Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Dance – Observations and Comments

Flamenco Dancer Pepe Torres – Review in Crónicas Flamencas – translated by Brook Zern

Morón 2008

Pepe in Morón, 2008

Translator’s note:  Here’s a review from today’s Crónicas Flamencas website, describing the art of the brilliant dancer Pepe Torres of Morón.  It correctly compares Pepe’s extraordinary artistry to that of the greatest dancer I and so many others ever saw, the legendary El Farruco, and another of the art’s top ten, Rafael el Negro.


(It also makes a savvy and respectful reference to Pepe’s grandfather Joselero, the fine singer whom I heard most often while living in Morón and studying guitar with his brother-in-law Diego del Gastor).

Surrendering to the deep power of Pepe Torres’ flamenco dance

We live in a time when flamenco dance is taking different artistic directions: adapting distinct schools of dance to flamenco, making theatrical productions that try to channel certain messages, and in general becoming divorced from its primitive aesthetic.  And that strikes me as just fine; art is movement – never more appropriate than in this case – and it can be necessary to seek other sources to feed its evolution.  But with all these evolutions and devolutions, I note a certain lack of flamenco truth, of flamenco essence, of that characteristic perfume that flamenco must have and that, as I’ve said, has become all too scarce.

Fortunately, there are always people who take charge of maintaining the form, the personality and the character of this deep and serious art.  Pepe Torres, from Morón, is a clear example of this.  He was charged with bringing flamencura – the heart and soul of flamenco – to the Círculo Flamenco de Madrid, that filled out its programming with the only element that had been lacking: the dance.

Pepe’s dance distills flamenco-ness and essence.  And that’s what stood out during his performance in Las Tablas de Madrid.   For the occasion, he brought with him an outstanding group: the singers David El Galli and José Méndez and the guitarist Eugenio Iglesias.  Pepe’s humility is evident in his productions, where he always cedes a major role to his people, so one can enjoy the song, guitar and dance both separately and together.

Pepe Torres represents the elegance and masculinity of today’s flamenco dance.  In his movement one recognizes diverse aesthetic elements, but above all the style of El Farruco and Rafael El Negro.  His school has been his environment, his family – and it shows.  The spontaneity of the Gypsy whose apprenticeship begins in his mother’s womb, and in whose veins runs the blood of artists.  If there is anything the best defines his grandfather, the singer Joselero de Morón, it is the exquisite taste he had in simply pronouncing his words.  Pepe has inherited this, the simplicity with taste.  Starting with this premise, he develops his deep and emotive dance without banal adornments, alone with his personal truth.

With a public hungering for serious flamenco, Pepe Torres began the recital dancing his intensely flamenco bulerías as if he was in a family gathering.  Then Eugenio’s guitar came in behind David and José for the tarantos that changed to tientos.  After those sketches, it was time to bring on the steamroller song.  José Méndez was in charge of the soleá, and how well he delivered, slowly but with great taste and knowledge.  To close the first half, the man from Morón  danced an alegrías and a bulerías de Cádiz, to which he brought elegant porte (carriage) and gracia (flair, stylish charm).

As is becoming normal, and unlike the world of cinema, sequels are always good.  The artists come back on stage hot and ready, and things went flawlessly.  Eugenio played a granainas that gave way to a soul-stripping, grief-stricken siguiriyas de Jerez sung by David El Galli, who fought courageously to reveal the essence of the song .  Then, adding to the audience’s sense of tragedy, Pepe mounted the stage for his signature dance, the soleá.  His instinctive grasp and respect for that song and all its meaning make Pepe Torres’ interpretation one of the indispensable reference points for understanding the significance of this style within the realm of dance.  And – how could it be otherwise? – the evening concluded as it had begun, with a bulerías, pulsing with rhythm but this time with all the aficionados fully satiated with moving art.

End of review:  The original is at:


March 14, 2014   No Comments

1999 Flamenco Vivo Production of Hombres y Mujeres – Review by Brook Zern

Date:  Fri, Mar 19, 1999 11:35 AM EDT
From:  Brook Zern
Subj:  Carmen’s Sisters and more — Mujeres y Hombres on B’way

Last night was the premiere of “Mujeres y Hombres”, presented by the Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana company, of which Carlota is the Artistic Director.

By my lights, the event was a resounding success.  The evening as a whole worked very well, and the audience loved it.  And it was a tough audience, since the New Victory — a smallish (400-odd seats) beautifully-renovated theater right off Times Square — features productions aimed at families and at children, who can be the toughest critics.

The show was in three not-long parts.  One, waving the flag for hombres, was “Bailaor”, choreographed by Antonio Hidalgo with music by Roberto Castellón, a longtime guitarist on the New York scene who played very well and is clearly coming into his own.

“Bailaor” is based on a fascinating premise:  Showing the evolution of male flamenco dance over the last century or so.  In maybe forty minutes, it seamlessly reveals the essence of the changes that have transformed the art.  Starting with a zapateado done in a constricted and rigidly formal style (think El Estampío or Vicente Escudero), it slides into a farruca with the freer moves and postures of subsequent bailaores (think Joé Greco and Antonio Gades), and wraps up with a full-tilt bulerías highlighting all the unorthodoxies and freedom of today’s unbuttoned generation of hot male bailaores (think Joaquin Grilo or Joaquin Cortés or whoever’s dating supermodels right now).

The dancers who made it work were Antonio Hidalgo, Rodrigo Alonso and Pedro Blasquez.  Flutist Terence Butler, an American who lives in Barcelona, joined in as things got up-to-date.

I thought it was interesting and effective — for me, it underlined major changes to make them evident.  (In other words, it was probably designed to be obvious even to kids, so I didn’t have my usual dance-blind trouble grasping the message.)

Another segment was “Ask For Me”, choreographed by Antonio Hidalgo and danced by Antonio and Carlota.  They make a good pair; the dance was dramatic and certainly came off quite well.

The “Mujeres” segment is “Carmen’s Sisters”, conceived, choreographed, danced and sung by Clara Mora.  (Well, she has plenty of expert help, but the impressive aspect was her crucial role in making everything work.)

This is a terrific production.  It’s really a song-based rather than a dance-based flamenco work, though both are happening all the time.

It focuses on the somehow dramatic story of the ordinary life of women, specifically Andalusian Gypsy women, and the songs are the key to understanding their lives.  Amazingly, Clara Mora — an American woman who fully grasps the essence of flamenco — has solved the daunting problem of explaining the song and stating the words in English without damaging the high drama of the cante.

She often joins the others in chorus parts — and she also manages to recite the verses so intensely yet self-effacingly that the audience knows what is being said almost without knowing how.  It’s a real tour de force — especially because her dancing is obviously superb.

Elena Andúar, Esperanza Montes and Tania García are the other dancer/singers.  Elena does the heavy-duty cante extremely well, and the others are a pleasure to hear and watch.  The loose story line works as high drama, because it values the ordinary lives of women in the Andalusian and Gypsy cultures.

David Serva plays guitar throughout.  This brilliant musician does everything exactly right, as usual.  It is always a privilege to experience his unique artistry.

The good and bad news is that the six or eight remaining performances of “Mujeres y Hombres” are practically sold out.  I hope there will be additional opportunities to see the production, and would be particularly enthused if the “Carmen’s Sisters” segment took on a life of its own, perhaps in a somewhat expanded version.

All in all, a memorable evening.  Once again, Carlota Santana has done an outstanding job of bringing notable flamenco to the boards.

Brook Zern

February 11, 2014   No Comments

Important 1883 Description of Flamenco From U.S. Book “Spanish Vistas” (with exact dance description) – Comments by Brook Zern

I found an 1883 book that describes flamenco as seen by an American traveler in Spain.  Passages touch on the song, and also describe in detail a dance performance in Malaga some time prior to the publication date.  The book is called “Spanish Vistas”, by George Parsons Lathrop, published by Harper & Brothers, Frankln Square (Philadelphia?), 1883.  It’s nicely illustrated by Charles S. Reinhart.

While suited to armchair travelers, the book is also aimed squarely at potential American tourists, with sections in the back on safe travel (bandits had recently been subdued by the Guardia Civil) and other handy hints.  It’s also gracefully written and sharply observed.  The intro (which mentions a book by John Hay from a few years earlier, called “Castillian Days”) describes a meeting with a Spaniard who, learning the author was not an Englishman but a North American, exclaimed happily “You are for the Spanish Republic (a Republican), then!”  The author says he then asked the Spaniard: “How many Spaniards are in that party?”

“Party,” the Spaniard cried.  “Listen: in Spain there is a separate political party for every man.”  After a slight pause he added, bitterly, “Sometimes, two!”

Anyway, the section on Seville shows that the author is conversant with music.  A description of the Thursday-morning fair still rings true.  He writes:

“With very early morning begins the deep clank of bells, under the chins of asses that go the rounds to deliver domestic milk from their own udders.  There is no end of noise.  Even in the elegant dining-room where we ate, lottery-dealers would howl at us through the barred windows, or a donkey outside would rasp our ears with his intolerable braying.  Then the street cries are incessant.  At night the crowds chafe and jabber till the latest hours, and after eleven the watchmen begin their drawl of unearthly sadness…until, somewhere about dawn, you drop perspiring into an oppressively tropical dream-land, with the sereno’s last cry ringing in your ears:  “Hail, Mary, most pure!  Three o’clock has struck.”  This is the weird tune to which he chants it.  (Then the book shows a well-rendered melodic line, done in common time, revealing an aptitude for writing relatively straightforward if unusual music; but, predictably, the author never attempts to render flamenco song in notation.)

