Thursday 11 July: 2013
Today was flamenco day! But before we could climb into that sublime furnace, we had to walk across some ordinary coals…
On our first morning in Seville, Ruby and I headed off to a supermarket in Plaza del Duque to stock the fridge. We filled two large shopping bags to the brim with goodies. This turned out not to be such a great idea because then we had to carry them one kilometre back to our apartment, and the day was beginning to heat up by the time we emerged from the air-conditioned mall. Ruby was a soldier, however, and we managed to get back to the top of the Alameda without the bags splitting open or us dying of heat exhaustion. (A taxi would have been a good idea, but some good ideas arrive too late.)
Susie was still asleep after we unpacked the groceries, so we went for lunch in the Alameda where we had to deal with the perennial problem of finding some decent vegetarian fare. We ended up sharing a half-decent pizza in a local café. Someone should write a vegetarian guide to Iberia. There is definitely a niche market for it.
When we returned to the apartment, Susie was up and about, and for the first day in a long time she was feeling well. I made a big salad for her with a base of roughly chopped tomato mixed with tuna and topped with a dressing of garlic, lemon juice, salt and olive oil. She gets a bit sick of all the bread that is served with food in Spain, so this salad provides a bit of a holiday from the carbs.
In the evening, we booked ourselves into a performance at La Casa del Flamenco in Santa Cruz, and then went for a drink in a bar nearby. Many of the bars and cafés have hoses attached to the underside of the awnings which, at regular intervals, spray a fine mist of cold water over the tables. This cools down the environs and adds humidity. From a distance in the late evening, it also makes the streets look like something out of an impressionist painting.
The flamenco performance was set in an enclosed courtyard surrounded by arches. There were folding chairs for an audience of perhaps a hundred people who surrounded the wooden stage on three sides. As well as elevating the performers, the stage provided the main means of amplification: the feet of the guitarist and the singer tapped out the basic rhythms, which were chopped up by the footwork and finger-clicking of the dancers, and clapping and spontaneous vocalisations by all four performers—a guitarist, a singer, a female dancer and a male dancer.
During the performance the ensemble demonstrated different styles of flamenco, and each piece featured a different performer: first, the dancers in combination; then the female dancer, the guitarist, the singer, and the male dancer.
Every part of the dancer’s body is used to express the attitude of flamenco—the hands, the gaze, the stance, and the angle of the head. The male and female dancer faced off in an encounter that was passionate, intensely erotic, alternately challenging and seductive. The showy machismo of the male dancer was met at every step by a feminismo that was equally forward, brash and confident in its strength and power to enthral and intimidate.
When the female dancer held the stage she wore a pink frilly dress with a train that became part of the dance. There was nothing fragile about the performance: the dress and the dancer fused into a rippling, muscular display of pink and white satin and brown skin. She would sometimes pick up the train like a baby and dance with it; then she would ignore it contemptuously or sweep the floor with it, as if it were a lazy lover. It formed arcs of stunning grace as if it were a shadow of her arms that she could magically summon up from nowhere. She communicated with the guitarist and the singer through look and gesture, and above all by providing a percussion track with her heels with rhythms that were increasingly complex, intricate and seemingly impossible. The music was a seamless fusion of eastern and western traditions in triplets and staccato hemi-semiquavers that ricocheted around the dark walls of the courtyard. As the rhythm grew more furious and tilted towards duende, beads of sweat welled up on the dancer’s breasts like beads of molten copper.
The male dancer was equally enthralling. He wore tight, high-waisted trousers with a short jacket, all in black, and he traversed the stage on cloudbursts of tapping that would from time to time fall suddenly silent as he paused to drag the tip of one toe across the top of the stage. (This gesture would elicit a sharp intake of breath from Susie, who had clearly fallen under a spell.)
The singer would lean forward in her seat as she reached for the long notes with an expression that brought tears to Ruby’s eyes. Her Spanish was inflected by the rhythms of another language—was it Arabic? She used a voice from her head that sometimes suggested the call of a muezzin; sometimes it was ragged with grief; sometimes it smouldered with anger, and sometimes it swooned with passionate love.
The harmonic accompaniment was provided by a single guitarist who could sound like ten guitarists as he gave his instrument ten rounds in the ring. Flamenco guitar is the “heavy metal” of the classical repertoire, but it requires no amplification to achieve its effects; every hammer blow is transmitted through the tendons of the arms into the wooden bellows of the instrument; it is a percussion instrument as much as a harmonic and melodic one; it is a furnace where scales, chords, arpeggios and cross-rhythms are forged into a seamless, gleaming alloy called rasgueado.
During the performance, the audience gradually leaned further and further into the dance and got involved by bursting spontaneously into applause, or crying out Bravo! Olé! At length, the setting, the performers and the music fused into an event that was utterly unique and virtuosic—but also an authentic and passionate expression of a living folk tradition.
We weaved our way home though the crooked streets of Seville in a trance. Bravo! Olé!