paintings by Khosro Berahmandi.jpg

By Timothy Gillis

There are so many cultural things to do around town that one is never at a loss for an evening of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, or art. But even in these artistic environs, it’s unusual to find them all combined in one show.

“El Lobo y La Paloma” (The Wolf and The Dove) is a flamenco dance performance choreographed by Lindsey Bourassa that will be held Saturday, June 3, in South Portland.

“This work was inspired by the loss of my own father but also includes the universal experience of loss — that of losing a loved one, a homeland, a freedom, a right, an identity,” Bourassa said last week from her Forest Avenue studio, which she’s owned since 2014. “It’s about the reconstruction of our relationship with our lost being through the process of grief and healing.”

In addition to the original dance stylings of Bourassa and dancer Megan Keogh, it features Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri, oud player Thomas Kovacevic, and the paintings of Khosro Berahmandi, a Canadian-Iranian artist.

Videographer Ali Mann gives the live performance a visual backdrop, with images of the recurring wolf and dove symbols, and Molly Angie designed simple but symbolically colored dresses that move from dark to light. The Iraqi poet Kifah Abdulla translated original verses, odes to the dead written by Bourassa and her father, into Arabic.

This dazzling line-up of cultures and art forms is supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s the liveliest of creative performances, but it has its origins in a difficult grieving process.

In 2015, Bourassa’s father, David, was dying of pulmonary fibrosis. She had recently returned from a year of studying flamenco dance in Spain, and able so spend some treasured time with him before he passed. She subsequently resolved to create an artistic response, a way out of her grief.

“I’ve always made work based on life experience, so that was the starting point,” she said. “During the time he was dying, I came to believe in the possibility of building a spiritual relationship with those who have passed … the choice of Arabic music to accompany the flamenco dance reflects one branch of flamenco’s ancestry, which guides the unfolding of this story.”

The story Bourassa created involves a wolf and a dove, symbols she kept encountering in the months leading to her father’s passing.

“My father named the wolf his spirit animal,” she explained. “In studying the meaning of animal symbolism in diverse traditions, I came to discover that wolves represent pathfinders … (and) that the dove is a symbol of the maternal spirit messenger who comes to lead her children safely from struggle.”

Later, when going through her father’s things, she discovered poems he had written when he lost his mother. Bourassa decided to write poetic responses to his odes, crafting the eventual narrative.

When it came to choreography, she had several options to choose from. In flamenco, there are many styles of dance—maybe 45 styles, according to Bourassa—each with its own melody or feeling. She selected seven different flamenco and Arabic styles. Kovacevic then created oud music for the seven paired-poems (Bourassa’s father and hers), and Alzefiri “sang in a way that went with the music,” she said.

music oudplayer

Providing the sonic textures and backdrop needed for Bourassa’s flamenco show are oud player Tom Kovacevic and Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri.

The project was a return to the past for Alzefiri, who is from Kuwait City and moved to Westbrook in 2010. He grew up with a family of singers—his father, Ebra, and five uncles—and experienced music as part of daily life. When he left Kuwait, that all changed.

“I stopped singing when I came here,” he said. “I was focused on finishing high school and was facing a hard time with my grandmother’s death. I turned away from singing. But when I first saw this flamenco dance and the style they do it, it reminded me a lot of my culture and brought me back to my childhood. That’s when I really started to go back to singing.”

Alzefiri has even more to sing about lately. Last year, he got his United States citizenship, after a five-year process.

“It’s wonderful to finally have a piece of paper in my hand. Now I can travel,” he said. “And that’s the most beautiful thing about this project: Lindsey is a very hard worker—how she was able to bring so many cultures together.”

Cultures combine, and the performance whirls in and out of genres. Behind the unfolding works of music and dance, two poems are simultaneously narrated. These verses are layered atop video imagery of the natural world that is interspersed with digitally projected paintings.

The production represents an end and a beginning for Bourassa. She completed her Certificate of Professionalization in Flamenco Arts in Spain in 2012 at El Centro de Arte y Flamenco de Sevilla. When she returned to Maine, she wanted to start something.

“There was no flamenco in Maine, and I wanted to create something based on these rhythms,”] is because this is the reasoning behind creating Olas – to create something reminiscent of flamenco, but with local artists of diverse genres. Olas lasted from 2008 to 2016. El Lobo y La Paloma is my own work, a Bourassa Dance production, and departs from Olas. It was made in collaboration with several artists, three of which were also members of Olas (Megan Keogh, Tom Kovacevic and Molly Angie). Talal, Khosro, and Kifah are all new collaborators to my work.

The flamenco community in Maine is still small, but it’s growing. I’m trying to teach as true to the art form as I can.”

“El Lobo y La Paloma,” performance by Lindsey Bourassa | Sat 7 pm | June 3 | South Portland High School Auditorium 637 Highland Ave., South Portland


Poet Warrior Tells Story for Each of Us

New Memoir Breaks From Tradition

By Timothy Gillis

Benjamin Busch, author of “Dust to Dust,” a remarkable new book on life and death, peace and war, braved Hurricane Sandy Monday night to read at Longfellow Books to a handful of brave souls. The non-fiction work may speak about “ordinary things” like the “adventures of childhood and the revelations of adulthood,” but this is not your mother’s memoir.