The text continues:

“An Enlish lady, conversing with a Sevillan gentleman who had been making some rather tall statements, asked him:  “Are you telling me the truth?”

“Madam,” he replied gravely, but with a twinkle in his eye, “I am an Andalusian!”  At which the surrounding listeners, his fellow-countryment, broke into an appreciative laugh.

So proverbial is the want of veracity, or, to put it more genially, the imagination, of these Southerners.  Their imagination will explain also the vogue of their brief, sometimes pathetic, yet never more than half-expressed, scraps of song, which are sung with so much feeling throughout the kingdom to crude barbaric airs, and loved alike by gentle and simple.  I mean the Peteneras and the Malaguenas.  There are others of the same general kind — usually pitched in a minor key, and interspersed with passionate trills, long quavers, unexpected ups and downs, which it requires no little skill to render.  I have seen gypsy singers grow apoplectic with the long breath and volume of sound which they threw into these eccentric melodies amid thunders of applause.  It is not a high nor a cultivated order of music, but there lurks in it something consonant with the broad, stimulating shine of the sun, the deep red earth, the thick, strange-flavored wine of the Peninsula; its constellated nights, and clear daylight gleamed with flying gold from the winnowing field.  The quirks of the melody are not unlike those of very old English ballads, and some native composer with originality should be able to expand their deep, bold, primitive ululations into richer, lasting forms.  The fantastic picking of the mandurra accompaniment reminds me of Chinese music with which I have been familiar.  Endless preludes and interminable windings-up enclose the minute kernel of actual song; but to both words and music is lent a repressed touching power and suggestiveness by repeating, as is always done, the opening bars and first words at the end, and then breaking off in mid-strain.  For instance:

“All the day I am happy,
but at evening orison
like a millstone grows my heart.
All the day I am happy.”

[Limitless Guitar Solo.]  [sic]

It is like the never-ended strain of Schumann’s “Warum?”  The words are always simple and few — often bald [sic].  One of the most popular pieces amounts simply to this:

“Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality,
since when the bulls they are slaying –
O damsel of my heart –
they do it with serenity.
Both Lagartijo and Frascuelo
swordsmen are of quality.

But such evident ardor of feeling and such wealth of voice are breathed into these fragments that they become sufficient.  The people supply from their imagination what is barely hinted in the lines.  Under their impassive exteriors they preserve memories, associations, emotions of burning intensity, which throng to aid their enjoyment, as soon as the muffled strings begin to vibrate and syllables of love or sorrow are chanted.  I recalled to a young and pretty Spanish lady one line,

“Pajarito, que te vuelas”.

She flushed, fire came to her eyes, and with clasped hands she murmured, “Oh, what a beautiful song it is!”  Yet it contains only four lines.  Here is a translation:

Bird, little bird that wheelest
through God’s fair worlds in the sky,
say if thou anywhere seest
a being more sad than I.
Bird, little bird that wheelest.

Some of these little compositions are roughly humorous, and others very grotesque, appearing to foreigners empty and ridiculous.

The following one has some of the odd imagery and clever inconsequence of some of our negro improvisations:

“As I was gathering pine-cones
in the sweet pine woods of love,
my heart was cracked by a splinter
that flew from the tree above,
I’m dead: pray for me, sweethearts.”

There was one evening in Granada when we sat in a company of two dozen people, and one after another of the ladies took her turn in singing to the guitar of a little girl, a musical prodigy.  But they were all outdone by Candida, the brisk, naive, handsome serving-girl, who was invited in, but preferred to stand outside the grated window, near the lemon-trees and pomegranates, looking in, with a flower in her hair, and pouring into the room her warm contralto — that voice so common among Spanish peasant-women — which seemed to have absorbed the clear dark of Andalusian nights when the stars glitter like lance-points aimed at the earth.  Through the twanging of the strings we could hear the rush of water that gurgles all about the Alhambra; and, just above the trees that stirred in the perfumed air without, we knew the unsentinelled walls of the ancient fortress were frowning.  The most elaborate piece was one meant to accompany a dance called the Zapateado, or “kick-dance.”  It begins:

“Tie me, with my fiery charger,
to your window’s iron lattice.
Though he break loose, my fiery charger,
me he cannot tear away.”

and then passes into rhyme:

“Much I ask of San Francisco,
much St. Thomas I implore;
but of thee, my little brown girl,
ah, of thee I ask much more!”

The singing went on:

“In Triana there are rogues,
and there are stars in heaven.
Four and one rods away
there lives, there lives a woman.
Flowers there are in gardens,
and beautiful girls in Sevilla.”

That’s the end of flamenco references in the Seville section.  The author then moves to Granada.  He writes:

“The gypsies of Granada are disappointing, apart from their peculiar quivering dance, performed by gitanas in all Spanish cities under the name of flamenco.*

[* Footnote:  Fleming, a name commonly applied to Spanish gypsies; whence it has been inferred that the first of them came from the Netherlands.]

Their hill-caves, so operative with one’s curiosity when regarded from across the valley, gape open in such dingy, sour, degraded foulness on a nearer view, that I found no amount of theory would avail to restore their interest.  Yet some of the fortune-telling women are spirited enough, and the inextinguishable Romany spark smoulders in their black eyes.  Perhaps it was an interloping drop of Celtic blood that made one of them say to me, “Señorito, listen.  I will tell you your fortune.  But I speak French — I come from Africa!” And to clinch the matter she added, “You needn’t pay me if every word of the prediction isn’t true!”  Much as I had heard of the Spanish bull, I never knew until then how closely it resembles the Irish breed.

[The famed Spanish artist] Fortuny’s model, Marinero, who lives in a burrow on the Alhambra side, occasionally starts up out of the earth in a superb and expensive costume, due to the dignity of his having been painted by Fortuny.  Dark as a negro, with a degree of luminous brown in his skin, and very handsome, he plants himself immovably in one spot to sell photographs of himself.  His nostrils visibly dilate with pride, but he makes no other bid for custom.  He expands his haughty nose, and you immediately buy a picture.  Velveteen [the author's fellow traveller] chanced upon Marinero’s daughter, and got her to pose.  When he engaged her she was so delighted that she took a rose from her hair and presented it to him, with a charming, unaffected air of gratitude, came an hour before the time, and waited impatiently.  She wore a wine-colored skirt, if I remember, a violet jacked braided with black, and a silk neckerchief of dull purple-pink silk.  But that was not enough: a blue silk kerchief also was wound about her waist, and in among her smooth jet locks she had tucked a vivid scarlet flower.  The result was perfect, for the rich pale-brown of her complexion could harmonize anything; and in Spain, moreover, combinations of color that appear too harsh elsewhere are paled and softened by the overpowering light.”

That’s the end of descriptions of flamenco and Gypsies in Granada.  From there, the author and Velveteen go to Malaga — via Bobadilla, a railhead I remember from the 1960′s.  The next chapter begins:

“A gypsy dance!  What does one naturally imagine it to be like?  For my part, I had expected something wild, free and fantastic; something in harmony with moonlight, the ragged shadows of trees, and the flicker of a rude camp-fire.  Nothing could have been wider of the mark.  The flamenco — that dance of the gypies, in its way as peculiarly Spanish as the church and the bull-ring, and hardly less important — is of Oriental origin, and preserves the impassive quality, the suppressed, tantalized sensuousness belonging to Eastern performances in the saltatory line.  It forms a popular entertainment in the cafés of the lower order throughout the southern provinces, from Madrid all the way around to Valencia, in Sevilla and Malaga, and is gotten up as a select and expensive treat for travellers at Granada.  But we saw it at its best in Malaga.

We were conducted, about eleven o’clock in the evening, to a roomy, rambling, dingy apartment in the crook of an obscure and dirty street, where we found a large number of sailors, peasants and chulos seated drinking at small tables, with a very occasional well-dressed citizen or two here and there.  In one corner was a stage rising to the level of our chins when we were seated, which had two fronts, like the Shakspearian stage in pictures, so that spectators on the side might have a fair chance, and be danced to from time to time.  On this sat about a dozen men and women, the latter quite as much Spanish as gypsy, and some of them dressed partially in tights, with an affectation of sailors or pages’ costume in addition  At Madrid and Sevilla their sisters in the craft wore ordinary feminine dresses, and looked the possessors of more genuine Romany blood.

But here, too, the star danseuse, the chief mistress of the art of flamenco, was habited in the voluminous calico skirt which Peninsular propriety prescribes for this particular exhibition, thereby doing all it can to conceal and detract from the amazing skill of muscular movement involved.  A variety of songs and dances with guitar accompaniments, some effecive and others tedious, preceded the gypsy performance.  I think we listened nearly half an hour to certain disconsolate barytone wailings, which were supposed to interpret the loves, anxieties, and other emotions of a contrabandista, or smuggler, hiding from pursuit in the mountains.  Judging from the time at his disposal for this lament, the smuggling business must be sadly on the decline.  The whole entertainment was supervised by a man precisely like all the chiefs of these troupes in Spain.  Ther similarity is astounding; even their features seem even identical: when you have seen one, you have seen all his fellows, and know exactly what they will do.  He may be a little older or younger, a little more gross or less so, but he is always clean-shaven like the other two sacred types — the bull-fighter and the priest — and his face is in every case weakly but good-humoredly sensual.  But what does he do?  Well, nothing.  He is the most important personage on the platform, but he does not contribute to the programme beyond an exclamation of encouragement to the performers at intervals.  He is a Turveydrop in deportment at moments, and always a Crummies in self-esteem [the meaning of these references is unknown to me].  A few highly favored individuals as they come from the café salute him, and receive a condescending nod in return.  Then some friend in the audience sends him up a glass of chamomile wine, or comes close and offers it with his own hand.  The leader invariably makes excuses, and without exception ends by taking the wine, swallowing a portion, and gracefully spitting out the rest at the side of the platform.  He smokes the cigars of admiring acquaintances, and throws the stumps on the stage.  All the while he carries in his hand a smooth, plain walking-stick, with which he thumps time to the music when inclined.

