BOISE — It’s Monday night and the Basque Center is crammed with nearly 175 dancers, musicians, actors and stage crew. It’s organized chaos, for they’ve been rehearsing — every Monday night — since January. There was no shortage of volunteers, either, for this is a historic event.
Seventy years ago, the Basque community was asked to put on a show for the 30th Boise Music Week festival. These days, that wouldn’t be an unusual request.
But back then, land for the Basque Center had not yet been purchased. The Oinkari Dancers wouldn’t be formed for 11 more years. There was no museum and no Basque studies program. The biggest Basque dances and gatherings were at boarding houses.
The first show was a big deal to produce — and its success resonates in the second show. “Thousands throng to ‘greatest Basque spectacle ever seen in U.S.,’” said the May 10, 1949, Idaho Statesman headline, with a side story saying there were “3,000 turned away” who could not fit in the Boise High School auditorium, the premier venue then. By popular demand, a repeat performance was held May 20.
That Music Week invitation — and the community’s overwhelming support — laid the foundation for the thriving Basque community of today, including those Monday night volunteers at the Basque Center.
The original show was called “Song of the Basque,” and this week’s show will follow in its footsteps as “Song of the Basque 2.” It is part of the 101st annual Boise Music Week and will have one show at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Morrison Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are free but must be reserved.
The original performance was a variety show, featuring performers from around the Treasure Valley. The 2019 show, however, is less variety and more of a story of the Basque migration, “the likes of which the world had ever seen,” says Aitor Amuchastegui as the storyteller and narrator through the play.
The play, in fact, parallels his own family’s story.
“We came here, we didn’t know how to speak English, we knew very few people here,” he said in an interview. But he also remembers forming bonds with other Basques. “Those people became our family, our extended family,” central to the strength of the Basque community today.
“We’re trying to capture and make people aware of what’s happened since 1949,” says Juliana Jausoro Aldape, who, at two years old, was the youngest performer then. Her granddaughter will play Aldape’s part in the contemporary show. Aldape, who is on the organizing committee, laughs and predicts her granddaughter will also take her role on the same committee in the next 70 years.
That’s just another part of the show’s family connection. Among the many photos in the 1949 Idaho Statesman article is one showing Ramon Ysursa and his sister, Ruby Ysursa, dancing the traditional jota to music by their father, Benito Ysursa. In the 2019 version, the siblings’ children, John Ysursa and his cousin, Marie Basabe Alder, will dance.
It’s a special jota, for their grandfather played it on a guitar; traditionally it’s on an accordion.
“It’s a very gypsy-flavored jota,” Alder says. To make it extra special, the Basque boarding house scene will include a recording that Benito Ysursa made after the 1949 show.
“We’re going to pretend that our grandfather is playing through the radio of our boarding house 70 years ago,” Ysursa says. “It’s just a special opportunity to relive those memories.”
The second show is written and directed by Doug Copsey, who grew up in a Basque neighborhood, Aldape Heights, in Boise’s East End. The play includes photos from the original play, interspersed with interviews of the original 1949 cast members who are still living.
“They’re so dedicated. They so want to make this a good show like the 1949 show was,” Copsey says. “And everybody wants to be a part of it.
“It’s neat to see the memories they’re honoring from the ‘49 show and yet taking it another step forward. That’s the third act: The four generations, leading into the fifth. The purpose of the third act is to highlight those generations and how they’ve evolved here in Boise and in Idaho.”
Ysursa reflects on the passing of those generations and the honor it is to dance the jota. Both his grandfather and his father and aunt, who danced in the 1949 play, have died.
“This is a very special way to really remember (them) and pay tribute to our family,” he said. “... As the subtitle of the show says: The legacy continues. So we’re a part of that ongoing story.”