Thursday, 19 February 2015

Opening Gala, Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival

I returned to the annual Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival this year. It's a secret interest of mine. Interest? Narcotic. It's an art form I get, immediately and irresistibly but which I find terribly difficult to understand.

Flamenco appears to incorporate a kind of play acting, a melodramatic expression of the difficulties, pain and joy of life and love in both dance and song. What's compelling is that this expression seems entirely authentic. It's not like watching a character in a role, or the objective remove of a singer presenting an art song. Rather it seems that each performer is offering their own understanding and experience. Added to the raw, belligerent nature of the singing and dancing this can be direct and addictive.

Of course, having a rotation of performers on a stage telling us how difficult or sweet life can be would be unbearably self-indulgent were it not done through a performance tradition that even to the ingenue has a clear style. Indeed the wonderful thing about flamenco is that part of the performers' expression comes from what appears to be challenging their own bodies to execute shapes, manoeuvres or (musical) melisma in the moment.

This is what, for me, immediately links the art of bull-fighting. My experience of a bull fight in a provincial Spanish town is that the pride of the torero in his own bravery is of great importance. His view is fixed on the bull, of course, but never rises to the audience to assess their appreciation or invite acclaim. The torero wears tight trousers, not simply to accentuate his sexuality but rather to show when his legs are locked - that as a bull approaches he has chosen to stand his ground. His body has become object, even to him in this moment.

So it is in the flamenco dance where the rigid shape stamped at the end of furious footwork filigree shows that this defiance is the principal statement of expression. It does not release but contains the attitude that what goes before embellishes.

At Tuesday night's show, it was no surprise then that two of the solo performers fell forward a little at the end of their routines. Having come right to the front of the stage for their final flourish, the potential energy of their work spilled out in front of them (not unlike the conclusion of a Maori haka, perhaps). It's this distinction between the energy and intent of the dancing and the individual performing it that I'm trying to get at. The dancing and singing is offered with personal modesty by the performer.

We saw what must be a fairly traditional flamenco showcase. In addition, we heard something new - a genuine melodrama, with an older male member of the troupe speaking a story over a guitar. An ensemble of women dancing in traditional trained skirts was a notable highlight. For me the set ended with its most compelling performer, Karime Amaya (pictured above) who, in her performance, captured everything I've tried to write about.

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