Stories of Subversion and Containment in Flamenco: The critical reception and misrepresentation of Marco Flores’ Laberíntica
Flamenco is not pretty bodies in space performing fancy footwork. It is a state of mind, an existentially embodied state. It both constructs and maintains a dimension overlapping, at times adjacent to, but also distinctive from the dominant aesthetic paradigm through which we in the West organise and distribute the sensible knowings of our experiences with art. Flamenco does not have an intention of subverting this paradigm per se; it actually feeds on it to a certain degree. But it also has an uncanny ability to coexist, both separate and complicit, through the constitution of cell-ular spaces. Here I mean cell in the sense of a succinctly delineated as separate site within a landscape, and cellular in the physiological sense, as in the (re)production of an embodied state.
Felix Guatarri writes the following about art in archaic societies which clarifies further what I am getting at:
“It was only quite late in Western history that art detached itself as a specific activity concerned with a particularized axiological reference…[in the archaic society] an individual’s psychism wasn’t organized into interiorized faculties but was connected to a range of expressive and practical registers in direct contact with social life and the outside world…[leaving little place for] the disengagement of an aesthetic sphere distinct from other spheres (economic, social, religious or political).” (Guattari, pp. 88-89, 1992)
I cite this not as a means of giving privilege to flamenco as a folk art as opposed to dance for the stage, nor as a means of narrowly defining flamenco as the provenance of the gitano community alone. I would however highlight here both these threads as these are evidenced in the flamenco dancing body, in the interests of mapping some of that same body’s complexity. For that body succeeds in inhabiting both of the aesthetic paradigms outlined by Guatarri here. Flamenco is never just one thing: the flamenco dancing body retains sedimentary layers as an archaic folk culture, which continues to survive, as well as layers of embodied expression spun into being through the period of the cafés cantantes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the influences of the travels of flamenco artists during that same period and up to the present. And further layers are being spun as we speak.
This transversal of various aesthetic paradigms on the part of flamenco, on the one hand, imposes difficult requirements on the artist, but on the other represents and evidences a particular capacity for adaptation, as with an uncanny adeptness flamenco can and does take root, unfold and sometimes thrive as a “detached” art object for consumption, also as capital – cultural, economic, and human – within and along established lines of distribution and without disrupting these. What happens to the Flamenco dancing body as it is subsisting along such lines of distribution is not a given, i.e. it is not a given that such distribution is equivalent to its inevitable perversion or demise.
This implies that Flamenco also constitutes an aesthetic paradigm in its own right. In this context there is a thread from a previous entry that I would like to pick up here and that is the point I made in connection with our perception/reading of traditional dance forms: that flamenco’s embodiment offers a strategy for the transmission and storage of local memory, yes, but also for its present and ongoing enactment, which by necessity, will also be adapted as new stories are acquired and integrated. In the case of Marco Flores’ Laberintico, this enactment entailed a reconfiguration of the representation of male gender identity as found in flamenco dance. In so doing, as I will seek to demonstrate, this piece is nothing less than groundbreaking. It is an example of the flamenco dancing body’s capacity to adapt and mutate within these various paradigms, drawing from its particularly performative register, specifically in keeping with shifting norms for embodiment and gender identity, while at the same time preserving the flamenco dancing body as unified subject.
In short, for me, and I emphasise for me, for reasons I will return to below, Marco Flores’ Laberíntica illustrates what has been inherent to the flamenco dancing body ever since its inception: an intrinsic capacity for survival through a uniquely organic resilience. At the same time, this piece brings to the surface, transgresses and subverts some very concrete limits within flamenco’s own aesthetic paradigm, specifically with respect to the representation of gender and economies of desire.
I left the theatre in tears (yeah, I know, if you’ve been following me, it probably seems like I always cry, but in fact it is the case that I only write about the productions that do make me cry, and I am still crying now and then, for reasons that will be made evident below), speechless, but also, overjoyed. At one level, it was simply the sheer pleasure of being treated to an evening of beautifully compelling male dancers in interaction, as they navigated the production’s “labyrinth” of despair, confusion, and redemption − there was both fluidity and elegance, along with a friction, a rawness in the quality of movement, in the embodied enactment of stories emerging through layer upon layer of signification: part cellular memory, part the overlapping and coalescing of the many historical and cultural influences the flamenco dancing body comprises, part the passage of personal stories through these layers in the body of the individual dancer.
