When one goes to see a flamenco dance performance, one arrives with some very specific expectations. The flamenco dancing subject is a unified subject. Its embodied identity is given. To the extent that innovation exists in flamenco, it does not question or challenge the givenness of this unified subject, much less the terms of its embodiment. Where innovation does take place, it is as a rule in the staging, the introduction of theatrical elements or methods, the addition of something traditionally not included in a flamenco performance – another kind of dance, for instance, the intention of which however is not explicitly to subvert or dismantle the flamenco dancing subject’s identity. It may ruffle the feathers of the latter, or highlight, cast into relief certain dimensions, but the flamenco dancing body as a unified subject remains intact.
And yes, although I will not address it in depth at this point, I do include Israel Galvan in this claim. For me, his work is in fact evidence of the brutal tenacity of that unified subject.
Olga Pericet’s production Pisadas of 27 February, is a good example here. In one provocative segment, La fiera en el monte, Juan Carlos Lérida performed an entire garrotin – and brilliantly so − wearing a huge pair of deer antlers around his neck. The intention, as I absorbed it, was a highlighting of the beastlike or animal aspects of embodiment, as these are hunted down and captured, even entangled and imprisoned in dance. But in spite of the fact that Lérida must have toiled and suffered mightily as he danced wearing this unwieldly rack, the flamenco dancing subject remained undisturbed. This in itself was a pretty amazing feat, and an opening emerged here, kinesthetic in nature, with respect to the animal in-or-of the (flamenco) dancing body, which was not however, pursued. When Pericet entered towards the end of this segment, the dance slid over into epic narration, lost its former focus and also moved subsequently out of flamenco (and this was without doubt the weakest part of the entire work). The concluding number, a brief theatrical segment: Pericet dons an Elizabethan costume made of paper maché, which she then proceeds to reshape and discard. Beautiful surely, in her body’s sculpture-like aesthetic, tactile. This short epilogue, a commentary on the feminine body and the classic constraints, however well executed, came across as tacked on. An after-thought where the connection to the work as a whole − not least the bulerias which immediately preceded it − for me remained obscure, and as such only served to undermine that which otherwise had been an exceedingly well thought-out and solid dramaturgy, by leading it into a bizarre oblivion.
To return to my main point, innovative elements notwithstanding, there is no overt questioning here of the terms of the flamenco dance’s embodiment. This stands in stark contrast to contemporary dance – or new dance or postmodern dance or whatever you may choose to call it – which has at the very least since Merce Cunningham questioned in practice the very conditions of embodiment itself, rejecting dance as the representation of emotions and instead seeking to create expressive movement. It dismantles the notion of a unified subject, abandoning the idea of the dancer as representing a kind of clearly defined and intact embodied subjectivity. It has instead sought to explore the terms for the constitution of that same subjectivity, through fragmentation, deconstruction, play at the level of soma, prioproception, kineasthetic transmission, etc. It asks what might embodiment otherwise be. As a spectator, one enters the theatre in a state of at least semi-ignorance, the only expectation being that one doesn’t know what is going to happen and allows oneself to be acted upon. Moved. Social choreography then, by extension, proposes dance/movement not as the reflection of society’s shifting parameters or its aesthetic representation, but as one of the means by which such shifts are worked through and effected. This in turn offers a particular perspective on dance as a means of political resistance through embodiment.
What does this make flamenco? A somewhat quaint folkloric practice, increasingly out of step with the ever accelerating locomotive fueling lived bodies and embodied identity? If we ask the question Gilles Deleuze asked, “What can a body do?” this is perhaps more productive than comparing flamenco to contemporary dance. What is proper to the flamenco dancing body, what does it do, what are the terms of that embodiment, and what does it bring to the fore – does it bring anything to the fore − that breaks with current expectations for the body? What is the purpose of that unified subject, what is its job, if you will? Is it solely preservation qua representation of social scenes weighed down by the nostalgia for an Orientalist myth? The exotic gitano on the eternal and unchanging patio, where the Western subject under bombardment may seek refuge from the constant onslaught of our media infused society? Is that unified subject solely able to dish up the dancing body as neatly contained spectacle?
