Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Dance History

A truly historic 6-CD recording plus DVD finally reveals the art of the guitar genius Manolo de Huelva (plus film of dancers La Argentinita and Pilar López)

Manolo de Huelva may have been the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time.

Okay, okay — we all know that title belongs to Paco de Lucía for perfecting the pre-existing virtuoso tradition around 1970 with stunning imagination and unprecedented technique, and then reconceiving the guitar concert with a jazzier ensemble sound for a broader audience. And the runner-up would be Ramón Montoya, the giant who around 1900 turned an inchoate mixture of styles and ideas into a coherent art form worthy of the name. And third place would go to Sabicas, for being the greatest flamenco virtuoso for a half-century before Paco dethroned him.  And if none of those perfectionists were the best exponents of raw power and funky punch — by one measure the central challenge of great flamenco guitar — the title would default to Melchor de Marchena, the preferred accompanist for the greatest singers in flamenco’s recorded history, or to Juan Habichuela who around 1970 took over Melchor’s role as the best backup man.  Or to the endlessly inventive Niño Ricardo, the main influence on Paco de Lucía and most other flamenco players in Spain.

Manolo de Huelva?  Well, he was determined to become the most revered flamenco player in Spain — and that’s what he did.  Between 1920 and 1975, if you mentioned his name in Spain, you would get no response.  Unless you happened to be talking to the artists at the absolute pinnacle of the tradition, the people who knew more than anyone else.  They had heard him, and that was all it took.  They spoke of him with awe, and of his playing as a thing apart and above.

Others just didn’t know, and that was how Manolo de Huelva wanted it.  He was determined to conceal his art from others, particularly other guitarists, and he did this with stunning success.  Only on rare occasions did he give other players a glimpse of his majestic accompaniment and musical creativity.

In 1963, after an astounding night of flamenco in the legendary Zambra (or was it the Villa Rosa?) in Madrid, I was generously invited to go see Manolo accompany some of that venue’s great singers, including Pepe de la Matrona.  As I was getting into one of the taxis, a guy asked to look at my hands.  He noticed my right-hand nails were longer than my left, and said I wasn’t allowed to join the group.  I started to argue, and said — not in jest — that I’d bite the long nails off.  He looked at my left hand fingertips, saw the tell-tale calluses that only come from serious practicing, and told me to scram.  He said that Manolo often inspected strangers’ hands, and might refuse to play at all if he suspected a guitarist was in or outside the roadside Venta Manzanilla where he reigned supreme.  I was just a kid, and couldn’t have retained thirty seconds of his music if he’d wanted me to, but I was still frozen out.

Ever since, I have been dreaming and scheming, hoping to hear Manolo playing at his best — as did my friend Don Pohren, the leading foreign authority on flamenco, who realized that he would never hear anyone better.  (Don also shared my admiration for the guitarist Diego del Gastor, who unlike Manolo refused to make any commercial recordings but generously allowed us devotees to make hundreds of hours of tape recordings of his solos and accompaniment.)

Manolo made a batch of 78′s before 1950, accompanying some noted singers, but it was clear that he was concealing his real art.  In the mid-seventies, I went to the Seville home of Virginia de Zayas, an American woman whose Spanish husband, Marius, had recorded the Ramón Montoya’s historic Paris sessions around 1937.  Manolo lived in her house, and she agreed to write about the man and his art for Guitar Review, the elegant New York publication of which I was the Flamenco Editor.  (You can find those three long articles in this blog by searching for “Zayas”.)  She also told me that she would arrange for me to meet Manolo the next time I was in Spain, and possibly be allowed to transcribe some of his variations or falsetas — in any event, Manolo died before that could happen.  (A double LP was later issued by de Zayas, one with Ramón’s old material and the other with some confusing snippets of Manolo de Huelva’s playing that failed to do justice to his art.)

This blog also contains a Guitar Review interview with Andrés Segovia, who — contrary to prevailing opinion — had enormous respect for what he called “true flamenco”, citing the art’s greatest female singer, La Niña de los Peines, and its greatest male singer (okay, male Gypsy singer), Manuel Torre, and heaping high praise on just one guitarist — yes, Manolo de Huelva.

Years ago, I gave up hope of ever hearing the man at his best, or learning his crucial music beyond the few fragments that were allegedly from his hand.

