Mele Martinez learned how to dance before she learned how to walk. Well, almost.
As a 3-year-old, Martinez was introduced to what would become her first love: traditional Spanish dance. A decade later, Martinez discovered flamenco, a dance to which she has devoted her adult life.
"It has three traditional parts to it: singing, guitar-playing and the dancing," said Martinez, a former member of the American Flamenco Repertory Company. "In the past, it was usually done as a traditional thing--for parties, baptisms and weddings. But in the early 20th century, it turned into a more theatrical performance."
Martinez, a dancer, songwriter and choreographer, has embraced the theatrics of flamenco through the use of lighting; elaborate, brightly colored costumes; and an intricate storyline in her latest innovation, Al Pesebre.
According to Martinez, the theatrical elements of Al Pesebre are tasteful additions and never overpower the traditional dances, such as the alegrias (translates into joy or having fun) or the tangos.
"The differences between flamenco and other dance forms is that flamenco is completely embedded in the music," Martinez said. "You can't do the dance without the music, because it's a form that came from one type of music."
Al Pesebre, which translates into "at the manger," is a musical rendition of the infamous nativity story, one that Martinez holds particularly close to her heart. Each dancer will perform as a nativity character, including Mary, the shepherds in the field, the three magi and the angels (played by children).
"It's not like going to your normal Nutcracker--not that I don't like the Nutcracker, because I do," Martinez said. "But with flamenco, it's a way of life, and it has everything to with Christmas and coming together."
For Martinez and the 15 musicians and dancers performing (including Tucson Weekly intern Claire Conrad, who did not contribute to this article), Al Pesebre is a symbol of flamenco's strong integral values and its widespread appeal.
"I'm hoping that the flamenco community will grow in Tucson," Martinez said. "It's a really important part of the Hispanic history, and it should be important to the people who live in this area."
That's why Martinez has invited nationally acclaimed flamenco singer Vicente Griego to perform in Al Pesebre.
"He adds a very important professional element to this performance," Martinez said.
Griego, who learned his trade as a member of a prominent dance company in 1992, was originally drawn to flamenco because of its layered composition.
"Some people like the lyrics and love the poetry; some people can ignore the poetry and love the musical phrasing; some people like the movement of the dancers," Griego said. "But if you want a complete feel of flamenco, connect with the rhythm and the way the music interacts with the dancers."
For Griego, the interactions between dancer, singer and guitarist are like a conversation, open-ended and suggestive. For this reason, Griego claims that no two performances are the same.
"The flowing movements of the body communicate intention and inspiration to the guitarist and the singer," Griego said. "Through flamenco, performers have the ability to stand up with three people they have never met--though I would never call them strangers--and understand the musical code."
For a truly authentic experience, Casa Vicente has teamed up with Martinez to serve traditional Spanish cuisine at each of the performances: a paella lunch and a Spanish holiday dinner.
For those interested in learning more about flamenco singing, Griego will be holding a two-day Cante Workshop that's open to all ages.
"The workshop isn't for a specific level, or someone who has studied flamenco," Martinez said. "It's just for anyone who is interested in learning a little bit more about flamenco."
Al Pesebre, a Flamenco Christmas concert and dinner, will take place at Casa Vicente Restaurant, 375 S. Stone Ave., at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 20, and 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 21. The Cante Workshop will be held on Saturday, Dec. 20, and Sunday, Dec. 21, from noon to 1 p.m., also at Casa Vicente. Tickets for the Saturday evening dinner/show cost $40; tickets for the Sunday afternoon lunch/show cost $25. Enrollment for the Cante Workshop costs $40. To make reservations or enroll in the workshop, call 884-5253, or visit tucsoniquete.com.