Reinventing Spain’s ‘ageless art’ of flamenco

Published August 3, 2015
FLAMENCO dancers Marco Flores (right), Claudia Cruz and Jose Manuel Alvarez perform during the 10th Flamenco Festival in Madrid in June.—AFP
FLAMENCO dancers Marco Flores (right), Claudia Cruz and Jose Manuel Alvarez perform during the 10th Flamenco Festival in Madrid in June.—AFP

MADRID: Stamping her heels to the brisk strumming of a guitar, Merche Esmeralda, 68, twirls her black shawl in the sunshine as the Madrid traffic streams by a roundabout behind her.

At an age when most top ballet and contemporary dancers would long ago have hung up their pumps, this flamenco star still shines — and now a generation of new artists is rising to follow.

“This is a great time for flamenco. There is an impressive new generation, extremely technically accomplished in singing, guitar-playing and dancing,” said David Calzado, a specialist flamenco blogger who writes for ABC newspaper.

Esmeralda was the poster girl at June’s Flamenco Madrid festival, for which her open-air dance was a promotion.

Now two other major festivals are coming up, where the old guard will dance, strum and sing their tragic laments alongside the new blood that must drive forward this traditional art form.

From Aug 6 to 22, the small southeastern town of La Union hosts the Cante de las Minas International Festival — the most important date on the flamenco calendar, said Rafael Manjavacas, director of the specialist website deflamenco.com.

Then a new festival, Flamenco on Fire, will draw some of the biggest names away from their southern homeland to the northern city of Pamplona from Aug 22 to 30.

Adapting the dance

Born centuries ago among the poor gypsies of southern Andalusia, flamenco has been shaken lately by recession and by the death of its most revered figure of modern times: the guitarist Paco de Lucia.

“Everyone was sad about Paco de Lucia,” said Calzado. “Now we have to move on.” Spain was plunged into mourning when De Lucia died in February last year at 63. The new king Felipe VI bowed his head at De Lucia’s coffin.

“He was the international figurehead of flamenco. Now there is no figurehead that we know of,” said Manjavacas.

Nevertheless, “there are lots of good guitarists who are helping flamenco evolve greatly”, in the spirit of De Lucia himself, who shocked purists by flirting with jazz and rock.

“There is also a very good generation of dancers who are adapting to new ways” and fusing their art with contemporary styles they encounter on their travels, he said.

Flamenco’s coming home

Four years after the passing of another giant flamenco figure, the singer Enrique Morente, De Lucia’s death cast a shadow over a flamenco world already suffering from an economic crisis.

Among younger flamenco artists, “many, particularly dancers, live off what they earn outside Spain,” Calzado said. Rising stars will be bringing flamenco home in August, however.

Acts at Flamenco on Fire, a festival in just its second year, include Farruquito, a long-haired dancer of 33 hailed by critics for his entrancing, rapid foot-tapping turns, dressed all in black.

At Las Minas, critics point to dancer Sara Baras, 44, and singer David Lagos, 42. They are known to audiences as far as field as Japan and the United States.

Elsewhere, countless “tablaos” — dark, intimate flamenco bars — resound with rhythmic clapping and shouts of “Ole” throughout the summer in Madrid and across sweltering Andalusia.

“There has been a major comeback of tablaos” in the past three or four years, led by the legendary Corral de la Moreria in Madrid, said Calzado.

“Some artists, who were not dancing in tablaos before the crisis because there was no shortage of work elsewhere, have now come back to them.”

Age and wisdom

A big name in Pamplona and La Union will be the 34-year-old singer Estrella Morente — daughter of the late Enrique — who will share the stage with dancer Israel Galvan, 42.

They are relative youngsters in an art form in which even dancers mature late.

“They say flamenco is an ageless art,” said Manjavacas. “It is hard for them before the age of 30. But there are artists who continue triumphing on stage in their 70s.” Artists like Esmeralda, whose flamenco “duende”, or spirit, is still strong.

“In life you have to know your limits and I am older now,” she told El Pais newspaper last month.

“But all these years have given me wisdom. I can do other things now,” she said. “I still have lots of strength to get on stage.”

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2015

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