Earlier today, I got an email from my friend Estela Zatania, author and critic for deflamenco.com, relaying news from the noted French authority Pierre LeFranc that the important Spanish label Pasarela had published a massive 6-CD set-plus-DVD titled “Manolo de Huelva acompaña…”

And the singers he backs are formidable.  The great surprise is a batch of stuff by Aurelio de Cádiz, whose first recordings with Ramón Montoya date back to the twenties or thereabouts.  (I inherited some of those 78′s from my father, who also taught me my first flamenco licks.)   These “new” songs are a priceless addition to Aurelio’s sparsely-documented art — he always promised to make a worthy anthology but never did.  (A translation of a long interview of Aurelio appears in this blog — search for the author’s name Climent.) Other singers include Luís Caballero, an elegant singer who worked as a bellhop in the Hotel Alfonso XIII, which recently reclaimed its stature as the city’s best.  La Pompi, an important early singer and sister of the great Niño Gloria, is heard, as is the still-admired but otherwise unrecorded Rafael Pareja; finally, there’s the very significant Pepe de la Matrona with his immense knowledge — an early inspiration for Enrique Morente who as a very young artist appeared along with Pepe at La Zambra.

As for the DVD, it finally brings to light a film I’d seen long, long ago at the Museum of Modern Art and have been trying to find ever since. It shows Manolo de Huelva — or rather, it shows glimpses of his hands as he remains in shadow — as he accompanies the legendary dancers La Argentinita and Pilar López. (I actually saw it once again, at the Andalusian Center for Flamenco Documentation — then the CAF, now the CADF — around the corner from my apartment in Jerez. I even managed to sneakily record the soundtrack on my iTunes player (I had a separate mike for it). But now here it is, glorious picture and all — a true treasure for dance historians and all lovers of flamenco dance.

Decades ago, after hearing a theorbo or vihuela concert by de Zayas’s son Rodrigo, I approached him to plead and whimper that he had a duty to reveal Manolo’s music — something I had also done to Pepe Romero, the flamenco and classical guitarist whose family was evidently close to Manolo, also to no apparent avail.

Or so I thought.  Today the often fractious flamenco community is forever indebted (I presume) to Rodrigo de Zayas and that eminent family, which must be the source of those recordings that span a period from about 1940 to the mid-seventies.

Before I list the contents, let me add more backup to the claims about this man. And if a rave from Spain’s greatest classical guitarist isn’t enough, how about a rave from her greatest poet?

In his wonderful 1964 book “Lives and Legends of Flamenco” Don Pohren quoted Federico García Lorca’s appraisal of Manolo in “Obras Completas”:

“The guitar, in the cante jondo, must limit itself to keeping the rhythm and following the singer; the guitar is a base for the voice, and must be strictly subjected to the will of the singer.

“But as the personality of the guitarist is often as strong as that of the cantaor, the guitarist must also sing, and thus falsetas are born (the commentaries of the strings), when sincere of extraordinary beauty, but in many cases false, foolish and full of pretentious prettiness when expressed by one of those virtuosos…

“The falseta is now traditional, and some guitarists, like the magnificent Niño de Huelva, let themselves be swept along by the voice of their surging blood, but without for a moment leaving the pure line or, although they are maximum virtuosos, displaying their virtuosity.”

Thanks, Federico. As for Pohren’s personal opinion — and he had heard Manolo in top form — here’s his opening salvo:

“How does one begin to talk of the wondrous Manolo de Huelva? Perhaps by stating that he has quietly, semi-secretly, reigned as flamenco’s supreme guitarist for half a century? Or by stating that in the eyes of many knowledgeable aficionados and artists he has been the outstanding flamenco guitarist of all times? Truthfully, a separate volume, accompanied by tapes or records demonstrating Manolo’s evolution as a guitarist, which could only be played by Manolo himself, would be perhaps the only way to begin giving Manolo his due. This, I fear, cannot be accomplished; Manolo himself has seen to this by his elaborate, unbending covertness, his lifelong refusal to play anything that he considered to be of true value in the presence of any type of machine, often including the human.”

Pohren continues:

“Manolo especially dislikes playing when other guitarists are present. How many professional guitarists have actually heard Manolo cut loose? Very, very few, but those who have consider the occasion as having been sacred. Andrés Segovia has, and has called Manolo the greatest living flamenco guitarist. Segovia became so inspired, in fact, that he devoted a major part of a thesis to Manolo de Huelva. Melchor de Marchena has, and proclaims Manolo the greatest guitarist he has ever heard, This covers some ground, including Ramón Montoya, Javier Molina, today’s virtuosos and Melchor himself. Many singers and aficionados have, and they unanimously agree that in the accompaniment of the cante, and in the transmission of pure flamenco expression, Manolo is far off by himself.