At last the moment for flamenco arrives.  The leader begins to beat monotonously on the boards, just as our Indians do with their tomahawks [sic -- shouldn't it be tom-toms?] to set the rhythm; the guitars strike into their rising and falling melancholy strain.  Two or three women chant a weird song, and all clap their hands in a peculiar measure, now louder, now fainter, and with pauses of varying lengths between the emphatic reports.  The dancer has not yet risen from her seat; she seems to demand encouragement.  The others call out, “Ollé” — a gypsy word for “bravo!” — and smile and nod their heads at her to draw her on.  All this excites in you a livelier curiosity, a sort of suspense.  “What can be coming now?” you ask.  Finally she gets up, smiling half scornfully; a light comes into her eyes; she throws her head back, and her face is suffused with an expression of daring, of energy, and of strange pride.  Perhaps it is only my fancy, but there seems to creep over the woman at that instant a reminiscence of far-off and mysterious things; her face, partially lifted, seems to catch the light of old traditions, and to be imbued with the spirit of something belonging to the past, which she is about to revive.  Her arms are thrown upward, she snaps her fingers, and draws them down slowly close before her face as far as the waist, when, with an easy waving sideward, the “pass” is ended, and the arms go up again to repeat the movement.  Her body too is in motion now, only slightly, with a kind of vibration; and her feet, unseen beneath the flowing skirt, begin an easy, quiet, repressed rhythmical figure.  So she advances, her face always forward, and goes swiftly around a circle, coming back to the point where she began, without appearing to step.  The music goes on steadily, the cries of her companions become more animated, and she continues to execute that queer, aimless, yet dimly beckoning gesture with both arms — never remitting it nor the snapping of her fingers, in fact, until she has finished the whole affair.  Her feet go a little faster; you can hear them tapping the floor as they weave upon it some more complicated measure.  but there is not the slightest approach to a springing tendency.  Her progress is sinuous; she glides and shuffles, her soles quitting the boards as little as possible — something between a clog dance and a walk, perfect in time, with a complexity in the exercise of the feet demanding much skill.  She treats the performance with great dignity; the intensity of her absorbtion invests it with a something [sic] almost solemn.

Forward again!  She gazes intently in front as she proceeds, and again as she floats backward, looking triumphant, perhaps with a spark of latent mischief in her eyes.  She stamps harder upon the floor; the sounds follow like pistol reports.  The regular clack, clack-clack of the smitten hands goes on about her, and the cries of the rest increase in zest and loudness.

“Ollé! ollé!”

“Bravo, my gracious one!”

“Muy bien! muy bien!”

“Hurrah!  Live the queen of the ants [sic]!” shouts the leader.  And the audience roars at his eccentric phrase.

The dancer becomes more impassioned, but in no way more violent.  Her body does not move above the hips.  It is only the legs that twist and turn and bend and stamp, as if one electric shock after another were being sent downward through them.  Every few minutes her activity passes by some scarcely noted gradation into a subtly new phase, but all these phases are bound together by a certain uniformity of restraint and fixed law.  Now she almost comes to a stand-still, and then we notice a quivering, snaky, shuddering motion, beginning at the shoulders and flowing down through her whole body, wave upon wave, the dress drawn tighter with one hand showing that this continues downward to her feet.  Is she a Lamia in the act of undergoing metamorphosis, a serpent, or a woman?  The next moment she is dancing, receding — this time with smiles, and with an indescribable air of invitation in the tossing of her arms.  But the crowning achievement is when the hips begin to sway too, and, while she is going back and forward, execute a rotary movement like that of the bent part of an auger.  In fact, you expect her to bore herself into the floor and disappear.  Than all at once the stamping and clapping and the twanging strings are stopped, as she ceases her formal gyrations: she walks back to her seat like one liberated from a spell, and the whole thing is over.”

Well, that’s all I can find about flamenco and Gypsies in the book “Spanish Vistas”.  The illustration for the last section, incidentally, looks like an engraving, and is signed “G.S. Reinhart — Paris, 82″.  (The author implies that the artist worked from sketches, done by Velveteen.)  It shows five seated people — three women, a male guitarist, and the cane-wielding character described as doing nothing; I wonder if he’s the agent/manager, or could he have been a big-deal singer who didn’t happen to sing that night?  The women, including the one shown dancing, are all in very full dresses with shawls.  The guitarist leans forward, clearly paying attention to the dancer.  The instrument has the pre-Torres shape, the head is scalloped on the sides and the pegs are of wood.  There’s an atmospheric painting behind the stage, and what looks like a footlight up front.

I’m certainly impressed with this author’s descriptive powers.  I think I saw that same dance last month at Symphony Space on Broadway, at the flamenco show.

I won’t start evaluating any historical insights all this might or might not offer.  I’d just note that when I thought everyone agreed flamenco was really pretty old, I remember looking at these passages without much wonderment.  After all, they were — well, hardly contemporary, but written in what I viewed as the latter stage of flamenco development.  Seen in that light, everything seemed logical.

Now, when I am forced to wonder whether flamenco might not have coalesced into a coherent art until the 1850′s or so — I hope that’s a fair paraphrase of the thinking of the postmodernist scholars and some others — I must consider the notion that all this describes an art that was really quite new at the time of writing.

And that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.  Reading the book, I got the feeling that this art — which the author had seen in so many cities, always with great similarities, and involving so many recognizable forms (the pine-cone verse is associated with the jabera, a sort of proto-malagueña) — had certainly been around for more than one measly generation.  Not as a public spectacle, necessarily — but done in some context where flamenco could develop the many canons and rules that the author refers to here.  If folks really think all that happened in half of a single creative life-span — less than 30 years — then I can hardly apologize for calling the idea “insta-genesis” with all the doubt the term implies.

In any event, I hope others will get something out of these excerpts.

Brook Zern

Note from 2014:  It’s remarkable to think that this chatty and familiar description of touristy flamenco was contemporaneous with Spain’s first serious flamenco book, the crucial 1881 “Cantes Flamencos” by Antonio Machado y Álvarez, which makes the art seem so old and so deadly serious.

Please call this blog entry to the attention of dance scholars, and other researchers or interested people.  I don’t think it’s well known, and I think it’s important.  (Also, please suggest that they read another significant blog entry — this one on the singing —  by seeking the author’s name “Sneeuw”.)

And I hope someone will choreograph a flamenco dance based on the exact description of the one the author saw in Malaga. Thanks.


January 19, 2014   No Comments

The Aesthetics of Flamenco – 1996 Article – translated with comments by Brook Zern

In 1996, Telework International in the town of Motril in Granada province  posted a report on the Flamenco Congress by  the critic Ángel Álvarez Caballero as approximately follows:

“The Flamenco Congress Ends with the Analysis of the Aesthetics of the Jondo”

“The 24th Congress of Flamenco Art, which ended yesterday in Seville, was dedicated to the analysis and study, in the scientific sense, of the aesthetics of the various facets of the jondo:  the cante, the baile, the toque and the copla.  It was probably the best-attended flamenco congress ever, drawing some 280 attendees.

The French investigator Bernard Leblon ended the sessions, stating the the history of flamenco, since the end of the Eighteenth Century, has been a constant fluctuation between totally different musical styles and aesthetic concepts.  He said that when these musics reached the intimate environment of the Gypsy home, spectacular transformations were produced, and the changed situation generated a change in the aesthetic.

Jose Martínez Hernández said, once again, that cante jondo is a cultured music (una musica culta) “because of its profound sensibility, its gripping poetry, its fidelity to first emotions, its respect for memory, its tragic sense of life, its intuitive wisdom and its deeply popular (of the people) character.  It is not refined, but primitive; not lettered, but illiterate; not written, but oral.  ”Art from the cultivation of the heart”, he called cante jondo, underlining the essential role of emotion in this music.

Teresa Martínez de la Peña looked at the aesthetic of the dance, agreeing with the German Curt Sachs who views flamenco as “introverted dance” — that is, with movements directed from the outside inward.  She differentiated between dance done in a limited space — a room or a circle — and theatrical dance, which she viewed as completely distinct.  Dancer Milagros Mengibar illustrated some of the aspects of the talk.  The dancer Mistela advocated equilibrium in dance between the two forces that give it life: art and technique.

The talk on the aesthetic of the guitar, by the classical guitarist José María Gallardo, generated intense controversy on the difference between the flamenco and classical technique; Victor Monge “Serranito” participated in the debate.

The poet Rafael Montesinos spoke of the aesthetic of the guitar, comparing his experience as a writer of coplas which are sometimes incorporated into flamenco.  “From our song I learned the difficult art of the word, which is the soul of poetry,” he said.

For the first time in a flamenco congress, the University had an active role, giving scholarships to a sizable group of student-attendees.  In 1997, the 25th Congress will take place in Arles (France).”

