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Flamenco and Passion

Rafael Campallo (Photo: Takase)

May, 2003

Flamenco in the Temple of Dendur! At first hearing it sounded too wild to be missed, but, historically, it was most apropos.

In its simplest form the word Flamenco denotes a gypsy from Seville and their dances. Some say the term originally meant "Flemish" and was associated with foreigners. Others that it refers to noisy, ostentatious public behavior. No one really knows where the wandering people known as gypsies came from, but it is most probably India, and there are records of them in Persia, Egypt and Palestine before the Christian era. They did not allow themselves to be absorbed into these and other lands and maintained their own pure identity although they were (and still are) treated terribly.

Called "Gitanos" in Granada and "Flamencos" in Seville, they have lived in their own areas of these cities for centuries, producing an explosive and meaningful art form that is the result of both the different influences in Spain and on them as a unique ethnic group.

The area of Andalucia lies on the southern coast of Spain, part on the Mediterranean and part on the Atlantic. Over time different invaders and visitors have left their mark. The Phoenicians arrived in 1600 BC. The Greeks came in 600 BC, bringing castanets, an arched back and spiral movements to Cadiz, where dancers were adored. The Romans arrived in 215 BC and the Arabs from North Africa invaded at the end of the 7th century, bringing dancing girls with them. The Moors established the Caliphate of Cordova in 912, where the dance, gay and sensual, was part of nightly entertainment. In the 11th century the Syrians and Persians came and the Yemenites in Seville had a highly developed culture. In the 13th century the court at Granada represented the height of Moorish culture, with an emphasis on the arts. Dance was so popular that a royal proclamation was sent out encouraging it. This spread to the Christian courts as well. With the fall of Granada and the unification of Spain in 1492 different regional dances began to spread.

If you accept that Flamenco has its roots in the Orient, then you realize it is not a pastime or entertainment, but a ritual ceremony, a mood that is traditionally performed and evoked for a small group.

Flamenco is rooted in strict, formal traditions and those who practice it are referred to as "artists." They are capable of depicting deep joy and sorrow and try to put body and soul in harmony. There are three basic components to this art form: song, dance and guitar. Of these the song, or cante, is the center. There are neither refrains nor a constant rhythm. The singer tries to express a collective feeling and often writes his or her own lyrics. The aim is to share the union of singer and song with the audience. The guitar appeared only in the 19th century.

The Flamenco dancer is always conscious of a fixed rhythm, on top of which counter rhythms, variations and new steps are added. There is always improvisation, which takes place within the traditional form or dance according to mood. The concept of duende (demon) is a constant presence in this dance. It refers to the passion that comes from the innermost being as well as the ability of the artist to impart this emotion to others. The male dancer usually puts more emphasis on the footwork and the female on the upper body and hand movements. Flamenco has absorbed much of Andalucian music and movement; hence there are many non-gypsies who love and perform it.

There were six members of the cuadro (group) that performed at the Met – two dancers, two singers and two guitarists. Such a group accompanies each other with palmas (hand claps), pitos (finger snapping) and the foot stamping called zapatedo. All have some knowledge of the others’ special talents and they work within a finely honed framework that requires great sensitivity and responsiveness. All the dances seen belong to the rhythm forms of Flamenco, although the Flamenco dancer can also start with a folk or traditional Spanish dance and embroider upon it. The heel work is exclusively gypsy.

The evening opened with a song related to the rhythms of the anvil in the iron-making workshops of the gypsies. This soulful lament was followed by a Farruca, danced by Rafael Campallo. Emerging in a gray velvet suit and red shirt, he eventually shed his jacket as he concentrated more and more on the intricate steps. This is the first dance taught to a child because it contains the technique of all Flamenco dances. With his quiet upper body and arms held close, this slim young man seemed to become possessed, encouraged by shouts from the audience and the other performers. His second solo, later in the program, a Solea Por Bulerias, was gay and fast, filled with subtle pantomime and teasing. His movements were controlled and sinuous, his focus unwavering, as he became the bullfighter in one section and his feet practically tore up the floor.

Choni Perez, the female dancer, was first seen in an Alegrias, one of the oldest of gypsy dances. Her bata de cola, a full-length dress fitted to mid thigh and then billowing out in ruffles and flounces, had polka dots and a long trail which she flipped and manipulated, also evoking a bullfighter. She was refined and dignified, but as her speed increased, so did her wildness and passion.

The program concluded with a Bulerias. This gay, fast dance has been referred to as "the jam session of Flamenco." Perez and Campallo engaged in a frenetic, spirited interplay of rhythms that absorbed all of their concentration, as well as that of the singers and musicians. They took the audience through rhythmic moods of near stillness, excitement, sensuality, frivolity and sadness, ending with a burst of footwork that reached into the guts of the audience.

This was a wonderful evening, produced by the Christina Heeren Flamenco Foundation, which has a school in Granada that teaches traditional song, dance and guitar. The only drawback was that you could not see the feet very well if you were not seated up front. Hopefully, when this group returns to the Met it will be on the auditorium stage where the sight lines for a large audience are superior.

We are fighting a war as this is being written — in almost the same area of the world where the coming together of so many cultural strands produced this beautiful, vital, creative art form. Maybe what is needed are mass dance classes that provide a way to project feelings without guns.

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