Her feet hit the stage like an explosion. Her expertise imbues the Twin Cities flamenco dance scene with an unexpected range of skill and emotion.
And now Susana di Palma will step into the spotlight one final time. The veteran choreographer plans to continue as artistic director of Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, the Minneapolis company she founded in 1982. But di Palma will no longer dance in the company’s main stage productions following “What the Moon Sees,” opening Thursday at the Lab Theater.
“I’ve never felt physically better,” di Palma said recently while breezing through Zorongo’s airy Minneapolis studio. “But I’m 72 years old. Sometimes I have to get out my ID just to remind myself.”
Under di Palma’s direction, Zorongo has built a national reputation for pushing flamenco’s traditional roots in compelling, even theatrical, directions, using the Spanish art form to explore literature, visual art and social issues.
Dance writer and choreographer Judith Brin Ingber recalled watching di Palma perform an early version of 1987’s “Gernika,” inspired by Pablo Picasso’s antiwar “Guernica” painting from 1937 (widely regarded as a cubist masterpiece). “I was very astounded,” Ingber recalled of watching di Palma’s show. “She was taking this traditional form, but actually saying something with it.”
Di Palma guided Zorongo through many more surprising explorations: She investigated religious intolerance with 2014’s “ConVivir,” based on Spain’s theologically diverse yet peaceful Convivencia period (roughly the eighth through 15th centuries). She saw American Indian boarding schools through the eyes of her own grandmother with 2012’s “Zorro in the Land of the Yellow-Breasted Woodpecker.” For her final dance performance, di Palma draws on her experiences as a volunteer for St. Stephen’s Human Services, a nonprofit that serves Minnesotans experiencing homelessness.
“She was one of the pioneers in a movement that took flamenco from a purely traditional form to a form that embraces new and contemporary ways of telling stories,” said Ten Thousand Things Artistic Director Marcela Lorca, a former Guthrie Theater staffer who enlisted di Palma for her 2001 production of the Spanish folk tragedy “Blood Wedding.”
Through it all, di Palma remained in demand as a Twin Cities dancer of rare skill. She appeared locally as a guest dancer with international flamenco troupes, contemporary dance companies and even opera productions, including her appearance with Mill City Summer Opera’s “Carmen” last summer.
“Her gestures are so essentialized,” Lorca observed of di Palma’s dancing. “They are so full of meaning that watching her do anything onstage is a real treat. All she has to do is stand there and there’s power.”
Flamenco in Minnesota
A Minneapolis native, di Palma began studying Spanish classical dance as a young girl. Ingber remembers taking classes with di Palma at MacPhail Center for Music. Their teacher was a former vaudeville dancer named Lillian Vail. “She wore black Spanish heels, a leotard, and she always had a colorful flowy scarf tied to her waist,” Ingber recalled of their former teacher.
Due to her talent — and possibly due to what she called her “stage mother” — di Palma was dancing competitively and professionally from an early age. By her teen years, she was touring nationally with dancers Donald O’Connor and Ann-Margret, before the latter became a star for her role in 1963’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”
As a 20-something, di Palma moved to New York briefly before heading to Spain to study Spanish classical dance. From there, it didn’t take long to discover that flamenco was her true passion. “I think it was the emotional range, the darkness,” di Palma said. “I related to that.”
With its roots in ballet, Spanish classical dance proved a great base for flamenco. “In the old days, even in Spain, you had to study Spanish classical dance, and regional dances, and then flamenco,” di Palma said.
And yet flamenco held a second-class status, di Palma continued, perhaps because it comes from the country’s marginalized Roma population. “It’s raw. In fact, flamenco was not popular up until the 1980s in Spain. If you were a flamenco dancer, you were from the lower classes.”
While in Spain, di Palma studied the form intensely while working in tablaos (flamenco nightclubs). She did some TV work with dance companies and toured with flamenco acts such as La Singla. Once she nailed the core techniques, though, she realized she needed to “say something” more with flamenco. So she moved back to Minnesota and launched Zorongo, frequently returning to Spain to keep abreast of the art form.
As a foreigner in Spain, di Palma figured, it would have been difficult to create opportunities for herself. Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, she found that support from generous funders and eager audiences allowed her to flourish.
Zorongo toured successfully to other U.S. cities over the years. One of the company’s biggest hits was “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” performed at New York City’s Joyce Theater in 1993. “It was a totally outrageous piece,” di Palma recalled. “I cooked rabbit on stage.” (A New York Times reviewer called it “probably one of the most imaginatively staged dance events ever presented at the Joyce Theater.”)
“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” might have been the launchpad for a national tour. “I could have performed it other places, but I was just burnt out,” di Palma said. “I didn’t return phone calls for like a year.”
So she remained anchored in Minneapolis. Sure, di Palma flew in international flamenco artists for several Zorongo collaborations, which proved quite costly. But she also sought out collaborations with local artists representing a diversity of disciplines. For example, Zorongo copresented 2012’s “Journey” with Katha Dance Theatre, a Minnesota company specializing in northern India’s classical Kathak dance tradition. Zorongo co-created 2003’s “Encounters/Encuentros” with Twin Cities gospel singer musician J.D. Steele.
And the company worked with performance artist Patrick Scully on 2016’s “Lorca’s Women,” with Scully distinguishing himself from the Zorongo dancers by performing nude and painting his body blue. “One of the things I’ve always admired about Susana is her willingness to engage with dancers from other aesthetic traditions,” Scully said. “ I think that’s a real gift that she’s brought to our community.”
As her role shifts, di Palma confessed to uncertainty regarding Zorongo’s future. “I have these apprentice dancers that have achieved something,” she said. “Maybe they will be a strong core company that I can continue to direct. Perhaps they can continue the legacy of theater flamenco that addresses issues that are a little outside of the box.
“So many people have studied with me,” di Palma added, “they are my family. I just can’t walk away from that. Especially as you get older, you need that love all the more.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.