Flamenco Moving on Two Paths

By John Harris

September 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Flamencologists tell us that the art of Flamenco was nurtured for centuries among the gitano (gypsy) families of Andalucia, but not performed in public until the mid-nineteenth century, and not named Flamenco until almost the end of that century. The long period in which it was an almost private ritual is often called the hermetic1 period. In looking for Flamenco dance references today one sometimes feels that the hermetic period never ended because in many ways Flamenco is still under the radar.

The normally useful online resource Wikipedia2 has a page titled: “List of Dance Style Categories.” We find on that page a title Concert Dance/Performance Dance and we get to a page which lists and discusses fifteen kinds of performance dance from Ballet to Strip Tease. No Flamenco. This is despite the fact that for a number of years Flamenco companies have been able to fill the major venues in all the European capital cities as well as the United States and in Latin America. It is said there are more Flamenco studios in Japan than there are in Spain. Curious.

Maybe we should look directly for Flamenco. There is such a page which starts out: Flamenco is a Spanish musical genre… Here we do find a very extensive entry which tells us of the history of the art form, and of the technical details of the music. The page carries about six hundred lines of text, but that part which relates to the dance is only about five lines, and some of that is wrong. Clearly the author is a musician, not a dancer. Dancers are non-verbal, perhaps.

The truth is, Flamenco dance is, in a number of ways, difficult to characterize. The public often equates it with an improvisational performance in a bar or tablao with a lot of foot stamping, and is surprised to learn that it can also be a highly choreographed theatrical art. In fact, in Flamenco Puro, the original form, the music and dance follow a set of formalities of remarkable complexity, with about eighty different recognized forms, identified by invariant rhythmic signatures and by the melodic content. It is not simply a dance form, indeed some would say that it is the music which is its most distinctive artifact. Others would say that the singing is the heart of the performance. And, like all dance forms, Flamenco is always changing and evolving; Flamenco ten years ago is not Flamenco today.

In the case of Flamenco dance, it has for some time been separated into two styles. The first of these is one that continues the tradition of the family, or tablao style, sometimes called the “gypsy style.” In this style, which is best suited to a small venue with an audience which is not more than a few feet from the performers, the dancer’s moves are restrained, and often involve a humorous interaction with the audience. While this style gives the appearance of an improvised approach to the performance, and the dance is to some extent improvised, the improvisation is based on years of practice and the development of a movement vocabulary.

The second style, suited to a theatrical stage and multiple dancers, requires more rehearsal, more choreography and more support from lighting design and sound technology. Flamenco artists have been struggling for decades to define this style. Some of their efforts have gone in the direction of dance pieces which tell a story, with a large cast of supporting dancers. Others present performances which, although they use the tools of Flamenco, also involve techniques of classical Spanish dance and modern dance.

I asked three of the currently practicing San Francisco Flamencas where they saw the dance form going.

ADELA CLARA is a teacher and choreographer who founded the company Theatre Flamenco in 1966; a company which remains a lively presence in the Bay Area.

JH: When did you first encounter Flamenco dance?

ADELA: I started out actually in San Francisco and in Oakland and my background was ballet and modern dance. My mother encouraged me to take Spanish dance, because in those days only the gypsies did Flamenco. She said why don’t you learn something about your heritage, she went way back. My mother was born in Austria, but of originally a Spanish Sephardic family3, so she was always very fascinated with Spanish dance. So I was doing Ballet, Spanish Dance and Modern Dance. I was very fond of the Graham technique. I had gone back to Manhattan, and in Modern Dance I had a very wonderful teacher, Welland Lathrop, from Martha Graham’s company. He had incredible vision and I still use a lot of his philosophy even in Flamenco.

For me Flamenco, as well as the other schools of Spanish dance, has always been very very exciting, and also the use of poetry was a big thing in my own company. Actually the company itself started in New York, we were doing experimental theatre using classical guitar, poetry and Spanish Dance. A lot of companies were doing that then—using poetry and dance—then they got way from it.

I feel that to keep Flamenco as dancing on the table top or in somebody’s kitchen kind of stifles it. I love going to Hotel Triana in Seville and watching the older gypsy flamencos at midnight under the sky, but I feel that if I were to try and copy that, I would be just a tourist.

LA TANIA, who has been a highly regarded teacher and performer of flamenco in Northern California for many years, began learning Flamenco as a little girl in Moron de la Frontera, and in Seville.

JH: You grew up in the cradle of Flamenco, so you learned, perhaps without knowing you were learning it, the “gypsy style” of flamenco, no?

LA TANIA: Yes the traditional, you know, Flamenco Puro thing, yes I would say the “gypsy style “because that was the influence of where we were.