End of report.

I assume all dancers understand and agree with the idea of flamenco dance as introverted, as going inward, rather than as going outward as seems to be the case in other dance forms.  My question:  Are their other dance forms in which this is also true — Indian, or Balinese, or Native American, or whatever?

Brook Zern

BZ comment from 2014:

At a talk and debate last summer at Lincoln Center, someone asked how flamenco dance differed from more classical forms.  I was surrounded by dance scholars who were also excellent dancers, but I grabbed the mike and said, “That’s easy.  Flamenco dance goes inward, like this” and drew my arms inward.  ”The other forms have a different aesthetic — they go outward,” and flung my arms outward.

Everyone looked appalled.  The dancer-experts seemed to have no idea what I was driving at.  I shrunk down into my chair as best I could, while they gave the correct answer, which I can’t remember.

But it seems that if I’m indeed totally wrong, I am in pretty good company.

Just sayin’.


January 16, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Dancer Israel Galvan Opens Nimes Festival – 2014 report from eter.com – translated with comments by Brook Zern

“The magnificence with which this dancer from Seville delivers himself in “Lo Real” makes him planetary, preeminent and the precursor of a unique art that’s as much his own as it is universal, and that only Israel Galván commands. “

That’s an approximation of the last sentence of the accompanying link to an impressive online egghead Spanish publication, eter.es – the url is: http://www.eter.es/dn/actualidad/noticia.php?id=16740

The article begins by saying that the world of artistic productions in France is an an uproar (“an atmosphere of semi-psychosis”, to be precise), due to the cancellation of performances by a controversial (“polémico”) comic accused of anti-semitism.

Galván’s production that opened the Nimes Flamenco Festival is about the Nazi extermination of the Gypsies of Europe, but amid the hubbub its allusion to this subject “passed almost unnoticed.”

But despite this, “no one seemed to doubt the extremely high artistic quality of the performance: with song by David Lagos and Tomás de Perrate, guitar by Chicuelo; backup jaleo (hell-raising) by Bobote, plus piano, percussion, violin, saxophone and, among others, the special participation of the dancers Isabel Bayón and Belén Maya.

I’m sometimes asked why, if I think the rules and regs of the flamenco tradition are so crucial, I give this Galván character a free pass when he ignores everything.

Maybe it’s because I saw him dance a phenomenal, dead-on traditional bulerías barefoot in goofy shorts on the sand beach at Sanlúcar, just for the hell of it.  Or maybe it’s because he often transcends or obliterates all the barriers I try to impose on flamenco.

I revere most great flamenco artists because they are so local – so quintessentially Jerez or Seville or Morón.  Galván is non-local to such an extreme that the right word for his art is, indeed, planetary.  So much the better that, like it or not, and rules be damned, it is also flamenco.

Brook Zern

January 12, 2014   1 Comment

Flamenco Dance Authority Teresa Martínez de la Peña on Trends from 1920 to 2000 – Translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  My very limited knowledge of flamenco dance led me to translate a long article by a noted dancer/dance authority, Teresa Martínez de la Peña, presented as a “ponencia” or lecture, during a course of flamenco studies in Spain and titled “The History, Theory and Aesthetic of Flamenco Dance”.   It ran — around the year 2000 —  in “Revista de Flamencología”, a serious periodical put out by the Cátedra de Flamencología in Jerez.  I hope it will be useful or interesting to dancers, dance students and dance historians.

It divides the art into phases.  I have not translated the sections which deal with early history of the dance.  Instead, it begins with the section on Theatrical Flamenco, beginning in the 1920′s:

Theatrical Flamenco

“What best characterizes this modern phase, which lasted until the 1970’s, is the appearance of flamenco in the theatre, where companies were formed; and also the creation of something totally original, called Ballet flamenco.

This was an important development, which placed flamenco dance at the same elevated level as that of the great European ballet companies.  But it was also a difficult and problematic moment for traditional flamenco.  The enormous scenic leap transformed flamenco dance almost entirely.  It ceased to be the dance of an individual artist, changing into a collective dance form with an inevitable loss of spontaneity.  It also lost the guitar as the key accompanying instrument, as the orchestra took that vital role.  And the dance became subordinated to a general plot or theme, which took away flamenco’s traditional freedom of expression.

In exchange for this, the world of high culture gave flamenco a mis-en-scene that adorned the art and dramatized its action, along with lighting and stagecraft that produced powerful and surprising effects.

The way in which this new conception of flamenco was arrived at was a direct result of the intellectual and artistic life and styles of this time.  No one knows why the elite circles of Paris suddenly cast their collective glances at the dance, though one reason may have been the presence of the Russian ballet company of Diaghilev.  What is certain is that in Paris, Spain’s dancers found their ideas for renovation of the art.

Among all the flamenco activities of this epoch, the most important and fundamental is the creation of a ballet flamenco; and this stage inevitably was centered on that aspect of the art.

In April of 1914, a work called “Gitanerias” (Gypsy doings) debuted in Madrid’s Lara Theater.  The leading figure was Pastora Imperio, who was accompanied by her brother Victor Rojas and the dancer Maria Albaicing.  The genre of the work was never clearly specified; it simply appeared as a finale or “fin de fiesta” after the theatrical production, following the custom of wrapping up such works with a dance.  But in accordance with its musical composition and other characteristics, it was really a ballet, carefully prepared, as would be expected when the production was overseen by Nestor de la Torre, one of the best designers in the theatre as well as an avant-garde painter; and the libretto was by Gregorio Martinez Sierra.

This was the first production of Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo”, though it was barely noticed by the public or the critics, perhaps because it was in such a secondary position in the evening’s proceedings.

But from that point on, the work would constantly be on stage and reinterpreted by major dancers, each offering their version as has continued right on to today.

The first to follow up on this was Antonia Merce “La Argentina”, who made an exhaustive study of the music and who was inspired by the dances of the Gypsies in Granada’s Sacromonte district.  In 1925, at the Trianon Lyrique Theatre of Paris, her production of “El Amor Brujo” debuted to strong public and critical acclaim that Fernandez Cid called “a dazzling version”.  But the greatest compliment the artist could hope to hear came from Manuel de Falla himself, who said “You and el Amor Brujo are one and the same.”

Immediately afterwards, all the outstanding dancers followed suit.  Vicente Escudero debuted his version in the Trianon Lyrique in 1926; La Argentinita premiered hers in 1933 in Madrid’s Teatro Espanol; and Mariemma began dancing the work at age 16, though her best-known version debuted in 1947 at the Opera Comique de Paris.  Pilar López opened her version in Madrid, though it is not known if her version used the same choreography as that of her sister La Argentinita [not related to La Argentina] as an homage in her memory.  And Antonio Ruíz Soler, known as Antonio, also debuted his version.

Needless to say, the work had all the aspects to perpetuate itself since musically it was perfect for flamenco ballet.  It had rhythms form the flamenco song forms known as zambra and bulerías in the Danza de Fuego, of the tanguillo in the Danza del Terror, and of the flamenco tango in other sections.

But one must return to Antonia Merce “La Argentina” to understand the real summit of the work, that which would revolutionize the basic mechanism of Spanish dance and take it in a more international direction.  This dancer had not only cast her glance upon the ballet; there is another genre of dance that has been less studied and that nonetheless occupies an important place in the work of these seminal flamenco dance companies and their successors.  I refer to those short dances that, due to their stylistic variety, have no specific overall name.  The are sometimes called “danzas de concierto”, or “danzas de recital”, or “solistas”.   They are short works by nationalist-minded Spanish composers which differ from ballet in being interpreted to piano accompaniment and in not having any sort of plot or story line.  They are based on the sheer virtuosity of the steps involved, which punctually follow the variations of the main melody.

La Argentina looked closely at these because her object was not to make a great masterpiece, but to improve all of Spanish dance.  She wished to offer a varied spectacle that was totally Spanish, one that “cupiera” [drew upon?] not just traditional flamenco but also stylized flamenco.

Building on this idea, in 1929 La Argentina debuted the first “Compañía de Bailes Españoles” or company of Spanish dancers in the Opera Comique de Paris.  Its initial repertoire featured two brief ballets, one called “El Contrabandista” (The Smuggler) with music by Oscar Espla and a libretto by Cipriano Rivas Cherf, the other called “Juerga” (flamenco jam session) which was totally flamenco with music by Julian Bautista and libretto by Tomas Borras.  Together with them was presented “Sonatina” by Ernesto Halffter, and Albéñiz’s “Triana”, which met the most public and critical success.

Within this style of concert dances, Vicente Escudero created truly advanced works that were very original musically, as his work would remain throughout his entire career.  In the initial years, he could not connect with flamenco’s traditional system of rhythmics called the “compás”, and later he would challenge written music as well.  In effect, he composed his recital pieces according to his own internal sense of rhythm – a confluence of sounds of zapateado (footwork), palmas (handclapping), metal castanets and a clicking of the fingernails.  In this style he framed his “Ritmos sin música” (Rhythms without Music) and “Bailes de Vanguardia” (Dances from the Vanguard).  He even danced to the rhythm of two separate motors working at different intensities.  In this sense, it can be said that he was the artist of that epoch who was most restless and anxious to seek out new forms and approaches to the dance.

Mariemma followed the line of La Argentina in her solo dances, and there are even those who say that her way of dancing was very similar if not derivative.  Of course, the two had in common the fact that they had turned away from classical dance only to integrate themselves into the Spanish style of dance.

