Flamenco Dance

María Pagés is a sinuous dancer of traditional flamenco; but tradition takes a back seat in her full-length "Songs Before a War."

May 8, 2005
Flamenco’s Strange New Moves


SINCE 1994, the Jerez Flamenco Festival has drawn flamenco lovers, many of them American, to this small, pretty town in the heart of Andalusia. For 15 days, they see exhibits, master classes and performances by both new and established dancers and musicians. On a cold and rainy late winter night, a crowd of shivering festival patrons hurried into the Teatro Villamarta for a premiere from María Pagés, a leading light of the flamenco revolution that has turned this traditional dance form into a hot show-biz commodity.

The Pagés Company’s "Songs Before a War" ("Canciones, Antes de una Guerra") showed clearly that commercial success is not necessarily a good thing. Ms. Pagés, who won a wide following in the flamenco segment of "Riverdance," was trying to use this soulful, ancient dance to convey an antiwar message. Supplanting the usual keening vocals and thrumming guitars with popular music associated with war, she kicked up her heels to Louis Armstrong’s "When the Saints Go Marching In" and to African songs sung by Tsidii Le Loka. In the final moments, a curtain painted with a map of the world unfurled behind the performers as John Lennon’s "Imagine" played over the sound system.

Ms. Pagés, who will take "Canciones" to the International Festival of Music and Dance in Granada in June, is sinuous and eloquent when dancing traditional flamenco, and she knows how to move dancers around the stage. But this show, with its corny, incongruous elements, proved simply labored.

And it is not alone. The so-called "new" flamenco that has been developing over the last decade is mired in a crisis born of its success. As audiences have gotten bigger, a kind of artistic inflation has set in, with shows becoming more ambitious and more pretentious. At this festival, which often serves as a preview of the flamenco that will be seen in the United States the following year, major stars like Eva Yerbabuena, Antonio Canales and Ms. Pagés all seemed unable to deliver mature, complex work. Only the relatively unknown Rafaela Carrasco managed a piece worth exporting.

The festival’s director, Francisco Lopez, is aware of the problem. "What we see now is dancers trying to make the transition from an entertainment designed for a party or cafe to producing modern shows for large audiences," he said. "It’s going to take time. Flamenco is really in its adolescence."

Miguel Marin, who packages the annual tour Flamenco Festival U.S.A., and who comes to Jerez every year looking for dancers and musicians to take to the United States, has seen first-hand the phenomenal growth of the flamenco audience both in Spain and abroad. In 2001, his festival’s first year, he scheduled 11 shows in 3 cities. Last year there were 50 shows in 11 cities. "In New York the first year," he said, "3,639 people attended three concerts. Last year, 13,595 attended eight concerts, and many concerts sold out."

Given the rousing response of audiences both at home and abroad to their less traditional efforts, Spain’s flamenco artists may not see any reason to change or grow. While foreigners continue to enjoy old-fashioned, highly theatrical flamenco performances, like those regularly presented by Noche Flamenca in New York (which is playing this month at Theater 80 in the East Village), the Spanish have largely had their fill. They are far more interested in artists who incorporate contemporary music and movement and in works that tell stories. But for several reasons, intrinsic to flamenco and to Spain, few artists are up to the challenge.

Flamenco was born in ancient Gypsy settlements in southern Spain some 150 years ago, but the concept of a flamenco show is new. Since its beginnings, flamenco has largely been a soloist’s art, performed casually and spontaneously in homes and cafes. Over time, certain combinations of movement became connected with traditional songs, and dancers usually proved their artistry not by choreographing new steps but by imbuing the old with a display of spirit and virtuosity – rather like ballet dancers in "Swan Lake" and "Giselle."

Since flamenco artists have a rich source of traditional dance forms to use as reference for their solos, they have not pursued choreographic training. And few flamenco songs tell stories. They consist of four or five brief lines that evoke emotions. So learning how to embody a character or dramatize a narrative is not part of a flamenco dancer’s preparation.

When asked about their training, the dancers usually point out that they have studied with the greats from their hometowns in Andalusia and spent a few years with a noted flamenco company. Now, because of expanding opportunities, dancers start troupes long before they are seasoned artists. They rarely understand what choreography entails, Mr. Lopez said.

"If a flamenco dancer is called in to choreograph for the National Ballet of Spain," he added, "he or she teaches the whole company one of his or her signature routines. Then the whole company copies it, and they’ll do it all together. That’s what they call choreographing."

Another difficulty for flamenco artists trying to extend the form is the relative poverty of contemporary Spanish dance. Artistically isolated from the rest of the world during the Franco regime, Spain missed many developments in dance between 1939 and 1975. There are Spanish choreographers whose work has made it to the international stage, like Nacho Duato and Ramon Oller. But Spain’s modern dance culture, far less developed than those of other European countries, has given flamenco artists few models to emulate. Trying to expand the lexicon, they borrow ballet pirouettes or Graham contractions. Ms. Pagés even added a Hollywood soft shoe to one piece. But they have difficulty integrating these moves with flamenco style.

In some ways, flamenco today resembles American modern dance before Martha Graham: Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and the other soloists who preceded her probably did not worry much about the paucity of group works. It took Graham’s expansive choreographic vision to establish modern dance as a significant alternative to ballet. Flamenco will remain an uneven patchwork of inspired solo dancing and embarrassing new choreography until it is transformed by a similar maverick.

The festival here did offer hope. Rafaela Carrasco, who presented "A Glance at Flamenco" ("Una Mirada del Flamenco"), appears on her way to creating truly original and modern flamenco, without gimmicks or pedantry. Her beautiful show was filled with atmospheric images evoking sensations and dreams. The musical arrangements included solos for cello, tabla and piano that worked well with the traditional instruments. But above all, Ms. Carrasco choreographed with contrapuntal complexity, meshing traditional moves with her own idiosyncratic and fluid style.

"Flamenco has its limitations," Ms. Carrasco said. "There are a lot of emotions that need other types of movement. That’s why I’ve developed my own technique. I also make sure that my musical arrangements support my style. I learned a lot from the choreographer Mario Maya about theater. Still, we should have places to study choreography.

"It is very exciting being a flamenco choreographer in Spain today. It is also very lonely."

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