Then I went to a Spanish dance company. We did a combination of everything, Spanish dance, bata de cola4, castanettes. That was really my first experience of the more theatrical dance form. I had to learn a lot of things, like different kinds of turns. That gave me a really good training. And when I went into this company, my grandmother was quite resistant, because she didn’t want me to study, she said if you study you’re going to lose your natural ability. In a way she was right because I went full circle, and I started to lose it because I had so many new things to learn I had to throw away some of the other things. But, I consciously decided to go against what my grandmother wanted because I wanted to perform in theatres and I wanted a broader knowledge of dance. Eventually then, when I started doing cuadro (small group) work again I started going back to my roots in Flamenco. Now, I have trained my body to different things, and I enjoy doing different things, I like to play around. I still like to dance Puro style, sometimes I feel like doing that, (but) sometimes I like to elaborate—thinking about how to move the dance—getting more into choreography.

The thing is, flamenco is closely related to the whole range of Spanish dance and you have a huge variety of what that is, from Jotas5, Escuelas Boleras6, and then in Flamenco there are all these branches7, and all these branches are interconnected. When you are talking about the more classical Flamenco, it can have more depth to it, more serious art.

FANNY ARA is a rising young dancer who has been performing in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the US and Europe for the last several years.

JH: You began studying dance early in life at the Irene Poppard School in Saint-Jean-De-Luz in the Basque region of Aquitaine in France.

FANNY: Yes it’s a modern dance school.

JH: Then you went on to study Spanish Classical dance?

FANNY: Yes, also in Saint-Jean-De-Luz, from when I was nine or ten.

JH: When did you take up Flamenco?

FANNY: In 2001, in Sevilla. I was about to begin a career as a Spanish Classical dancer when I went to Sevilla, just for the fun of it, and I fell in love with Flamenco. I auditioned for the Cristina Heeren School in Sevilla and I got in and I stayed there for about six months. It just came easily. I went on and studied with many others and went on to work for a couple of years in tablaos in Madrid. Now, I like to find my own style, but I still like much of Spanish Classical. I like the elegance and fluidity of Classical.

JH: If you could do whatever kind of show you would like, how would you describe that?

FANNY: It’s what I plan to do in the next show8. It’s where I try to bring out the creativity of everyone in the show. Everybody in this show is loving Flamenco for different reasons. All the artists that are going to be in the show are all so amazing and very different. But staying within the tradition of Flamenco, which is improvisation, instinct and power, I’m not going to choreograph as much as some people might expect me to. By giving freedom to the artists you bring out the creative abilities of the artists. I want to bring out what they are best at, but respect the tradition of Flamenco.

The wonderfully gifted Spanish movie director Carlos Saura has, throughout his career, performed an invaluable service in documenting and disseminating Spanish dance arts. The three productions, often called the Flamenco Trilogy, Bodas de Sangre (1981), Carmen (1983,) and El Amor Brujo (1986), featuring the dancers Christina Hoyos and Antonio Gades, and later his monumental 1995 work titled simply Flamenco made an enormous contribution to a spreading awareness of the art around the world.

The most recent dance work by Saura, Iberia is an interesting commentary on the two strands of contemporary Flamenco. The movie is created around the Iberia Suite of Isaac Albéniz, which is, of course, not Flamenco music. However, the dancers and many of the musicians are all famous names from the Flamenco world. Nevertheless, for much of the movie the dancing is more modern ballet than Flamenco. Indeed, the liner notes tell us we are about to see a “convergence of classical ballet, modern dance, Spanish dance and Flamenco.” (There’s a bit of surrealist naked dance too, and several bits of that Saura favorite: children dancing). Then two thirds of the way through, Saura reveals that he knows where this all came from. The piece titled Torre Bermeja9 introduces the immensely gifted Flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlucar, and then, on a somber moonlit stage we see first a very large, and almost menacing gitana (gypsy woman), seated on a chair, dressed in archaic flounces and shawls, soon joined by three other not quite so large ladies. These are the Tias (aunties) of La Familia de Antonio El Pipa. They show us in simple movements, not dancing, but more walking, the largest one mostly sitting, how with just a few hand movements and a little shake you can evoke the roots of Flamenco. Even as the theatrical art becomes more and more pure dance, the roots will never be far away. And that’s good.

1) Meaning obscure, secret or unrevealed.
2) The Wikipedia pages were accessed in May of 2008.
3) The Sephardim were Jews who had lived in Spain from the Jewish diaspora of the first century AD, then were expelled from Spain after the reconquista of 1492 and resettled largely in the Ottoman Empire.
4) A dress with a long train.
5) The Jota is a regional folk dance of Spain. It is distinguished by much leaping, by the regional costumes, and is accompanied by various instruments depending on the region of origin.
6) Bolero is a style of Spanish Dance which appeared in Spain in the eighteenth century and is related to the contradanza and the seguidilla. It is predominately a couples dance and the music is usually played on lutes and accompanied by castanettes.
7) For a discussion of the different forms of flamenco see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_(flamenco)
8) A Través de sus Ojos, Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason Center, September 6 2008
9) The different pieces in the Isaac Albéniz Iberia Suite are named after different places in Spain. Torre Bermeja is a small town on the Costa del Sol, near Malaga. It has been occupied since Phoenician (late Bronze Age) times.

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of In Dance.

John Harris has been studying Flamenco and producing Flamenco shows in the Bay Area for a dozen years and is currently a director of the Azahar Dance Foundation.