“Just what makes Manolo’s playing so exceptional? To start with, he has the best thumb and left hand in the business. He is flamenco’s most original a prolific creator. He has a vast knowledge of flamenco in general and the cante in particular, which causes his toque to be unceasingly knowledgeable and flamenco. He is blessed with the same genius and duende that separated Manuel Torre from the pack; as was the case with Torre, when Manolo de Huelva becomes inspired he drives aficionados to near-frenzy, striking the deepest human chords with overwhelmingly direct force.

“As is so rarely the case, Manolo’s playing, when he is truly fired up, is truly spontaneous; he plays from the heart, not the head. His toque is full of surprises, of the unexpected. His manipulations of the compás are fabulous, his lightning starts and stops at once profound and delightful. His is a guitarist (this is important) impossible to anticipate – his genius flows so spontaneously that often not even Manolo knows what is coming next…

“By the time he reached his twenties, his toque was mentioned with awe in the flamenco world. He had everything: a naturally flawless compás that was equaled by no one, a driving, extremely flamenco way of playing, great duende, and the sixth sense that permitted him to anticipate the singers, without which an accompanist is lost. Cantaores began calling Manolo first, before Javier or Ramón or any of the others. Soon Manolo was known as the top man…

“Sabicas once invited him to join in a record of guitar duets. Manolo felt highly insulted, firstly because Sabicas should consider himself in the same class, and secondly that he should be propositioned to play such nonsense as guitar duets, On the other hand, upon asking Manolo whom he liked best of the modern guitar virtuosos, he instantly replied that Sabicas has the best compás in the business (next to his own). This is as far as he would commit himself.

“Technically, Manolo relies on his blindingly fast and accurate thumb and left hand for most of the astounding effects he achieves. His entire right-hand technique is subordinate to his thumb: that is to say, his right hand is held in such a a posture as to give he thumb complete freedom of movement. When he wishes, his picado is unexcelled and his arpeggios are sound, though he uses them sparingly. Little is known of his tremolo, as he holds this flowery technique in great contempt.

“The Gypsies like to believe that flamenco surges exclusively through their veins. It is impossible to explain that environment is what counts (were it not, someone would long ago have begun selling pints of Gypsy blood to payo [non-Gypsy] aspirants.)…Generally speaking, Manolo is above being included in the eternal rivalry. Knowledgeable Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike hold him supreme.”

End of Pohren’s appraisal. And now, without further ado, here’s what you’ll find in this new revelation. And no, I haven’t heard it yet — but I’ve ordered it. I know it may be just another perversely elaborate tease, where this strange man again conceals his true art.

But I prefer to believe that we will hear the real Manolo de Huelva — finally, and at long, long. last.

Note from a few days later: But wait!! I suspected there might be some glitches or problems with this project, but assumed it would be with Manolo’s customary refusal to reveal his best playing. Instead, the first problems are with the attributions of songs to singers. According to the expert Antonio Barberán, there are only a few songs by the great Aurelio (though some are very important). Some stuff attributed to him is by Manuel Centeno, another noted singer, while he may not do any of the many saetas or sevillanas attributed to him. (It had surprised me that Aurelio would record these songs — the sevillanas seems too trivial, and the religious saetas just don’t seem to be his thing.) So ignore those glitches — I’ll fix the notes when the experts have had their say. Here are those problematic attributions, most correct but many just plain wrong:

Note from a few weeks later: But wait!!! I have received my copy and changed the entries below to reflect my notions of who is singing — followed by the original attributions in brackets and quotation marks. Fire fights have broken out on some insider websites such as Puente Genil con el Flamenco, but the dust is settling.

Here is the latest version — a few more attributions might be revised in the future. And again: minor glitches aside, this is a wonderful contribution to the world’s treasury of flamenco, made possible thanks to Sr. de Zayas and the de Zayas family.

