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BALLET OF THE BASQUES

Gerard Cuesta, who joined Oldarra, Les Ballets Basques de Biarritz last year, is dedicated to the troupe's mission. "It is necessary to change the image of the word `folklore,' " he said. "Our aim is to give a popular show, but above all we must demonstrate art."

The internationally experienced folk ballet has four more concerts in the Intermountain area in which to demonstrate both its art and popularity.The company of 28, including four musicians, will highlight its Utah appearances with a program in Kingsbury Hall on Saturday, March 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8, $5 students.

This program will consist of three major works, beginning with "Gernika," an interpretation of the tragedy depicted in Picasso's painting.

Guernica, the Basque capital in Biscay and a site sacred to ancient Basques, was bombed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, with a loss of 1,600 lives. "The dance incorporates poses and positions from the painting," explained artistic director Koldo Zabala. "It also shows the style and rhythms of Biscay, with music composed by Serge Lancen, a winner of the Prix de Rome."

"Xubero" is an interpretation of carnival in a little village in Soule, the smallest of the seven Basque provinces in France. "The dance is a masquerade, depicting the conflict betweengood and evil, with the good guys in red, the bad guys in black. There is much satire and pantomime in the dance for full company, with solo parts such as the centaur, blacksmith and cat man," Zabala explained.

Also programmed is the Utah premiere of Zabala's recently choreographed "Nafarroa," in which he depicts the history and legends of Navarre, the Basques' historic homeland. The hourlong dance, accompanied by a musical score assembled from many sources, is divided into three epochs: the mythological, the medieval and Napoleonic.

"The Basques existed as a separate, distinct people before history," Zabala explained. "They are very ancient, with their own original language, still preserved.

"In mythological times, theirs was a pagan religion, with nature and creature worship. We personify the thunder, a ram with horns and the condor, among other things.

"The medieval segment takes us to the court of Navarre, very rich and powerful. The king of Navarre was elected by the people, and we show the refinement of the court, its culture, its dances. We suggest the battle with Castille, and the penitents on pilgrimage, the beginning of the Catholic religion."

During the Napoleonic era, Navarre lost much of its power to Spain, said Zabala. Napoleon brought in some of the French dances, which influenced culture. Viewers will find the rhythms and accents of Aragon, and Moorish influences, with much satire, capped by a joyous Jota, showing that the spirit of the Basques lives on, despite adversity.

Koldo Zabala has been active in Basque dance ever since 1947 and is founding member of the Euskai Dantzarien Biltzarra, with 7,000 members. He studied formal ballet in Paris and at present teaches in the Conservatory National de Bayonne Cote Basque.

During the past 45 years, Oldarra "has transformed itself into an art group devoted to the dances, customs and legends of Basque folklore," said Zabala. "We are inspired by three styles of dance, which we present artistically - traditional, classic and contemporary. We modify our dances for popular appeal." The semiprofessional troupe practices every evening and performs 35 to 40 times a year. The company has toured widely in Europe, the United States, Canada and Africa.

Only within the past century have women actively engaged in Basque dance, and many dances are still for women only and men only, with very little couple dancing, said Zabala. "For centuries, men in masks took the women's parts. Partly this is for good reason, because the men's parts are more physically taxing."

But the women's footwork is just as hard and intricate, said Cuesta, principal dancer of the company, who stars in "Nafarroa."

Cuesta is also artistic director of the International Folk Festival, originally a Bayonne festival that on its 20th anniversary was acquired by the city of Biarritz.

Elsewhere in the region, Oldarra will dance at Boise State University on March 10, South Sevier High in Richfield on March 12, and Rock Springs (Wyoming) High on March 14.