A common misconception about traditional dance forms is that they are unchanging, frozen in time, but this is to completely miss the point, this is to address a dance form such as flamenco, from the skewed lens of contemporary dance, which as I believe I have managed to illustrate, is following wholly different trajectory. 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. It has also been my contention that while traditional flamenco is intent on preserving a very specific form of embodied subjectivity, the latter runs counter to the body valued in the current era, what I have called the centric body. It runs counter to the extent that it is not hell-bent on perfection – neither in the sense of virtuosity, nor in the sense of a perfect body. Physical perfection as we define and value it today in Western society is not of interest to flamenco. It does not help it get where it needs to go. It does not assist the flamenco dancing body in producing the state that goes by the name of duende, that particular break in kinesthetic perception opening a sudden plateau of awareness that gives us no choice but to rethink what bodies can do, that challenges our definitions of temporality, memory, the boundary between life and deat: in short, what it means to be embodied in the first place. The flamenco dancing body is cultivating and transmitting, ok, here it comes: a particular way of being in the world. Una manera de ser. Producing this – as a state or identity – calls for technique in its own right, the transmission of which in flamenco has been to a large extent through an oral culture, which is also, by the by, how dancers anyway tend to pass on knowledge: from one body to the next. But the unarticulated nature of this particular technique makes it easy to overlook. Or underestimate. Or mystify.
And in light of this, oddly enough, many of the self-proclaimed innovative practices found in flamenco are in fact the most conformist, in the avid incorporation of this centric body. Transitions are taking place in the flamenco dancing body, some subtly, others not so much, such as the extreme sport nature of some younger artists, the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia as staged at last year’s festival comes to mind here. More interesting is the emergence of a particular plasticity of movement, which derives from the fact that many flamenco dancers are now also learning contemporary dance technique as part of their training. This produces a movement quality, an elasticity of gesture that has not been a characteristic of flamenco previously. And it introduces an entirely new dimension into the expression. Marco Flores is a good example in this case, particularly because I see in him an embodied interaction, a negotiation even, between this more “contemporary” plasticity on the one hand, and the traditional flamenco dancing body – as the latter also remains securely in place.
But again, the body-subject, the terms of flamenco dance’s embodiment are not being questioned in either of these cases. The intention, in both of the above examples, is in fact how to make the flamenco dancing body better. Stronger, faster, fitter, even more resilient. Apart from the risk this runs of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of polishing that same body right out of existence, I don’t believe this to be an explicit intention. And neither does it question the significance of that subject – to the contrary, it could be said in fact to be hell bent on ensuring its survival.
Some of these perspectives found expression in En la Memoria del Cante: 1922 by Rafaela Carrasco and the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia. First and most evidently in large portions of the ensemble work, which was structured in a manner both creating and then subverting synchronicity. The unified subject is first established and then subtly challenged, as the ensemble splits, and divides, dancers moving in unison break away one by one to dance apart from the still dancing-in-unison ensemble, only to subsequently be drawn back into the fold. It is frustrating to watch, exhausting even at times. But never does the dance, the dancer slip out of the bounds of this defined persona. This perception is further upheld by the otherwise traditional nature of the piece, both in terms of the canté and the choreography. The effect of the ensemble work is then of producing a wrinkle, a frisson, which is ultimately recuperated within that larger landscape. The flamenco dancing body as a unified subject seeks to stray from its limits, but is ultimately upheld.
Carrasco herself came out to dance a cantiñas in the final segment, which in keeping with the ambience of the work as a whole, drew from the postures and movement repertoire of early in the 20th century. And here is an example, no, a mind-shattering demonstration, of the difference between physical technical proficiency in flamenco and artistry. In the course of the opening bars of the cantiñas Carrasco is transformed before our eyes, like a mutating organism in a viscerally discernible transition, through which she becomes something – someone − other than herself. She conjures up the movements as if drawing them out of the shadows of her body, slips them on as if they were a cherished, old garment. Here then is an example of what the flamenco dancing body can do, how it challenges a conventional understanding of the body and its limits. This too a technique in its own right, in the accessing of embodied memory, which dance is one means of preserving through a kind of cellular recall, re-enacted through the movements themselves. The body’s time and perceived physical steadfastness are suddenly at risk, seem fickle notions at best – infused with something we for lack of understanding call magic, or witchcraft, but guess what, it’s technique.