Carmen Amaya also danced to orquestral music; in those works, the dance step that was most frequently employed was the “destaques” – but the sheer impetus of her powerful natural dance style could not be subjected to bland formats and between one destaque and another the effect was that of authentic flamenco.

Argentinita danced in a style that was open, clear and finely balanced.  The effect was harmonious, which was just what this style of dance demanded.  But her vocation and inclination was toward flamenco and thus almost all of her works go in that direction.  Paradoxically, the last dance she interpreted was “Capricho Espanol”, which drew upon the concepts of highly stylized dance;

In the work of Pilar Lopez one readily sees her passion for flamenco, but she brought this same lucidity to all types of dance.  The number and variety of her choreographies is incalculable; she arranged works the music of all nationalist Spanish composers, but her best works were totally flamenco, such as “Los Caracoles”, the first version ever to use this type of dancing, full of flamenco elements and at the same time carrying a strong Madrid accent.  [Of all flamenco styles, the one called “Caracoles” is most closely associated with Madrid.]  “La Cana” [the name of a venerable old flamenco form] was another of her unforgettable flamenco creations, in which a duo dance between her and Alejandro Vega was the prototype of stylized flamenco, and perhaps the finest work ever conceived in this style.

The spectacle created by the dancers Antonio and Rosario, and their form of working together, was the most fitting approach to developing these dances.  Their technique was applied to a dance style that was agile, smooth and brimming with vitality.  The steps were inlaid into a choreography full of art, where their Seville-style charm and grace shone through the classic norms, notably in Sarasate’s “Zapateado” where their extraordinary virtuosity was complemented by their sheer, innate sparkle.  Just like Pilar López, they soon exhausted the repertoire of the nationalistic Spanish composers, joining these to Andalusian romances that were purely traditional.

Other dancers followed, of course, notably Luisillo, Maria Rosa, Roberto Iglesias and José Greco, each one imprinting Spanish dance with their personalities.”

Contemporary Ballet Flamenco

For thirty years, the Spanish ballet had remained unchanging with respect ot its formal orientation as a spectacle, because the innovations of each new director did not affect its structural foundation.

For many years, a technical line was maintained that distance this art from the changes that were operative in other forms of dance and in society itself.  Spanish flamenco ballet was working in exhausted fields, becoming impoverished, and beginning to repeat itself endlessly.

As a reaction to the evident deterioration of these spent forms, there would be a spectacular change in the way flamenco ballet was performed.  New elements were added, some so daring and far-out that it was hard to know if one was watching dance or theatre.  In reality, this is not so strange.  It is simply a matter of flamenco drawing close to today’s worldwide current that fosters productions where theatre, dance, light, color, mime, sound and other components are blended or fused, with none subordinate to any others and with the effect of creating a large artistic range to the proceedings.

Mario Maya, Antonio Gades and José Granero form the vanguard of this contemporary phase of the art.  The three originally belonged to classicism, but each would break with this style in his own way.

With the debut of “Bodas de Sangre” (Blood Wedding) , and “Camelamos Naquerar” (in Gypsy language, “We Wish to be Heard”), by Antonio Gades and Mario Maya respectively, appearing in 1974 and 1976, there undoubtedly dawned the contemporary phase of ballet flamenco that has remained the key force to our day.

The first innovation came in the choice of the libretto.  In contrast with the charmingly likeable content of previous ballets, which were almost always concluded with a happy ending, these works chose dramatic texts, most of which focused on a social message pointing out injustice and discrimination, or satirizing antiquated customs and attitudes.  The culmination of this may be the production of Garcia Lorca’s “Amargo” (“Bitterness”) by Mario Maya, which is charged with the premonition of death.  One must note that this tendency is international in its scope.

The setting is spartan in its austerity, although this does not seem to derive from the plot line but rather from theatrical ideas that were first seen outside of Spain.  Wooden framed props and backgrounds are used, with schematic symbols that allude to the content of the work; or there may be just a simple black curtain, upon which the silhouettes of the artists themselves are cast as the décor.  Upon a narrow area at the bottom of the stage are the musicians, singers, and in some cases the dancers themselves, profiling their art as a picture of great plastic beauty.  This became the most common approach, and it remains so today.

As for the other props, they are virtually non-existent.  Only a chair and perhaps a table appear, not as ornaments but as functional elements for the dancers.  In these rudimentary forms, we are taken back to the simple surroundings – taverns and private rooms – of the very first flamenco artists.

Lighting technique may lean toward darker elements.  From that remarkable 1970’s version of the notable man’s flamenco dance called the Farruca as done by Antonio Gades in Madrid’s Zarzuela Theatre — where his dark suit and the curtain blended together in the half-light of a stage without a focal point, where only the slow, solemn air of a guitar marks the dance — to the 1995 production by Joaquín Cortés in the Apolo Theatre, where the entire spectacle has that same aspect, many flamenco ballets have followed this identical approach.

Other dancers leaned toward the use of restless, red-toned lighting as in Antonio Gades’ production of “Carmen”, although all seem to return to full illumination of the stage for the final numbers featuring the bulerias and other festive flamenco styles.

Costumes, too, have taken a broad turn, looking backward over several decades to arrive at today’s style.  Women wear shorter skirts, or they may dress in long, silk costumes, while men dress as country horsemen or wear simple pants and shirt, often using the softer sombrero of the 1930’s.

The apron has become popular in works that have an Andalusian theme, and as a symbol of the original flamenco costume here is always a shawl around the woman’s neck or tied at the waist.  In this context, men now use the “traje corto” costume instead of the pants and shirt.

There is more realism in the action.  Movements are highly expressive, arms open wide.  Rounded forms are abandoned and profiling postures are used, especially by men, in place of facing or foreshortened poses.

Women have gained the most freedom, doing the same open steps as men as well as driving zapateado footwork all done with much airy sprightliness; even in distinctive versions as Gades’ “Carmen” the female movement is aggressive.  There are three interpreters who embody this new form:  Christina Hoyos in the dances she does with Antonio Gades, Manuela Vargas in “Medea” and “El Sur y la Petenera”, and Merche Esmeralda in “Los Tarantos” of Felipe Sánchez.  The each present an angular use of arms, open hands that add drama, a strong “zarandeo” of the skirt, and a kind of violent action never previously seen where theatrical interpretive moves are blended with dance.

In the mid-1980’s, there was a proliferation of ballets where the artist’s intent was to present choregraphic novelties and innovations.  Styles seemed to multiply, and new themes were introduced that worked in parallel with the above-described prototypes that remained dominant.

José Granero marked the height of advanced creativity when he conceived the idea of a flamenco ballet based on Greek tragedy and realized this vision with Euripides’ “Medea”.  From this difficult challenge there arose a work that claimed a truly fundamental place in the history of flamenco ballet, just as Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” and “Sombrero de Tres Picos” did so long before.

This work divides the stage into superimposed planes, giving each dance its own space although at times when the action is at its most intense there is a coming-together of these planes.  It presents delightful scenes from Andalusian folklore and from the flamenco tradition, together with the crackle of sheer tragedy as expressed by Manuela Vargas.  Nonetheless, it does not distort any element; there is a clear, well-studied and even cerebral aspect that makes possible the success of the work.  The orchestral music and the guitar as played by Manolo Sanlucar are the culmination of this ballet.

The Baroque returns to this field with José Antonio’s “Don Juan”, whose first scene shows a Venetian-style Carnival, full of color and movement, using a highly ornamented choreography that in “El Cachorro” reaches the limits of scenographic fantasy.  This is based on a popular legend surrounding that famous image of Christ from Seville, and the action takes place around a large cross which, in the final moment as a dramatic apogee, rises up bearing the crucified Christ.

Also in this time frame, a simpler kind of dance recital form reclaimed a place in the art, notably in the work of Cristina Hoyos and Blanca del Rey who presented striking tableaus that covered all the major flamenco forms.

The most interesting innovation in contemporary flamenco ballet is undoubtedly the presentation of unschooled, Gypsy dance.  La Argentinita had already done this in the 1930’s in “Las Calles de Cádiz”, when she added to her trained company the three best dancers from the cafés who danced in their own way; but this was a sort of comma in the production that would not be repeated until the time we’re discussing, perhaps because it seemed to clash with or contradict the feel of a production that was refined, stylized and Baroque in nature.  One of the most successful later uses of this was found in Rafael Aguilar’s version of “Carmen”.  At a specific moment, all the plots and machinations  of ballet come to a halt, remaining blacked out, while in one corner, under a yellow light, a Gypsy sings and dances a flamenco tango, with the natural expressive force that evokes the loudest applause of the evening.

This kind of Gypsy dancing also abounds in Felipe Sánchez’s “Tarantos”, as befits the theme of the story [involving conflict between two Gypsy families]; at one particular moment, a group of Gypsy children dance and provide the highlight of that act.

The newest artists to approach the ballet flamenco, such as Joaquin Cortes, Antonio Canales and Sara Baras, all bring a drive to innovate and renovate.  This impulse is so strong that one can talk of the present-day phase as one marked by “new tendencies”.

Latest Tendencies

It’s difficult to say exactly when flamenco dance entered its new creative phase, because there is no specific ballet that marked the event as happened last time with the works of Antonio Gades and Mario Maya.  There is a continuous evolution, marked by the continuous introduction of novel elements that we will situate in the context of the 1990’s.

