Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Dancer La Argentina

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