Busch has been to 47 states, promoting the new book, in between the continued pursuit of a varied career in film, art, photography, and writing. Busch spoke this week between setting up an art installation in New York City and heading to Maine to talk about his book.

“It’s all about finding our place in the world, with readers turning away from my story and into themselves,” he said.That ideal hope may be hard for many readers to fulfill, as his story is captivating in detailed imagery and compelling in wartime narrative.

Compared to a combination of Tim O’Brien and Annie Dillard, Busch’s book weaves war scenes from Iraq during the deadliest days of Operation Freedom with youthful meditations on a life in nature in Michigan and Maine.

He spent several summers here in Maine, roaming the rocky coast in boyhood quests for natural combatants. As a kid, he remembers his family would stop in Freeport and then push on to Machias and Cutler, to discover what he called “the American shore.” Those early forages into Maine’s watery wilderness stayed with him, he said, and kept him calm and focused during the most dangerous moments of combat.

“Maine does something with space. There’s a literate section, and then there are vast other portions, with people working, going day to day,” Busch said.

Son of the noted novelist, Frederick Busch, the young Benjamin always seemed destined to a literary life. But early on, his sense of adventure pulled him from the desk and into the outdoors.

“Maine has a sense of isolation that’s startling. One gets a distance by going to the rocky coast, where the sea mashes into earth. It’s the middle of everything in the universe.That’s what I love about Maine,” he said.

Sections of his book are broken into elemental topics like “Water,” that features him as a kid trying to change a river’s direction to build a waterfall because an old-timertold him that trout love it. Another section called “Metal” has him trying to build a plane to fly home to Maine from an England that treats him as an outsider, with kids in school calling him Yank.

In a section called “Soil,” he moves from the cellar he’s exploring as a married traveler to a bunker he’s investigating in Iraq that brings with it far weightier consequences of the search. In another section called “Bone,” he tells of an early love for football as a rite of passage, with its helmets and pads like armor. He hit the field before a game, his “blood was rich with something like growing up.” (Dust to Dust, page 147) That same game saw painful disillusion replace feelings of immortality, as he left the game with a serious leg injury.

Busch is visual artist, a photographer, and film director. He played the role of Officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series “The Wire” and has appeared on “Homicide,” “The West Wing,” and “Generation Kill.” His writing has been featured in Harper’s and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has also been a guest commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But most pointedly for this book, Busch was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq.In 2003, he was the Commanding Officer of Delta Company, 4th LAR Battalion, mobilized by Executive Order 13223, Presidential Recall, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq for action in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Phase III Combat Operations and Phase IV Security and Stabilization Operations.

“In war, you’re in a suspended state, despite how close you are to the war. You have to suspect everyone,’ Busch said. “Frankly, it’s about self-preservation. If you’re worried about not dying, you can’t fight. You sever almost everything. You are under threat all the time, so you have to be bold.”

Busch trained for fourteen years before he saw action. “My skill set was pretty good. I was a dangerous individual if it came down to that. But death is random in war. My best friend in Iraq – near to in front of me – I watched his vehicle blow up, not because I had a particular prowess. They just picked him.”

He has a serene fatalism about himself, and a brief phone call expanded into a long discussion on life, death, war, and our place in it, even if we never put on a uniform or see combat. He sees his near-death experiences as comparable to the daily mishaps we all make that could become fatal.

“If a sniper misses me, it’s because he missed. He misjudged my speed when aiming at me. The randomness of war requires so much suspension of disbelief of how much you contribute to your own circumstances,” he said.“I got strangely calm during action.”

In 2005, he returned to action, and was deployed to Iraq as a Civil Affairs Team Leader, Team 1, Detachment 3, 5th CAG in direct support of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Hurricane Point, Ar Ramadi, Iraq.

The second tour was much like the first, in the day-to-day details of a constantly imperiled life, but the greater picture started to become clearer. Now looking back, he is able to focus on philosophy.

“Vets ask, ‘So, how’s the war with you?’ They don’t mean how am I feeling, physically. They are asking how my head is,” he said. “With Vietnam vets, whatever happened took twenty years, took up a lot of storage space.”

Each section of the book is chronological, with the action moving from boyish outings and conflicts with neighbors and nature to action with his Marine troop in Iraq.

“The book builds up to prepare you for what is coming. I’m the messenger. It’s not my story. It’s the story of us, of all of us,” he said.

In 2007, Busch was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and his decorations include the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals. While his military life might have gone the way of many other heroes, his written reflections on it are quite distinct.

The book breaks entirely away from convention, with little biographical material about family and friends. “If you go into the book as if it’s a standard memoir, it’s the wrong idea. To describe what family is thinking is fiction. The portrait is from my perspective, but it’s not a portrait of me.”

Busch says he doesn’t get into a tell-all about his love life. “I didn’t write about girlfriends. They’re not elemental. Girlfriends are not part of the landscape. They’re just something that happens to you.”

Busch read Monday from “Dust to Dust” and talked about his vast experiences and how they may relate to each of us. He says, “I hope what I do (in the book) gets your seeing into yourself. It’s a trigger.”

He gave a free copy of his father’s last book, “A Memory of War,” as well as his film “Bright,” to each person who faced the elements and attended his talk.