This decade is even more prolific than the last regarding the production of ballets, and it’s alos even more daring with regards to everything that comprises the “action of the dance”, and the mis-en-scene.  Everything seems to constitute one more step on the staircase of the new style that we can call today’s flamenco.

In terms of theatrical form, the new decade presented a type of spectacle that is neither a recital nor a full-fledged flamenco ballet, as this term has been understood from its introduction to the present day with its implication of great artistic and technical complexity.  The companies were stable, which assured the quality of the production, and the choreographer was always a respected artist of great experience.

The 90’s offered complete freedom in these areas.  Generally, today’s companies consist of a small number of dancers; sometimes just the two who are the protagonists, and rarely more than ten.  In the traditional nomenclature, this would be termed a “group”, rather than a “company”.

Another astonishing aspect is the precarious way in which groups are assembled for works called “ballets”, and even more surprising is the new inclination to throw together companies which are ephemeral rather than long-lasting.

Of course, whatever the name and duration of such a spectacle, the important thing is that it be danced well.  But this new form has two aspects:  On one hand, flamenco broadens its expressive possibilities, acquires larger number of dancers, and augments the number of people who come to the theater – the only way such events take place today.  This offers the possibility of becoming a soloist to good dancers who formerly had to work in minor venues, or who were bound to always have a minor role in theatres.

The negative aspect is clear:  The love of theatre, or better yet, the urge to direct theatrical-flamenco companies, leads many dancers to create their own.  But transforming an artistic vision into an actual theatrical event is very difficult, and so we see that despite the occasional masterpiece, there are more works that are immature and mediocre.

Today, one always goes to a flamenco event with doubts about what will transpire, because there are no clear reference points to take advantage of.

In addition, the concept of an integral flamenco spectacle has changed.  It is becoming customary that when the curtain rises or during intermission, the spectator is confronted with a musical group that tries to please with a jazz work, or a classical violin or flute solo that has nothing to do with flamenco, or Andalusia, or even Spain.

Presented at the beginning, this can be interpreted as an introduction to the spectacle, but when the musical solo appears intermixed with the ballet, there is no sensible way to do this except by cutting short the time for the dance.

These considerations bring us to the matter of the music that surrounds today’s flamenco.  Music that inspires the dance, serves as the motor for harmonious movement, creates the form and style of the dance.

New Tendencies in Music

Flamenco dance has a way of accepting any musical approach and blending with it; the system works smoothly enough, leaving the melody to one side and responding primarily to the rhythm.  This was evident in the 1950’s with the advent of the rumba flamenca as it took root in Catalonia, and it remains true with new styles we encounter today.

I believe the artist Kiko Veneno was the first to introduce the idea of flamenco fusion.  Ever since then, through the 1980’s, it has been common to see a musical group consisting of flute, violin and bass providing the music for flamenco productions.  But it was only heard initially; when the dance began, these musicians were silent and only the guitar accompanied the dancer.

Today’s dancers are very familiar with this style, and the musicians have reciprocated by adapting to the dance.  The result: they work together to offer the flamenco spectacle.

When the dance is accompanied by a guitar, the dancer is effectively in command.  But when the music is provided by an orchestra, the dancer must adapt – something that can only be done by forcing the dance.

She will extend a step, prolong a pose, or simply indicate the melody’s rhythm with her arms while her feet await a danceable rhythm.  Dance becomes poorer with respect to its integrity as flamenco, and the result is dancing along with a free-rhythm music whose key characteristic is improvisation.  It’s a real problem for the dancer, who must always be adjusting the piece to a metric system.

Of all newer music, the most tempting for the dancer is fusion, notably with Cuban styles and rhythms.

One of the new qualities fostered by new music is the introduction of the cajón, a wooden box that serves as a percussion instrument; it is intended to underline and reinforce the rhythm, and it does this effectively because it makes a strong and sonorous sound.  Sometimes it even reproduces the sound of the dancer’s heelwork, so it becomes heard as a sort of duet.

The cajon has come to substitute for the function of the palmas or handclaps, but in a more rudimentary form because the palmas, beyond functioning to mark the basic rhythm, have a real musicality; it is a living art, reflecting the musical sensibility of the hand-clappers themselves.  They never drown out the action of the dance, but rather encourage the dancer to greater expressive heights.  When the singer comes in, or when the footwork is quiet, the handclapping is done in a “sorda” or muted way that is appropriate and does not compete.  It’s a shame that the art of hand-clapping is gradually disappearing, so that we no longer find the Cádiz-style handclapping that offered a prodigious form of flamenco musicality; though in Jerez, the tradition of clapping remains strong.

Regarding the technique of dance, one must say that between dance and music there is a direct correlation; and thus the alterations of the music are reflections of what happens in the dance – which is to say that ultimately the dance will suffer a profound transformation.

In this current phase, the choreographic action – that is, the steps as utilized – is impressively versatile.  Each new stage spectacle brings forth some capricious novelty, either of form or of structure.  One is left with the impression that the choreographer puts upon a chessboard a series of flamenco steps, which are then moved about at will.  The choreographer seems to play with them in an arbitrary way, missing the deep connections that they should have.

Now, one cannot speak of creation in its strictest sense, but rather of mixtures.  There is no specific discipline that unifies the various disparate elements.  One ends up talking of various tendencies which share only the sense of irregularity.

There is another aspect that should be considered because of the novelty it offers, and the danger that it entails.  From the early creation of the Spanish ballet, there were certain classical elements in its execution.  Refined postures that seemed so appropriate for the theatre; the studied way a leg was raised; the care with which the body was positioned – all these evolutions occurred in harmony with the idea of the true classical ballet, but that form had been assimilated long ago.

The disturbing thing is that during a flamenco spectacle one finds a totally classical dance which is completely unrelated to the theme.  I would call it an unwelcome and inappropriate interruption that does violence to the intention of the work.  Today, we see this happen when the dancer shifts from the aggressive rhythm that is the essence of flamenco to the restrained, melodic cadences of an adagio or a prelude.  The dancer must completely alter, even reverse, the quality of the dance.  For example, consider the way a flamenco dancer does the basic walking step – short steps, firmly grounded by the heelwork.  By instead using a classical approach, raising off the heels onto tiptoe, it becomes ethereal, and the entire aspect of the body changes completely.

And today all the flamenco artists, before becoming artists, spend many years learning the discipline of the classical ballet – in fact, most of the first-rate artists of this era have come out of the Spain’s National School of Ballet.  Classical has become a universal and exciting discipline, which for the dancer is a necessary form of expressing oneself.

As far as what we might call traditional flamenco, in recent years we’ve seen a move toward greater technical complexity and greater speed.  In fact, this frenetic velocity is not only the mark of the dance in general, but it is repeated insistently so that one sees the repetition of traditional closing moves and also the “desplantes” that mark key points in a dance.  We have seen the end of slower-paced, reposed flamenco; now there’s a sort of violence to the art, sometimes contained and sometimes expressed openly.  There is no longer any room for the kind of deliberate grace that demands gentleness and calm tranquility.  There’s only time to do one thing and the next, as quickly as possible.

This is a flamenco that disorients the aficionado who is grounded in the tradition, but that attracts the majority of the new fans in the art.”

End of article by Teresa Martínez de la Peña.  Again, this translation omits her comments on the earlier phases of flamenco dance, prior to 1920.

Brook Zern

January 11, 2014   No Comments

La Farruca’s New Flamenco Show – Report from El País – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Today’s issue of Spain’s major newspaper El País carries this brief article by Fernando Iñiguez (url below)

Nights of Great Dance, All In the Family

The essence of good flamenco dance is on display from today till Sunday thanks to the gran dama called La Farruca.  For those three nights, the daughter of the legendary Farruco will unveil her new production [espectáculo] that pays homage to the greats of flamenco – her way of remembering Carmen Amaya, Niño Ricardo, Arturo Pavón, her own father, La Perla de Cadiz, Manolo Caracol and Camarón among other maestros of song, guitar and dance.

When this fifty-something woman of Seville, whose real name is Rosario Montoya Manzano, takes the floor, the devout purists say [dicen las más puristas] that time stops.  She’ll be accompanied by her adolescent son, Manuel Fernández Montoya, the consummate dancer known as El Carpeta.  The saga of el Farruco is thus guaranteed to continue.  La Farruca has created all the choreography and even the costumes for each number, though it’s well known that she may overrule her own directives to improvise, dancing as her heart dictates.  Until Sunday, the singer for her and her son will be Pedro Heredia, who came up with the idea for the production, as well as Fabiola Pére and Mara Rey; Juan Requena will handle the guitar, and Ale Romero will play piano.

End of article.

I think it’s pretty neat when a national newspaper of record reports on the duende, that mysterious momentito when laws of nature are temporarily suspended, albeit with no mention of the actual D-word, and with a formal disclaimer – “it is said,” (and not said by everyone but only by) “the most purist of the purists.”  Yes, that should avoid lawsuits filed by the growing legion of progressive thinkers who say that so-called purists must be shunned, for contradicting their belief that the word itself is either meaningless or downright dangerous.

(As a devout rationalist, I object to the idea of duende on principle, but I overrule myself based on rare but real experiences.  I’ve often referred to some sort of time-dilation, subjectively palpable, as one symptom of the syndrome.  My favorite headline, in a local Malaga paper long ago, described a brief segment of a great bullfight I’d seen the day before.  It read “Curro Romero Stops the Clock”, and he did, and the thousands of people in the ring felt it happen, so, bound by rules of truth in journalism, what else could the reporter say?