Maintaining this texture always, the expression here also stretches, is stretched. The dancers are all men. One of the guitarists is, surprise, a woman, and in 10 years of affiliation with flamenco she is only the second female guitarist I have ever seen on stage. All of the singers, women. There is something about the way the men are connected as they dance as an ensemble that breaks with what Levi Strauss has termed “the right distance between men”, here as this distance and its configuration is traditionally established in flamenco. I glean this already in the opening sequence, it dawns on me that they are relating to one another as erotic subjects. At first this is just a sensation, but it later acquires concrete expression, as male dancers reach out – and touch one another. Caress one anothers’ faces, shoulders. Dance together in pairs, exchange meaningful glances, exchange panuelos. Flores has succeeded in taking sexual politics out of flamenco’s closet. In so doing, every single segment of this breathtaking work acquired for me a heartbreaking resonance that continued to reverberate exponentially as the performance progressed. Because with each and every touch, caress, glance, the structures of flamenco’s aesthetic paradigm for gendered, embodied identity are being first made visible, plied, tested and transgressed. The traditional male flamenco dancing body is thus both produced, and reconfigured, through the introduction of another economy of desire.
Let’s be clear: flamenco is traditionally a solo dance. As such, relationships between dancers do not always enter into the equation. In the use of ensemble work in the staging of flamenco for the theatre, however, this possibility is on the other hand in practice. And that ensemble work employs (does not question) “conventional” roles for male and female dancers and their sexual orientation, whereby the traditional familial structure is upheld (not questioned). The economy of desire in traditional flamenco is heteropolar: it constitutes and upholds a perception of love, erotic desire and gender identity as exclusively heterosexual. Men love women, and women love men. Period. Gender “difference”, i.e. same-sex love does not have a place in this scenario. So while a male solo flamenco dancer may (and in fact often does) embody feminine qualities that are not conventionally associated with the masculine body, without being perceived as “being” homosexual, in ensemble work this does not immediately spill over into the subversion or reconfiguration of the conventionally prescribed heterosexual gender roles for men and women. Flamenco succeeds in containing this “feminised” male identity within traditional structures.
Personally I am not a big fan of the use of epic structures in flamenco. A thematic focus, a concrete setting, fine. But my feeling is that the expression of the flamenco dancing body, its enactment if you will, is more spatial than linear, more poetry than prose. The corporal expression is syncretic, or in semiotic terms, index as well as symbol. In embibing all of these dimensions, it tells stories in a manner that thwarts linear logic. When an artist seeks then to put flamenco dance into a linear structure, giving that aforementioned enactment a “plot”, this often has the effect of if not detracting from, at the very least flattening out, what was at the outset a complex spatial expression, one which is meaningful in its own right, not least with respect to how the body itself knows and how it best shares that knowledge.
What Flores has done here, however, is not create a “plot” with a beginning, middle and end; I mention this because in a number of the reviews I read it seemed that the critics were seeking and failing to find just this, and complaining about the lack of “sense”. What he has done here is create a spatial configuration (a labyrinth) through the movement itself and the staging, specifically through the particular positioning of the dancers on stage, which created interacting constellations and substructures within the overall structure of the piece. To clarify, as an example, he could have chosen to put a physical “labyrinth” on the stage which the dancer(s) then struggled with accordingly. The labyrinth as enacted here is thus not external to the dancers themselves, but in fact first produced by them, as incorporated in their own bodies and simultaneously sought subverted, vanquished, or transformed.
In so doing, he has in fact staged the flamenco dancing body also as an aesthetic paradigm, complete with relations of power and identity construction. He has not deviated from the spatial, poetic structure of embodied knowledge that is flamenco, not in the dance of the individual dancer nor in the staging as such. He has created a choreography that is organic and lived by the dancer, and faithful to flamenco’s own inherent structures of knowing: The labyrinth then becomes this very aesthetic paradigm that is flamenco, and the challenges involved in establishing, incorporating spaces therein for sexual difference. That same paradigm then proves to be exceedingly resistant to innovation or transgression with respect to its definitions of gender identity
To put some of these observations into perspective, also as a means of illustrating further how groundbreaking this work was, how courageous Flores is in presenting it in the current context of flamenco in Spain in the real world today: something very interesting took place in the reviews that were written about this dance work. Or more accurately, didn’t take place. Neither the critic covering the festival for Diario de Jerez nor the critic for the website http://www.flamencoworld.com – the two main publications covering this annual event, and who wrote about this production – nor el Mundo, nor any of the other reviews I have managed to find online about this piece written after its premiere at the Biennal in Sevilla in 2013 – none of them mentioned, or even hinted at, anywhere, at any time, themes such as gender identity or sexual politics, economies of desire, (ok, be prepared I’m going to say it) or homoeroticism.
Just absorb that for a few seconds.
The critic from Diario de Jerez made vague reference to “human relationships” (ahem, cough, cough, requisite shuffling of feet, eyes looking down aside away, shit there it is, where do I look, help, I can’t escape, o god they’re…touching each other. Get me out of here, but then, Oh, right, human, universality of experience, we are the world, blablabla. Phew. Sigh of relief.)
It was silenced. Simply and effectively. However much I try to convince myself: 1. I am making it up. I am a perverted soul and I manufactured the entire scenario, none of it actually happened.
