by Raewyn Whyte
Flamenco is one of the world’s most passionate and richly musical forms of performance, communicating the most profound emotions through an exhilarating blend of dance, singing and guitar.
The music and the dance are highly responsive to one another, sharing an improvisatory structure and talking to one another constantly. The songs are poetic and heartfelt, speaking of love and joy, death, despair and oppression, and accompanied by delicately nuanced guitar and percussion. The emphatic gestures and drumming heels of the dancer intensify the mood of the song, make the story richer, and draw the audience into the emotional vortex which they create together.
The women’s costumes are colourful and stylish, traditional floor-length dresses with spiralling ruffles, trains and underskirts, which flare out and are drawn up to reveal the legs, while the men wear close-fitting everyday clothing. On stage, the lighting helps you to see all the details of their dance and their faces, drawing you into their performance, catching you up in their emotions.
Flamenco is not the oldest form of Spanish dance – older still are regional folkloric dances and baile espanol, the Spanish classical dance which was first taught in the great Spanish dance school of the 18th century, the Escula Bolero. Just as in flamenco, in baile espanol there’s a lyrical partnership between dance and music, an emphasis on the fast and technically tricky footwork known as zapateado, an elegant stance, and the clear communication of feelings through stylish expressive dancing. But the feet are turned out, and there’s more emphasis on technical mastery and ensemble work, and the dances are choreographed rather than improvised around traditional rhythms.
When Rafael Aguilar established his company Ballet Teatro Espanol in Paris in 1960, his goal was to see Spanish dance acclaimed in theatres throughout the world, respected as one of the world’s great art forms. He wanted to present Spanish themes and tell dramatic stories through baile espanol, and to show some of the traditional folkloric dances that were no longer performed in Spain. Above all, he wanted flamenco to be recognised as an intensely lyrical and passionate art rather than the degraded form of entertainment it had become in the tourist cafes and nightclubs of Spain under Franco.
His own training was in both flamenco and classical ballet, and by 1960, he was ready to start choreographing dance works of his own. So he started his own company, with outstanding soloists and a strong corps of dancers trained in both flamenco and baile espanol, plus flamenco musicians.
Recognising that audiences new to flamenco might be unwilling at first to accept a full evening of flamenco performance, Aguilar devised a triple bill format similar to that being presented by his company in Auckland this week – a suite of regional folkloric dances in a wide range of moods, a dramatic baile espanol with Spanish themes, and finally a longer flamenco puro suite. He was one of the first choreographers to turn to Spanish literature and plays as the inspiration for narrative flamenco ballets, and one of the first to choreograph to music composed by contemporary Spanish composers.
Subsequently, he was the first choreographer to present an evening-length narrative flamenco ballet and when the National Ballet of Spain was founded in 1978, he was one of five master choreographers whose works were chosen to comprise the company’s repertoire and represent the major strands of Spanish choreography.
Throughout his 35 years as a choreographer and artistic director, Aguilar was a key player in of the development of flamenco dance theatre, a new form of presentation which heightened the natural drama of flamenco dance and broadened its appeal to international audiences. Acclaimed as a landmark of Spanish ballet, and as breathtaking choreography, his works provided the impetus for others to follow, and by touring his programmes around the world to considerable acclaim, he helped to create a demand which continues into the present. Throughout the company’s existence, many distinguished dancers have performed Aguilar’s repertoire- among them stars of the past and the present such as Lola Greco, El Grilo, Eva Yerbabuena, Joaquín Cortés and María Pagés. They have gone on to establish companies, create new choreographies and add their own innovations to the continually evolving styles of flamenco dance theatre.
Though Aguilar died in 1995, his company continues to preserve his legacy and present it to the world under the artistic direction of founding company member Carmen Salinas. Currently comprising 24 dancers and 6 musicians, the company has recently danced in Germany, Russia, Italy, Singapore, Australia, and now in New Zealand.
This week they present a triple bill in Auckland. Aires de Ida y Vuelta is a suite of dances influenced by Central and South American traditions brought back to Spain by returning workers, set to music by the Spanish composer Ginastera which explores similar influences in musical terms. Bolero is the dramatic centrepiece of the programme, baile espanol which pits a bare-chested male dancer against a platoon of soldiers and surrounds him with intently watching women. Set to Ravel’s famous music of the same name, and commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in 19876, this dance builds to an inexorable climax. And Suite Flamenca, an hour or so of the richest flamenco pura which accompanies the dancing with live flamenco music and includes a lively and joyful alegrias, sorrowing petenera, sensuous seguiriyas and a sizzling farruca.
The company’s outstanding soloists and fine corps de ballet have been selected for expressive artistry and disciplined technical virtuosity. Current principals Fernando Solano (Bolero) , Rosa Jiminez and Lydia Cabello and soloists Francisco Guerrero and Trinidad Artiguez (Suite Flamenca) have been acclaimed for their superb dancing, both in Spain and throughout the world. Singer Maria del Mar and guitarists Miguel Linares and Javier Romanos are a particularly powerful presence in the flamenco suite which closes the program.