ELKO — In July, the Basque Dancers of the Great Basin — a group comprised of two local Basque dance groups — will perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., representing the intertwining of tradition and modernity.
The local group will have two performances per day on July 7, 8 and 9, said Angie de Braga, director of continuing education and community outreach with Great Basin College.
Each summer the education and research institution focuses on an ethnic group in the United States that has made a “great contribution to the country,” said Vince Juaristi, explaining past events have focused on the Peruvian, Chinese and Native American cultures.
Juaristi was instrumental in helping Elko and Nevada be represented at the Smithsonian this summer, said de Braga.
The festival is held on the National Mall and celebrates culture through music, art, food, crafts and more, according to the Smithsonian’s website.
“This year the Folklife Festival celebrates resilient communities around the world. Discover how the Basque country sustains culture, drawing on traditions to innovate in a rapidly changing world,” stated the site, describing the event titled “Basque Innovation by Culture.”
The program will have a few sheep on loan for a few hours on July 1 and 8. They will be from a farm in Maryland and at the site of the Festival, between Fourth and Seventh streets, said James Mayer, a Smithsonian spokesperson for the folklife festival.
“They’ll have a section on linguistics focusing on the language of the Basque — a language that is an isolate unrelated to the Latin languages of Europe, but still very important and one of the oldest languages in the world,” said Juaristi.
The festival will include a storytelling area, said de Braga, which is important because “they want to keep the stories alive and they’ll have a lot of people from the Basque country telling stories.”
There is a partnership with the Basque government in Spain, which is supporting this cultural showcase. It will also send representatives to the U.S., he said.
“It will include all Basque from all parts of the United States, as well as the partnership with the Basque government in Spain. What I wanted to make sure was that Elko was represented there as having such an important Basque community in this country,” said Juaristi.
Local Basques partnered with Great Basin College to put together a program with activities including music, a choir element, food and dancing, “to demonstrate what has been developed over decades in this community surrounding the Basque,” he said.
The Basque Dancers of the Great Basin is a combination of groups representing Elko and Spring Creek: the Elko Basque Club Dancers called the Arinak Dancers and its offshoot, Ardi Beltza, meaning “black sheep.” Arinak means fast, said dance instructor Janet Iribarne.
“The two groups have come back together to perform for Washington, D.C.,” said Iribarne.
There are 12 primary performance dances and six “throw-in” dances that will have audience participation, she said.
The dancers will also explain the meaning of their performances as the dances tell stories.
“We plan on teaching these dances slowly and then incorporating the whole group into these … fairly easy dances, fun, festival dances,” she said, describing the later six dances.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of dances in the Basque culture, said Iribarne, discussing how the time of year played into choosing the dances as it will be at the same time as the fiestas of San Fermin, known for the running of the bulls.
The group will be in Washington during San Fermin and the performances will take place on the following days. The bulls are also run in Pamplona in the days after, she said.
The costumes are incorporated for that theme and the group tried to pick dances that also matched.
“Plus, we try to give a variety of dances in the performance,” said Iribarne, delineating different dances for the Free Press such as Zinta — the Maypole Dance — and the Godelett — the Wine Glass Dance typically done typically during Carnival.
The meaning behind Godelett can be rather controversial, said Iribarne.
“It is said that each member of the dance group … they have a different character. There’s five different characters and each character represents a different part of the community,” the bartender, the mayor, the horse, the cat and the sweeper, “who sweeps away the bad spirits,” she said, explaining the superstition of the dance is focused on the dancer jumping on the glass. If they don’t spill the liquid, they will have good crops.
“We feel very fortunate that we were selected,” said Iribarne. “It’s a great honor. Things that used to be happening in Elko are slowly going away and at least this has brought us back to where, I think, we’re dancing as a group, we’re dancing as a whole.”
This rejuvenation comes not only in bringing the two groups together but also in the innovation of the Basque culture. Kiaya Memeo is a dance instructor who likes to keep things a little avant-garde.
She told the Free Press one of the biggest things about going to this festival is it’s a great way to show tradition but to also “to show them how we as Americans have adapted those dances in our culture and we’re making it fit in our lives.”
The group has many dancers with backgrounds in ballet, hip-hop and even jazz.
“We like to be able to pull from those resources and adapt it to our culture and utilize it,” said Memeo.
The dance called Txa!, Memeo said, has blended tradition and modernity.
“It’s wonderful for these kids to learn their traditions and learn the steps … fundamental to traditional Basque dancing,” she said.
A lot of the work the team does is foot and position work, which can be both traditional and rigorous, and “then on the flip-side of that, you’ve got to be able to adapt, because at the end of the day, it’s a performance” focused on engaging an audience to excite them about the Basque culture, said Memeo, who said the group will not only represent the Basques of the Elko community, but the State.
“We’re going there to represent everybody,” she concluded.
Music for the Modern Age, with Flavor for Tradition
Troy Sirkel taught the choir element and Maite Moiola assisted.
Moiola, aside from having sewn costumes for the dancers, is bilingual in Basque and English and may help translate the meanings of the dances and the songs at the festival, said de Braga.
Musically the dances can be rather rigid. However, accordionist Mercedes Mendive has certain advantages.
“One of the advantages that I have now, aside from acoustic accordions, which is strictly accordion sound, I can now mix it with digital, which means I can play with my drums I can add a steel guitar and an upright base to my base side,” she said.
“We’re keeping with tradition but we’re taking the music and we’re making it event better than it was,” said Mendive.
“The one important thing that I hope the community understands is that we want to share the culture. It’s about giving this culture to the entire community and saying come and be with us,” she said.
GBC, through de Braga, is helping with administrative aspects, such as fundraising and accounting, communication from the Smithsonian to the group, and public relations, which includes a website to donate to the trip: www.campusce.net/gbcnv.
The Elko Euzkaldunak Basque Club has been highly supportive and helped greatly with fundraising, she said.
Some of the proceeds from the monthly membership meeting or luncheons has gone to fund both the dancers and musicians.
“It’s quite an effort, because not only is there a corp of dancers, but there’s also musicians,” said de Braga.
The group will have one formal presentation each day on a main stage, where large numbers are expected to be in attendance. There will be other presentations that are done in more of a workshop style.
The group is very excited about the latter because they will have the opportunity to captivate the crowd by teaching them dances and partaking in the excitement of the music and ambiance.
Members of the multi-talented group, including Fernando Lejardi, may also be asked to demonstrate Basque games such as handball.
“It’s been amazing because we get to represent our hometown ... not only a national level, but also an international level because of all those performers coming from the Basque country. They are so connected to Elko. They have family here and it makes you feel really good to connect with the bigger world,” said de Braga.
People can be proud and inspired by different contributions, she said, explaining she thinks about what her grandparents gave up to have a better life in America for generations to come.
“It’s so inspiring seeing groups work together, because our world has so many problems right now and we can appreciate each other’s diversity, and then understand all the good in what these diverse groups provide,” she said.