2. That I am being reactionary, that the reviewers neglected to mention it because homosexuality has become so normalized in our society now that it does not bear mention, that it was more important to speak about…hmmm, sorry what was it again, that was more important than the theme? wait, wait a minute, I’ll figure it out, but, no…
Sorry, it doesn’t wash (my perverted soul notwithstanding). The critic from Diario de Jerez went on and on about how bored he was, how repetitious the choreography was, and thank god that Flores danced a bulerias in the end so normalcy was restored (which was also the clip flamencoworld.com chose to show on its site, in connection with its review, which was fine, because the bulerias too was amazing, except let’s be clear: a choice was also made there to use a clip of a more traditional segment, rather than one which in fact would be more representative of the piece as a whole). The question is thereby tediously begged: could it possibly be the case that the critic was offended in his own personal labyrinth and so profoundly so that he simply shut down? That would be the best case scenario. The worst case scenario: a conscious choice was made, is being made to censure this material. In either case, the consequences of this are many, most obviously a failure to understand the work as a whole, because you are editing out significant portions of the material, and the result has been the complete distortion and misrepresentation of that work in its critical evaluation.
Whether or not I agree that this is “appropriate” subject matter for a flamenco dance production (yeah, even as I write that sentence I can hear how stupid it is), the subject matter was there. On stage, as a friend of mine said for everyone to see, but nobody saw it. Shouldn’t the critic at least have given it a mention? It is actually his job to mention it. It is his job to assess whether the work in question fulfills its promise, its artistic intention and in doing that he or she is of necessity obligated to consider all of its elements. And if he takes issue with homoerotic contents in flamenco, he should at least have the cajones to say so and take a stand. Otherwise it’s just cowardice, and a profound lack of respect for the artists. It’s the re-enactment of that same old story: there’s an elephant in the room, maybe if we just don’t talk about it, it will go away or better, we can just pretend it was never there in the first place. And if we all agree, if we all write about it as if it was never there, presto, it disappears. We don’t have to deal with it! We can continue on in our own post-reactionary stupefied state, cultivating a time when men were real men and nothing more.
Sorry, but when was that, exactly?
All the usual metaphors apply.
This leads us to performativity and straight back to the resilience of – no, not the unified subject, but in fact a faction within flamenco as an institution who have decided that certain elements have no place in flamenco, under the guise of being flamenco’s advocates and protectors. Laugh if you will, poopoo them, call them dinsosaurs, a dying breed, but if you are serious about the arts, and understand its connectedness to society and rules of power, (and frankly if you don’t, haven’t, won’t, I can’t really understand what you’re doing in the arts in the first place) you can’t read this as being about anything less than, anything other than the control of subjectivity, which translates into control over the flamenco dancing body. And that is a crime that many afficiondados are breathlessly enthusiastic about attributing to the dubious powers held responsible for upholding our current aesthetic paradigm, which is ruled to a large extent by consumption (take your pick, global capitalism, neoliberalism, art institutions, the industry of psychology and discourses of self-realisation…). And it is of interest – no, in fact, important – to point out this very telling critical gesture, hold it up and shake it until somebody takes notice, despite the risk that may run of attributing more importance to it than it merits.
Because it is censorship. Nothing less. And this is in fact how history gets written, this is how consciousness is formed, and becomes mutually formative, to the extent that the person who produces a performative gesture is not the same person writing about it, which generally tends to be the case. It applies to oral cultures in general, and again, there can be said to be a parallel here between how oral and/or archaic cultures have been documented and the documentation of dance. Where you there? Were the other witnesses? Has there been a crime? Does anybody know how to write ?
Perspectives from social choreography offer some glimpse of the irony here, and here I return to my opening remarks, because it is precisely through flamenco’s retention of its identity also as an archaic art form that it possesses the capacity to affect rehearsals and reconfigurations of embodied identity, rather than solely their representation in the manner of a romantic and transcendent art object. And it is this particular dimension that the old guard is purportedly very concerned about preserving. That very ability flamenco has to function performatively, as social choreography if you will, conceived from and in relation to the real world.
With this in mind, it is however a given, that as social mores (and the concomitant laws) prescribing the limits and acceptability with regard to difference and the same: our perceptions of what’s “normal” and thereby allowed in relation to gender identity – as these norms evolve and coalesce, a body will – must − be evidenced (rehearsed and refined) within flamenco art in keeping with this, constituting and then confirming that embodied identity in relation to a community and society. By stopping this, censuring it, you are then also performing nothing less than an amputation of the very organ you have defined as integral for flamenco’s survival in the first place, even as its most important signifying feature.
Calado, Sylvia. “The Search.” http://www.flamenco-world.com/magazine/about/jerez2014/resenas/marco02032014ing.html (Accessed 05 March 2014)
Guattari, Felix. 1995. Chaosmosis. An ethico-aesthetic paragigm. English translation by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Pereira, Fran. 2014. “Perdido en su proprio laberinto” in Diario de Jerez, Monday 03 March.