And by the way, even though outsiders often confuse the duende with glorious moments of supreme inspiration in other arts, the Spaniards know better.  In effect, it is only used there  – and used frequently — to describe the altered state that emerges in 1) flamenco and 2) the bullfight.

The confusion arises when writers attempt to compare it to other arts, rather than confess that it is both unique and tightly restricted to those two Spanish contexts.  Federico García Lorca, no slouch in this area, blew the call when he said that some great classical pianist had duende.  In yer dreams, pal, in yer dreams.

The url for the article is: http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2013/12/26/madrid/1388091851_306849.html

December 29, 2013   1 Comment

Flamenco dancer La Farruca speaks – a truncated interview from Spain’s ABC – translated with free scolding by Brook Zern

“Today you can count on the fingers of one hand the flamenco that’s made with sweat and soul,” insists the dancer Rosario Montoya “La Farruca”, daughter of the mythical Farruco.  She asks for “respect” for flamenco, amid all the “paparruchas” we see that are not worthy of the name.

“Someone should put a stop to this,” says “La Farruca” in an interview…

Subscribe to read the complete story.”

Well, I’m too cheap or too ideological to buy an online subscription to ABC – in the Spain of the mid-sixties, it seemed more Catholic than the Pope and more fascist than Franco and even worse than the other national sources of disinformation.

Anyway, this twitter-sized December 25th excerpt tells you everything you need to know.  It’s La Farruca’s Christmas present to the dwindling Taliband, and her ton of coal for the swelling chorus who chant that hey, it’s all good, and it’s all flamenco, as long as we call it that.

So far, so good.  What puzzles me is the army of professionals who insist they adore La Farruca and respect her, and who then spice up their acts with so much sax and violins that they should get an X rating from my new Flamenco Review Board.  (You heard the lady: “Someone should put a stop to this.”)

Now, I don’t know what “paparruchas” means.  Maybe it means “noble attempts”.  More likely, though, she is directly insulting everyone who has ever said, “What the heck, a little jazzification will pep things up and bring more folks in, and if we do it just right, it won’t make it less flamenco.  Hey, maybe it’ll make it more flamenco.  Yeah, that’s it, so call the timbale guy and that flamenco cellist, what was her name again?”

It’s time to choose sides.  If you think La Farruca is nuts and should be shoved aside for stubbornly obstructing the improvements flamenco desperately needs, feel free to continue carving your brave path to progress.

But if you suspect she might be talking sense, you have several choices.   You can proceed as usual, but stop using the word flamenco for your art; or label any actual flamenco segments of your program as such, and label the rest as non-flamenco or as something else.

I wouldn’t advise confronting La Farruca directly, though. During her recent stint with some of the family in New York, I saw her nearly incinerate the hard-bitten hotel staffers who tried to explain logically why they couldn’t provide three additional rooms in their full hotel at five a.m. on no notice.  (Oh, yeah, and the petite prodigy Carpeta danced up a bigger storm than usual, onstage and off.  Oh yeah – and they’d brought over some terrific Jerez artists I knew who, to my astonishment, dropped their localist chauvinism and threw a protective cordon around the young sevillano Carpeta that was truly touching.)

Long ago, I first heard a young flamenco guitarist in Spain who was somehow mixing or blending other musical styles into his playing.  I asked him why he did it.  He said he liked it, and that the more different styles he added, the more other people liked it.

“Where is this going?” I asked with unfeigned innocence.

“I don’t know,” he said.  ”You know, if I added everything to it, maybe everyone would like it.”

“Not everyone,” I said, and I walked away.

Today, an art called flamenco is triumphing around the world.  Flamenco itself is an endangered species.

Okay, okay, I’m being a crank again.  You can respect La Farruca and understand her attitude and still decide to do non-traditional stuff — stuff that reflects a broader worldview, and reflects contemporary tastes and trends.  In fact, just a rare few of us types could even begin to attempt what those Farruco-family types can do every day and long into the night.

When I was a slip of a lad, we tried to mimic, or more daringly to reshuffle, what the great flamenco artists were doing.  With rare and gifted exceptions, we settled for creating a pale-pink imitation, a sort of homage to those other people.

As junior flamenco guitarists, we figuratively fell on our knees, waddled up to our potential masters, and begged them to give us their priceless music and advice for a few measly bucks.  But not much later, when a hipper bunch of Americans showed up in Andalusia, the great native guitarists figuratively fell on their knees, and said, O young masters, please show us the great suspensions, sustains and flatted-fifths of your jazz giants and fusion pioneers.

I was shocked, shocked, but those Spanish artists were just following their leader, Paco de Lucía. He had decided that flamenco needed fresh ideas and new rhythmic pulses and, above all, a rich new harmonic pallet that used our Western approach instead of the very limited traditional harmonies.

I was also jealous, since I didn’t understand anything about jazz or harmony; in fact, I hardly understand music at all, and envy everyone who does.  If only I had the musical aptitude to join the merry bands of my countrymen creating salable new mashups with a subtle hint of flamenco, I’d be out having fun every night instead of sitting here in my dark, lonely, freezing room and…

Come to think of it, though, I’d rather keep running this one-man Complaint Department.  It’s an easy job, and no one has to do it.

Brook Zern

December 25, 2013   4 Comments

The Saga of the Flamenco Guitar at the Lincoln Center Exhibit – by Brook Zern

On March 12, a new exhibit, 100 Years of Flamenco in New York, 1913-2013 opens at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  (I’ll be at the opening, and also on a panel discussion on March 28th.)

The exhibit is a project of Carlota Santana Flamenco Vivo, a remarkable cultural organization based at Duke University in North Carolina with offices in midtown New York that presents recitals across America and teaches flamenco to students at all levels.

I’ve been working with Carlota and co-curators Ninotchka Bennahum and La Meira to provide materials, and I’m also selecting the flamenco recordings that are called the soundscape.  Beyond the books, brochures, costumes and photographs to be displayed, I’m providing a flamenco guitar – and not just any flamenco guitar.

Here’s the story – make that the two stories – behind the guitar.

At a 1991 Skinner auction of Fine Musical Instruments at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, in intoxicating company, I bought a 1951 José Ramírez guitar.  I wanted it because, though it wasn’t mentioned in the description, the photograph in the catalog showed on the guitar’s face a very distinctive design and signature that could only have been the handiwork of the legendary flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero.

Beyond being the inspiration for Antonio Gades and other great dancers, Escudero influenced, and was influenced by, an array of artists, poets and intellectuals in Spain and beyond.  His own drawings and paintings are taken seriously in many cultural circles.

I bid, and kept bidding far beyond the estimate.  When I got the guitar, it came with a receipt for 3,200 pesetas, signed by Ramírez and made out to a New York businessman named José Tow who was staying at the Hotel Crillon, and who had evidently been asked by someone named Dr. Kulka to buy a flamenco guitar for him.

It also came with a note saying “Dear Dr. Kulka, attached is the saga of your guitar – which we promised to send you.  Hope you enjoy it.  Sincerely yours.”  The whole story appeared beneath the letterhead of Tow Associates, Inc., 122 East 42nd Street, New York 17, New York, cable address Towtrade.  It is dated August 7, 1952, when Escudero would have been 67 years old.


Several days after our arrival in Paris – about the middle of March – we dropped into a small tavern where two Spanish Basques were entertaining; one played the guitar and the other sang some of their native songs.  After making several requests – in Spanish – we entered into conversation with them and mentioned that we were leaving Paris within a few days – en route to Spain.  The question of our interest in purchasing a guitar came up and they indicated the name of a manufacturer in Madrid – whose shop we visited upon our arrival there,  We purchased what we thought to be the best guitar he had in stock for the money.

The guitar was stored in the trunk of our car until our arrival in Barcelona.  One evening we were invited by a friend to visit one of his favorite spots in Barcelona – Carlos Munoz’ “Vinoteca” – which was arranged like a “biblioteca”; the walls were lined with what appeared to be large impressive volumes of books but in reality were just a cover-up for the finest collection of aged wines (jerez – or sherry) that we had ever tasted.

In our conversation with the owner of the “Vinoteca” it was mentioned that we had purchased a guitar in Madrid, and that we were “aficionados” of the Spanish dance and Flamencan music; Munoz seemed quite pleased with this fact and asked if we would like to meet the “father of the Spanish dance” – Vicente Escudero – an intimate friend of his.  Needless to say, we jumped at this opportunity and immediately arranged a meeting there for the following evening – implying that if it could be arranged we would very much like to have him and Escudero join us for dinner – and if possible someone else who might try out our new guitar.

At about nine o’clock the following evening (April 3, 1952) we all gathered at the “Vinoteca” to taste some rare vintage wines of Jerez – and to meet the Maestro.  Escudero confesses to being “close to 60” – looks to be closer to 50, (with the vitality, wiriness and enthusiasm of a very young dancer) but according to authentic sources is closer to being 70!  The man seems to embody the spirit of the dance in every gesture, movement and utterance.

After several rounds of Jerez – Escudero left us to keep an engagement he had with a dance group and agreed to meet us later – after dinner.  (Dinner hour in Spain in anywhere between 10 P.M. and midnight.)   We learned later that Escudero never eats in restaurants because, as he pits it – “he never eats ‘cadaver’” (cadaver is a corpse); he is an avowed vegetarian!

