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“Why flamenco?!”

by Tove Djupsjöbacka

Artists choosing an art form outside the mainstream will find themselves frequently answering the question: Why? Kaari and Roni Martin have created many notable works of contemporary art using the language of flamenco.

Dancer-choreographer Kaari Martin wanted to become a concert pianist. Or a rock musician, or an actor, or a visual artist, or an author… But when she crossed paths with flamenco, there was no turning back. Dance became her field of choice, specifically the language of flamenco. Since 2002 she has been creating her art with her own company, the Compañía Kaari Martin.

Musician-composer Roni Martin encountered flamenco through Kaari. For all his diverse musical background, he faced a steep learning curve to find out what this challenging genre was all about.

“It took me about four years to learn the basics, to be able to play, say, a soleá without having to think about it all the time. Suddenly, at this one gig, I found that my breathing had changed. Of course, I was already creating stuff on the way there,” Roni recalls.

“When I began to come to grips with flamenco, I became freer with it. I never wanted to do what other people were doing anyway. I listened and listened, mainly to old stuff. And I decided almost straight off that I would use the piano and not even touch flamenco guitar!”

Roni’s original, flamenco-based music goes hand in glove with Kaari’s idiosyncratic movement language. This autumn, the name of the company will finally be changed to reflect this collaboration, becoming the Compañía Kaari & Roni Martin.

“We would probably have got around to changing the name years ago if we weren’t living together,” say the couple with amusement.

The husband-and-wife team have created a fair number of works that have been acclaimed in Finland and abroad. Tell me rain won third prize in the group choreography category at the Certamen de Coreografía de Danza Española y Flamenco in Madrid in 2006, and in 2012 the company swept the table at the same competition: The Raven won three first prizes – for Best Solo Choreography, Best Music and Best Costume. The work was performed by Spanish dancer Mariana Collado at the competition. The costume was designed by none other than the celebrated Erika Turunen.

A flamenco dancer is a musician

Flamenco is an art form that originated in Andalusia in southern Spain. It is a merger of three elements: song, dance and guitar. Is flamenco the perfect marriage of dance and music?

“At least flamenco has the full potential to be just that,” says Kaari Martin. “Not everyone looks at flamenco that way, of course. But a flamenco musician must understand dance!”

“And vice versa, a flamenco dancer must understand music,” says Roni, and continues with emphasis:

“Flamenco dancers can only be good dancers if they are also good musicians. You just cannot take music out of flamenco dance. They are inseparable.”

Flamenco has its own hurdles, such as the extremely challenging rhythms. Every conversation with the Martins eventually turns back to basics such as the flamenco metre or compás. You can do all kinds of radical and crazy things with flamenco, but you do not mess with the compás.

Kaari Martin tells a story about how music and dance merge in traditional flamenco material. At the Helsinki Festival in 2009, the premiere of Pippi Longstockings was coming up, and she did not yet have a solo for herself. She was playing the title-role and wanted to do a traditional soleá.

“Then our guitarist Juan Antonio Suárez, ‘Cano’, said: You know what, we’ll take care of it. You just go out there. We’ll take care of the dance.”

Husband and wife frequently cross paths in the fields of music and dance. The choreographer may come up with music and the composer may create dance. The skills of the company are of vital importance. The Compañía usually perform with live music.

“I would hope that if people remembered anything about our performances, they would remember that the band was damn good,” says Roni Martin. “And that’s not just the musicians, everyone is part of the band as far as I’m concerned. Musicians I admire, like James Brown, always have a damn good band. Without your team you’re nothing.”

Balancing between Finland and Spain

The Compañía Kaari & Roni Martin create contemporary art and flamenco as they like it, without putting any special emphasis on the fact that it is a Spanish art form. Spanish viewers see their work very differently from Finns.

“We have a completely different reception in Finland and in Spain,” Roni explains. “The attitude to flamenco is different, of course, but more generally the attitude to dance and culture in general is also different. In Finland, flamenco and contemporary dance and so on are all lumped into this bulk genre of ‘music and dance’. But our style is very different from any other group.”

