When you think about important moments in dance history, there are few that happened in an Uber. However, for the remounting of a classic flamenco show this weekend in Minneapolis, that moment in a car was pivotal.
Susana di Palma, founder and artistic director of Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theater, wanted another dancer to perform the part she originated in "Garden of Names," a piece she created in 1996 about the Desaparecidos, or the Disappeared. That's the name given the victims of the Argentinian military junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
She found the dancer she was seeking through her cousin. While on business in Puerto Rico, he called a car to take him to dinner.
"And Jeanne was driving an Uber and they started to talk," di Palma said.
Jeanne is Jeanne d'Arc Casas. She likes to chat with the people she drives from place to place.
"Because you meet people from every part of the world," she said. "So it's very interesting to talk to them and ask them how their day is going."
As they talked, she revealed that she was a dancer and was learning to tell stories through flamenco. He told her about his cousin's flamenco theater company in Minneapolis. One thing led to another, and di Palma traveled to New York to see Casas perform.
"And I saw her, and I thought, 'There are so few dancers that I know that really have the emotional capacity and depth, as well as the technique, to take on such a difficult role,'" di Palma said. Casas did.
"Garden of Names" began with a novel: "Imagining Argentina," by Lawrence Thornton, about the junta and its victims. Di Palma got it from her best friend, Barbara Chester, the first director of the Center for the Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.
"And she said, 'This speaks for the people I work with. You should read it.' And I read it and I was so moved," di Palma recalled.
So moved, in fact, that she and her company collaborated with Joe Chvala's Flying Foot Forum to create "Garden of Names," first performed in 1996. They used flamenco's percussive passion to tell the tragic story.
"And so many people have asked me to redo this work, and with the current political climate it just feels relevant again, what political repression can do," said di Palma.
"Garden of Names" is a tale of magical realism, she explained. It revolves around Carlos, a theater director whose journalist wife, Cecelia, writes about 13 students arrested and disappeared for protesting a rise in bus fares.
"So she writes this article, and she was arrested and disappeared herself. So he goes into his garden, and he can see the whereabouts of other Disappeareds," she said.
People come to Carlos to learn what has happened to their loved ones. It's seldom happy. They see torture and rape. And the one person Carlos cannot see is Cecelia. The story includes the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose weekly protests demanding the return of lost children attracted global attention.
Di Palma stresses that this is a show filled with beauty. She assembled an international cast of talented dancers, singers and musicians for the shows at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. In addition to the return of the Flying Foot Forum, the performers come from both coasts and as far away as El Salvador and France.
Casas brings her own sadness and resolve to the piece. Puerto Rico is yet recovering from last year's hurricane. With thousands of people still lacking electricity, she asked to come to Minneapolis early.
"I am thankful to the universe that through what I do and my art that I can leave for a moment," she said.
Together, Casas and di Palma have adapted "Garden of Names" to fit Casas' physicality. While learning the choreography, Casas has also been studying the history, so she can — as she puts it — give life to the character in addition to the movement.
Di Palma said she believes the show will be both thought-provoking and seductive in its beauty, thanks in large part to Casas. "It's difficult physically, but also to go into this emotional dark place," she said. "And this lady can do it."