After a hearty Spanish dinner with our friends we all drove out to a section of the city where it was quite apparent that few tourists ventured.  We entered the “dive” which was our objective, through a long narrow alleyway.  This so-called ‘nightclub’ is known by the name of “El Charco de la Pava” which, roughly translated, means The Hun Turkey’s Puddle; there were no turkeys in sight – but ‘puddle’ seemed a most appropriate name for the place.

We found that Escudero had already arrived and was seated at a long table with a group of his friends and admirers.  At the end of the room there was a long bar – dispensing mostly sherry – but not of rare vintage – and at the other end of the room a group of four gypsies (two young men and two young women) were doing some flamenco dances to the tune of guitar music.  It was obvious that the young dancers were nervous because of the Maetro’s presence but they vied with each other in an effort to impress him.

After a few rounds of jerez, we adjourned to an inner room where the commotion of the main hall did not penetrate – for which we were duly grateful.  In a few minutes we were joined by one of the performers – a young gypsy cock Ramon de Loja – flamenco singer; Ramon el Gitano – a swarthy, self taught guitarist; Pepe Lozano – an old flamenco singer; Antonio Virtuta – a famous ex-dancer who could only hobble around with the assistance of a crutch; and several hangers-on who were there for purely academic reasons and the fact that Escudero was present and the drinks were free.

The flamencan “jam session” that ensued and which lasted about four hours, was one that we can never forget and which stands out as one of the highlights of our entire trip.  This, we feel, only happened because we happened to have Dr. Kulka’s guitar with us,

The entire performance was for the benefit of Escudero, and as each artist took his turn, he would try to outdo the other – so that it was sort of an artistic competition – with the Maestro holding court.  After each song, several minutes were devoted to the academic discussion of whether this passage should have followed that – or whether or not it was correct to interpret that passage with a break – or to have continued in the same vein.  (Authentic flamencan music has been handed down in just such a fasion for centuries – and there is no authoritative source book available either for reference or settlement of an argument.)  Several times the discussion became quite heated and the atmosphere quite tense when, with the help of the jerez, the young Ramon de Loja insisted that he knew more about flamencan music than the wiser and more experienced Pepe Lozano.  It was only the presence of Escudero that kept the discussion under some semblance of order.

Dr. Kulka’s guitar was tried and used by Ramon el Gitano, who commented on its excellent tone and quality.  Escudero looked at it – took it in his hands and grimaced when he saw the name of the manufacture – saying “his father was a fine guitar maker.”  He strummed it a bit – listened to the tone and commented: “not bad” – adding “this is probably the best guitar he has ever made.”

The “cante jondo” session continued, with the gamut of soleares, seguidillas, deblas, cañas, malagueñas, tientos and polos; terminated at 3 A.M. when the lights in the room were flickered on and off – a warning of closing time.  This came – much to our distress – at the moment when Escudero had “warmed up” to the point where he would have gotten up to dance.  He had been sitting there with eyes half-closed, the fingers of his right hand beating out the rhythm of the music on the knuckles of his left hand, the heels of his boots accentuating the beats like a base violing – emitting an occasional rapturous “eso es” “eso es” or a more vigorous “olé!”

The finishing touch of this exciting and unforgettable evening was the ceremonious signing of the guitar.  Under a dimly lighted street lamp at 3:30 A.M. someone supplied a carefully guarded Parker Pen (brand new and obtained no doubt at an outrageous black market price).  The Maestro confessed never having autographed a guitar – and asked “where does one sign a guitar?’  We wanted very much to say “in an inconspicuous corner on the back – please!”  But by this time it was too late – as Munoz had insisted that the face of the guitar was the place and  the Maestro hade already started toinscribe his bold combination of drawing and signature – which we already knew – having received an autographed copy of the first edition of his recent book, “Mi Baile.”

End of story.

(The guitar maker’s father to whom Escudero refers is probably Manuel Ramírez, the founder of the house of Ramírez who has been succeeded by a batch of José Ramírezes.  The handicapped former dancer Antonio Villodres was from Madrid but had made a career in Barcelona; in 1929 he was part of La Argentina’s Ballet at the Comic Opera in Paris and later appeared as part of Carmen Amaya’s incredible group. His leg was amputated some time before his death in 1964.)

I find the whole saga to be extraordinarily flamenco — because of the confusing whirlwind of events that led the writer to some strange establishment in backwoods Barcelona, the tension and competition among the artists, the presumption that a Parker pen would be a black market item, the arguments and discussion after each song about exactly how it should go, and above all because of the infuriating frustration of waiting around all night for something very special to happen, only to be shooed away at that hoped-for moment because the establishment’s owner feels like going home.

The exhibit, with a predictable emphasis on dance, is shaping up nicely, and I hope to see some friends there.

February 20, 2013   No Comments

My Worldwide Scoop (and Miguel Poveda’s New Record) – by Brook Zern

My Worldwide Scoop (and Miguel Poveda’s New Record) – by Brook Zern

You read it here first, folks.  Yes, last week I broke the story of the latest flamenco dance sensation, and now the whole world knows.

Well, maybe I’m overstating the case.  But in my blog description of Post-Partum Flamenco – the happenings here in Jerez after the closing of the town’s official Flamenco Festival – I mentioned the appearance of a sensational young dancer called Trianita.

True, I underestimated her age by 25%.  I said she was three, when in fact she is four (I’ve updated the blogpost).  And true, the current readership of this blog is also in the low single digits.  But now some guy from up north is talking about her, in MalagaHoy.es., so she belongs to the world.

Here’s what he says, in part of a long interview:

“The art of flamenco is healthy because it keeps branching and growing (ramifica).  Think of a field that gets burned – in this case, an art where very important artists have disappeared, such as Enrique Morente, Moraito, Enrique de Melchor, Chano Lobato or La Paquera.  It leaves a tremendous vacuum.  But then little green branches start sprouting here and there, young people who sing with tremendous ambition and dreams, and a very special sensibility (sentir).  I’ve seen a little girl from Jerez whose name is Triana, four years old, and her dancing couldn’t be better…”

Okay, enough about me and my worldwide scoop.

The northerner in question is the wonderful singer Miguel Poveda, who comes closer to pleasing everyone than anyone has the right to.  He is the most admired, adored and idolized flamenco singer in Spain, and one of the country’s dozen nicest guys, or so it seems.

Miguel Poveda took some time off from flamenco to make an album of coplas – those sweet and sentimental old-fashioned songs that have been popular here forever.  And Poveda’s personal magnetism generated a phenomenon – the album sold in huge numbers (something no flamenco album has ever done) and appealed to audiences young and old.

Poveda has a new record coming out, evidently all flamenco all the time, accompanied by most of the best guitarists in Spain, starting with Paco de Lucia and working down.

The title is “ArteSano” – the word that means “artistan” in Spain, but which is divided to become “arte sano”, or “healthy art”.  That’s what Poveda was referring to in the above paragraph.

The interview is by Rocío Armas, and if I quote too much of it I guess I’d get arrested, but the ever-gracious and charming Poveda says…

…on his tour introducing the record, the Malaga dancer La Lupi will perform as he sings – evidently doing snippets of dances for each of the songs, rather than full choreographies.  Sounds like a clever idea.

…other guitarists, besides Paco, include José Quevedo “Bolita”, Manuel Parrilla, Manolo Sanlucar, Poveda’s fellow Catalan and usual accompanist Chicuelo, and others.

…the flamenco songs are from all over Andalucia, as is common enough; there’s a “tragic siguriya, a sweet flamenco nana (lullaby), some festive songs “with that sense of humor that you only get in Cadiz”, and a solea apola that says, “I dreamed that they called flamenco song ‘freedom’”.  He adds that in every form, the artist should express himself or herself freely, “and that all of us – Gypsies, non-Gypsies (payos) and every kind of singer should live and work side by side (convivir)…I see flamenco as infinite.”

Poveda explains that he doesn’t really care how well this all-flamenco album sells, and that he was astounded by the sales of his album of coplas.  He says he isn’t preoccupied with fusion, knowing that only some of it  — the worthwhile efforts such as Morente’s Omega or Camaron’s Leyenda del Tiempo – will endure.

He worries about flamenco artists who can’t get work, or can’t find publishing houses to put out their records, an hastens to add that he knows he is one of the few privileged artists who doesn’t have this problem.  “I have my label, I choose where I work, and I take the risks myself.”  He adds that although his Barcelona presentation coincides with a general strike in the city, he’s hoping for the best.

“Moreover,” he says, “sincerely, I have been, am, and will be a worker all my life, and I will always be with the working class, because that’s the way my family is, fighting for rights, and I wish the all the best for them.”

Finally — after mentioning little Triana, he cites a 16-year-old singer who sings like an old man, but in a good way, and gives his name as Kiko Peña.  I’ll watch for this guy, but I already have a favorite singer in that age group, mentioned in one of my earlier blogposts, named Samuel Serrano.

End of borrowings from the Miguel Poveda interview.  What a terrific guy, and what a fine artist.

People like Miguel Poveda make me embarrassed to be a gitanista, i.e., biased toward Gypsy artists and songs I consider to be of Gypsy origin.  But not embarrassed enough to change my mind.

(Incidentally, I suspect Poveda of having this same shameful bias — or maybe it’s just a coincidence that he often brings a member of the great Zambo clan of gitanos with him when he’s on the road.  Or that when he hangs around in Jerez, he’s usually hanging around the same artists I’m trying to hang around, and they don’t happen to be payos like us.)

Brook Zern

March 22, 2012   No Comments