Roni continues: “It is through flamenco that we invest in the music, and in live music in particular. You just cannot separate the role of the flamenco dancer from the music. You can separate it from flamenco music, but not from music altogether. For me, the means of expression of flamenco dance are in the music, and this is true even if you are dancing without accompaniment. Our musical focus is derived from the rules of flamenco.”

“The Spanish can speak for themselves, of course,” says Kaari calmly. “But one of our dancers, Mariana Collado [who is from Spain], says that no one in Spain would ever dream of creating pieces like this. We are completely unprejudiced when it comes to flamenco. What seems modern to Spanish people often comes across as 1980s-tacky to us…”

Perhaps it is easier for someone on the outside to let go of certain things and avoid the burden of tradition, in the absence of purists breathing down their neck. The Martins are interested in all kinds of art, and this can be seen and heard in their work.

“We have never felt restricted by flamenco,” says Roni. “Quite the contrary: it gives a huge amount of room to do things. Only your imagination is the limit! If people want to approach it completely freely, I cannot understand why other people should have a problem with that. The main thing is that flamenco remains the significant international art form that it is today, that it changes and evolves.”

From Schoenberg to Tarantino

The Martins may find inspiration almost anywhere. In their most recent production, La Femme Rouge, the music is written almost exclusively for string instruments.

“I listened to a lot of Charles Ives when I was writing it. And Arnold Schoenberg!” says Roni with enthusiasm.

“With Pippi Longstockings, the influences came from Michael Jackson and Marcel Marceau,” says Kaari with a smile. “And Chaplin! Our next work, Kill Carmen, owes something to Quentin Tarantino.”

Regarding the visual elements of their productions, the Compañía are clearly part of the field of Finnish dramatic art and contemporary dance. In Spain, the arts scene was obviously affected by the Franco era. Foreign influences in popular music, for instance, were scarce during the long dictatorship.

“My sound and mixing are rooted in the aesthetics of pop music,” says Roni. “The basic conceptions come from Western genres. I feel that in Spain a lot of people have been a bit out of touch with that sort of thing, because not a lot came in from abroad during the Franco era. Just think what might have happened if flamenco had had the chance to develop like, say, jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. Then again, it might have reached a certain point in its development in the 1970s, and then…”

“Maybe it’s a good thing that it never happened,” interjects Kaari before Roni continues:

“My feeling is that in jazz people have been basically repeating the same stuff since the 1970s. In flamenco, it was not until the mid-1970s that things began to happen, with Camarón, Paco de Lucía, Antonio Canales, Antonio Gades… Maybe the place we are now is where jazz was in the 1970s. Well, that’s not true of all flamenco! But maybe the fact that flamenco is truly a unique art form in Europe today is somehow due to this.”

Members make the team

Both Kaari and Roni Martin keep coming back to the importance of the group. They are simply the figureheads; the works come alive through the people performing them. They have established many long-standing working relationships over the years. Their favourite musicians include big names in Spanish flamenco such as singer Rafael Jiménez, ‘Falo’, and guitarist Juan Antonio Suárez, ‘Cano’.

“Cano is just perfect for us, he’s in a class of his own,” says Kaari excitedly. “You can say to him, hey, you know, let’s do this song in a nine-beat rhythm – which is unheard of in flamenco – and he’ll listen for a while and then start to play along perfectly. He’s also the humblest man ever, he’s not afraid to make mistakes! Pippi was an excellent production, it was an education even for Cano; he had to play a robber and run around the stage with guitar in hand…”

Violinists Sanna Salmenkallio and Henrik Perelló perform regularly with the group, as does percussionist Karo Sampela, who now lives in Madrid. Roni cannot praise Sampela enough and is extremely happy that he is still available to perform with the Compañía.

“Percussion is the key thing for me, after all. If the percussion works, everyone else can basically relax.”