CD 1:

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta”
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  4:29

Bulerias “Cuando me daba” (truncada) 0:47
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  4:29

Bulerías “Cuando me daba” (entera) 3:45
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  3:45

Bulerías “A mi me duele”
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  1:52

Bulerías “A mi me sigue”
La Gitanilla con Manolo de Huelva  2:01

Bulerías “Que cosita mas rara”
La Gitanilla con Manolo de Huelva  2:55

Manolo de Huelva, guitarra; La Gitanilla, palmas  1:29

Siguiriyas falseta  0:37
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Malagueñas “Que te quise y que te quiero”  2:12
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Que te pueda perdonar”  2:42
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “A que tanto me consientes”  4:53
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá  3:53
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

La Caña  3:22
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Soleá  3:58
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

CD 2

Malagueñas “Más bien te agradecería” 7”14 [empieza con afinación de guitarra]
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “A veces me ponía”  2:56
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Allí fueron mis quebrantos”  3:28
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Tarantas “Viva Madrid que es la corte”  6:36
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Alegrías “A mí que me importa”  5:32
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Hay pérdidas que son ganancias” 7:40
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Morena tienes la cara”  8:13
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

CD 3

Alegrías “Ya te llaman la buena moza”  4:29
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Llévame pronto su puerta”  3:56
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “En el patrocinio”  1:56
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “La que me lavó el pañuelo”  1:41
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Con paso firme”  1:41
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Al cielo que es mi morada” (a duo)
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Silencio, pueblo cristiano”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Ay, sereno!”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Dios te salve, María”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Bien sabe Dios que lo hiciera”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “No vale tanto martirio”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Ni que a la puerta te asomes”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Pare mío esclareció”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Y a visitarte he venío”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Bulerías “A mí no me hables”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “La torrente”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Solea “A Dios le pido clemencia
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “De cal y canto y arena”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Solea “Las campanas del olvío”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “Yo te tengo que querer”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Seré por verte”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Es tanto lo que te quiero”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Mi moreno me engañó”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Tanguillos “Yo tengo una bicicleta”
Aurelio de Cádiz [?] con Manolo de Huelva

CD 4

Bulerías “Al campo me voy a vivir”  3:52
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Que no me mande cartas”  9:18
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que tenga mi cuerpo”  5:43
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Contemplarme a mi mare, que no llore más”  8:12
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá con Polo “Eres el Diablo”  5:36
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Cuando yo esperaba” 3:17
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Porque faltó el cimiento”  3:22
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que te salvó la vida”  4:05
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá con Polo “Eres el Diablo”  6:18
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Como hiciste tú conmigo”  1:39
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

CD 5

Solea “En feria de Ronda”  12:06
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que bonita era”  4:55
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Redoblaron”  2:48
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Ventanas a la calle”  8:21
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “Estabas cuando te vi”  6:58
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Peteneras “Compañera de mi alma”  9:52
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “A la Virgen de Regla”  6:45
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

CD 6

Soleá “La Babilonia” 1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá Petenera  1:29
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá Apolá  2:16
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Polo Natural  2:22
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Le dijo el tiempo el querer”  1:54
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “A una montaña”  1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Una rosa que fue mía”  1:34
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

El Polo de Tobalo  2:30
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Solea “No todavía” 1:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Los pájaros son clarines”  1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Toquen a rebato las campanas del olvío”  1:53
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Con mirarte solamente, comprenderás que te quiero”  2:14
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

La Caña  4:14
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta 2:42
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Macho de la Serrana 3:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Bulerías “Cante corto de Jerez” 2:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta 2:42
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Macho de la Serrana 3:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Bulerías “Cante corto de Jerez” 2:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña


Sevillanas – introducción
Argentinita y Pilar López, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Argentinita y Pilar López, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Tangos de Cadiz “Dos Tangos de Cadiz”
Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

“Canción” [?] “Hermanito de mi corazón” o “Tango del escribano”
“Cádiz, tacita de plata, es un verdadero encanto”
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra [?]

Alegrías – alternando ralentí sincronizado
Argentinita, baile. Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, con palmas y pitos

La Caña “A mí me pueden mandar”
Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Here’s the Pasarela url with buying info:


Brook Zern

January 5, 2015   5 Comments

Flamenco Dancer El Farruco – Reflections on a Golden Era

Flamenco’s truly great artists occupy a strange position.  There are numerous others who may be excellent or brilliant or wonderful.  But there are a few singers, a few dancers, a few guitarists who simply stand apart.  Underline “a few” — rarely have more than a dozen or so been alive at any one time, and today one would be hard pressed to name half that number.

Farruco was always, always placed in this category.  Dancers, asked about other dancers, almost invariably began by putting him aside as a given, as something utterly unique.  (Someone once asked Miss Peggy Lee who she would consider the finest singer in her profession.  Her answer:  “Oh, you mean besides Ella?”  This graceful reply connoted the same stand-alone stature that Farruco had in flamenco dance.)

