Hybridity or Heresy? Deconstructing Flamenco

I have always wanted to deconstruct flamenco but never had the right opportunity to, in the right way and with respect to the culture. Reflections whilst preparing for the creation of ‘FORGE’ lead me to write Hybridity or Heresy? for Critical Dialogues Edition #6 in April 2016.

Hybridity or Heresy? By Annalouise Paul

What are you prepared to risk?

You know, the flier says“Flamenco like you’ve never seen it before”.

So what is the risk here? We could get a really bad review.It could be bad for your reputation in flamenco. Do you really want to risk that?

Do you really want to break flamenco apart and challenge it?

What if they hate it and we get booed off?

BEFORE JEREZ  

January 2016.                   I’ve begun working on a dance-music duet FORGE in a new collaboration with a Western Classical pianist and composer. FORGE is about reckoning with oneself in the evolution of self-determination. In our first week of rehearsals, such conversations normally inspiring, became pivotal to the project’s development. We are part of the flamenco family, the flamenco Diaspora and so any commentary on our own work will be perceived as a challenge to flamenco. Regardless of what is being ‘broken down’ my work will always in some way be viewed as an ‘import’ into the flamenco milieu.

Flamenco is (already) pure fusion: a melding of Arabic, Sephardi and Gypsy (Indian) cultures plus Cuban, South American and Christian Byzantine influences. In 2013 UNESCO declared Flamenco an ‘art form’. Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975 and flamenco moved from exaggerated, often-touristy style of tablao (club) performances to highly sophisticated concert form on the world stage. Today, its development incorporates European contemporary dance, multimedia and Brechtian aesthetics that are anti-stereotypic. Some of the leaders in this are Israel Galvan, Rocio Molina, Eva Yerbabuena and Juan Carlos Lerida.

The space between my ‘bilingual’ practice is a place I love to live in, a sweet spot that somehow feels real. Tension between flamenco and contemporary is high. There is an almost gravitational pull toward one or the other. The simple act of wearing shoes or dancing bare foot defines posturing and coded meaning. Torso torque with overtly bent arms goes into battle with straightened lines, released spine and suspension. Dropping to the floor becomes a curation rather than a place to naturally move in and out of. Revealing awkward leg line can only happen if the dress is lifted well above the knees – ungracious in flamenco–but leaving it down potentially looks like a reworking of Grahams’ Appalachian Spring.

I’ve decided to return to Spain for 20th Festival de Jerez in February. Eva Yerbabuena opens the festival, Rocio Molina presents Bosque Ardora and Juan Carlos Lerida has directed segments for Marco Flores, a rising contemporary-flamenco star. I intend to research more on Sephardi history and I’ve contacted Lerida to help me with dramaturgy and consultation, just to make sure I am not committing some sort of heresy before we premiere in May. The pianist has decided to come along, she explains, I have a lot at stake in this too. There’s a risk to my reputation as a composer moving outside the boundaries and expectations.

Akram Khan and Israel Galvan performed their incredible Kathak vs. flamenco machismo dance-off spectacle Torobaka at Da:ns Festival in Singapore last October. In a post-show talk, someone asked Akram if he defined his work as intercultural, ‘I don’t like to use terminology’ he preferred ‘breaking down labels’. ‘What is classical is made by others’ rules, but what is contemporary is your own rules’.

I agree with Akram about terminology; intercultural, cross-cultural, transcultural, fusions, multicultural are terms that diminish the art before it’s even made – and after. But I am not convinced that labels aren’t important at all. The marketing tag for FORGE “Flamenco like you’ve never seen it before” won’t change what I make nor under whose rules it will be made (mine) but if audiences have the wrong lens to start with, they may expect to see some sort of flamenco derivative that will disappoint all expectations. Will we be booed off?

AFTER JEREZ

March 2016            Flamenco in the motherland has shifted way beyond my expectations. Main stage artists were exemplary in their vision to realise new ideas, to push and pull flamenco in every possible direction. Some of it worked, some didn’t but every night there was a standing ovation. The traditional is still there in the smaller venues, and equally excellent, it is just clear now there is a market for both; the tradition and the contemporary of Flamenco. I found the Sephardi Museum in Seville, an affirmation that my Sephardi (Spanish Jewry) ancestry holds a real place in Spain’s history books. Sephardi cante jondo or deep song is one of the root elements of flamenco and one of the most profound. Flamenco has led me to know my cultural heritage through ongoing choreographic research of the art form. But the real test was Juan Carlos Lerida. What would he say about the concepts, themes, my hybrid vocabulary, processes, technique? Would my deeper analysis of the various shows and artists as non-Spaniard hold validity in his eyes?

In two short sessions he encouraged every idea, critiqued where necessary and saw more flamenco in my contemporary than I did. Break the compas, use what you have as a tool, flamenco is like religion sometimes, it is fixed but shouldn’t be. Just make sure it’s real.

‘Dance DNA’ is a term I’ve coined to explore where the cultural movement might begin in the body, where that essential feeling or ‘sweet spot’ is located, how it is triggered and how known pathways can be pushed into new territories without losing that authenticity. For me, this begins in the elbows and moves to the hands and finger circling. It feels ancestral and real. It’s the place I start from grounded in a deep breathing and a silent rhythm playing inside. I showed him my Dance DNA processes. Thumbs up.

 It’s April, FORGE premieres in a month. Juan sent an email last night he is in USA to remount his show, RITMO. He said there isn’t much support for ‘contemporary-flamenco’ in Spain. The new label. The pianist resigned last week. Performance anxiety or perhaps the risk is just too great. So I’ll go it alone now. Adelante. Forge.

Juan Carlos Lerida