In autumn 2013, the group will be staging a triple bill of solo works: La Femme Rouge, the award-winning The Raven and Two dreams in One, which was premiered back in 2007. The latter has undergone considerable amendments. After this production, Kaari and Roni Martin will be unveiling their take on a well-known character, the queen of all Spanish clichés: Carmen. Kill Carmen will be premiered “no earlier than late 2014”. It will feature a new musical element, a horn section, which they already experimented with in performances last summer.

“To be able to create a work like this, you need to rehearse with people for two years. You have to tour, you have to perform, you have to be able to know what they’re thinking from a single glance!” says Roni.

Kaari gets a kick out of the rhythm and beat of the music of the Balkans, and she has liked Goran Bregović for some time now.

“Bregović went down really well,” says Kaari. “We even thought about asking his band to play with us.”

“But we eventually felt that musicians playing with us have to have a certain diversity,” continues Roni. “They have to be people who can play anything, like trumpet player Antero Priha. Or flamenco singer Victor Carrasco: if we end up in a funk jam, he’ll come out with a Zappa scream and sound just like a black guy, and so on.”

Towards new things

Sometimes the couple seem to work in a highly disciplined fashion, while at other times they engage in wild improvisation. Sometimes improvisation yields the best ideas of all, as happened with The Raven, where time was short and the choreography was mainly created through improvisation.

“I feel we have reached a new level with our recent works,” says Roni Martin with satisfaction. “The main focus is on the characters within the work and their depth. Not just dance for the sake of dance; much of the choreography is about understanding the character.”

Both Kaari and Roni agree that their work has improved over the past 10 years.

“We have achieved positive results. Our methods are now simpler. When you look at the completed work, you have to remember that it takes a long process to make it simple,” says Roni.

“Right, well, our method now is that we have two kids and no time,” says Kaari with amusement.

Roni Martin continues on the theme of simplicity:

“In La Femme Rouge, I pretty much used the same theme all the time. I thought a lot about how far I could go with it. But as Sanna Salmenkallio says, you have to hear something three times in order to make an emotional bond with it. You hear each repetition slightly differently, and then you refract it through your own experience, and everything becomes more personal.”

Simple is beautiful in other respects too.

“It’s just like it is with traditional flamenco,” says Kaari Martin. “The same chords are used all the time: the tangos chords, the soleá chords, the siguiriya chords…”

“We consciously seek to create something new,” Roni points out. “We want to do something that is our own. You can only create a particular work once. And this is in no way intended to mean that traditional flamenco is worthless! It is just that we are not interested in doing traditional flamenco, we are interested in taking things forward. Otherwise, we might well become bored and quit. But it is also about not having to reinvent the wheel – the tradition is a huge treasure trove providing endless starting points. You have to learn everything that has gone before in order to create new things.”

“And we are only just starting,” says Kaari with a smile. “So far we have just been practising.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi


Kaari Martin

:: Born in 1972

:: Flamenco dancer, choreographer and teacher

:: Major choreographies: La Femme Rouge (2013), On a string (2010, with Minna Tervamäki; music: Sibelius Violin Concerto), The Raven (2010), Pippi Longstockings (2009), Tell me rain (2006), Of the World (2004), La Kalevala (2003, with Tove Djupsjöbacka)

:: Five-year State artist grant 2012−2016


Roni Martin

:: Born in 1976

:: Composer, lyricist, musician, producer

:: Music for television, film and multimedia, and for Spanish flamenco artists such as Ángel Rojas

:: Recordings: Maailmasta (Of the World, 2004; music to poems by Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski, together with Jukka Orma), Roni Martin (2010), 4 movements for movement (2011)

:: Theatre Work of the Year award 2010 for the music to Pippi Longstockings



:: Artistic directors of Compañía Kaari & Roni Martin and the Flamingo Festival for contemporary flamenco in Helsinki

:: Prize-winners in the Certamen de Coreografía de Danza Española y Flamenco in Madrid: Tell me rain (2006, third prize in the group choreography category) and The Raven (2012, first prize in the solo choreography, music and costume categories)

:: Married, two children, living in Helsinki

Compania Kaari Martin