(Less gracefully, I’ve seen several cases where artists were asked to name their favorite dancers and stopped dead at Farruco.  Juan Habichuela, as one example, answered, “I saw Farruco dance.”  The interviewer pressed for other names.  Habichuela replied, “I saw Farruco dance.”  The interviewer said, “Yes, but…”  Habichuela responded, “I saw Farruco dance.”  The interviewer finally got the point.)

While I rarely abase myself for dancers, preferring to save my abject humiliation for singers and guitarists, I tried to see Farruco whenever possible.  In 1987, he was in New York for the remarkable Flamenco Puro production that I saw many times.  Before that, though, I had the privilege of seeing him often in Seville in the mid-sixties.  A fellow American was involved in the drug trade — he subsequently spent several years in a cold cell in the Pyrenees.  I’m hazy on the details, but this relatively novel product-testing opportunity seemed to attract some flamenco people including Farruco, who may then have been part of Los Bolecos at Cortijo El Guajiro.

The happy result for me was to see him dance often at what may have been maximum energy.  There was nothing like him in the world.  He had indeed mastered the art of stillness, and combined it with outbursts of such miraculous power and incomparable art that it became all the harder for me to watch other flamenco dancers.

Here’s the entry from the two-volume Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado del Flamenco, by José Blas Vega and Manuel Ríos Ruíz, Cinterco, Madrid, 1988, long out of print:

“El Farruco:  Artistic name of Antonio Montoya Flores.  Born 1936 in Pozuelo de Alarcón (Madrid).  Dancer.  Sobrino nieto (grand-nephew?) of [the seminal, legendary flamenco guitarist] Ramón Montoya, son of La Farruca and father of El Farruquito and Las Farrucas.  He debuted in the productions titled “Galas Juveniles” and “Los Chavalillos de Espana“, continuing in the company of Lola Flores and Manolo Caracol, with whom he toured all of Spain, alternating this with appearances in tablaos, among them El Guajiro in Seville.  In 1955, he joined the troupe of Pilar López, touring many countries with special success in the Palace in London, where there were 18 curtain calls from a wildly enthusiastic audience.

From there he went to the tablao Corral de la Morería in 1957, and then to El Duende in Madrid in 1961.  In 1962, he was invited to dance at the Córdoba Festival.  He joined the José Greco Dance Company in 1965, traveling to several continents, and later joined Matilde Coral and Rafael El Negro in Seville’s tablaos including La Cochera, and in Madrid’s Café de Chinitas and Los Canasteros in 1970 and ’71; he also became a principal attraction in the many local Festivales that were being initiated in Andalucía.

Following the death of his son Farruquito in a traffic accident [at age 18, in 1974], he retired until reappearing in 1978 with his daughters Las Farrucas in the Seville tablao La Trocha.  Among his most important later appearances stand out his participation in the III Bienal de Arte Flamenco of Seville in 1984, and “Flamenco Puro”, presented in New York in 1986 and ’87, together with El Guito, Fernanda de Utrera, Juan Habichuela, El Chocolate, Adela Chaqueta and Manuela Carrasco.  Lately, he has alternated his appearances with teaching his art.

Among the critical appraisals of his work we’ve selected the following:

José Luís Ortiz Nuevo writes:  “When Antonio El Farruco walks onstage, the personal dimension is revealed (el personal se le rinde) simply on seeing him, and all remain enraptured by the contemplation of this living marvel.  His life has been colored by tragedy, and his dance by genius.  His eyes are those of a restless child, and his body delineates the exact figure of the rhythms of flamenco.  And he still reveals the agility it takes for those sublime movements that create the sound of the bulerías.  And the sheer majesty that is displayed in his simply walking to take his place in preparing to dance.”

Manuel Ríos Ruíz:  “Farruco’s dance is based on the posture and the elasticity of movement without which flamenco style is disfigured.  His despantes and replantes are motivated and developed by a sense of the deep aesthetic understood through arrogance; and, beyond grace, he offers a racial plasticity in which movement is sparse but there is a surprising beauty that is electrifying.  Farruco is courage itself dancing.”

José Blas Vega:  “El Farruco remains an authentic figure of dance today; but to have seen him when he was in possession of all his faculties was to see interpretations so impregnated with power and genius that it was shocking to witness.”

End of entry.

In humble wonder,

Brook Zern


May 5, 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

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