Dance: The duende also rises

Jenny Gilbert introduces the art of flamenco - as practised in Spain and London
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The Independent Culture
A DANCE studio is a dance studio in any language. Strip- lighting, worn floor, mirrored wall up one end, benches at the other. But here there's no mistaking we're in Spain, because of the smoke. Cigarette smoke. We're mid-rehearsal, and it's like an indoor bonfire. The two singers - middle- aged, one macho in denim, the other dressed like a spiv on Derby Day - puff hungrily between delivering powerful lungloads of cante jondo, the "deep song" of southern Spain that goads the dancers on. The guitarists, during flights of airy fingerwork or furious strumming, lodge their nicotine fix between the strings of the instrument and let it smoulder to a stub. One of the younger dancers of the company, the stunning 17-year- old Isaac de los Reyes, comes in from the street, strips off to his sweat top, lights up. His brother Nino, the other young star, doesn't smoke. Give him time. He's only 11.

Don't these people ever give a thought to their health? Their response is a blank look. I'm missing the point. If they had the English, or I the Spanish, they would explain that flamenco is not a form of aerobic exercise, it's a state of mind. "You don't do flamenco," says director Paco Sanchez, through the fume of his 50th Winston, "you are a flamenco. You live the life. But it has nothing to do with being a gypsy." The idea that flamenco "belongs" to the gypsies of the south generates heated debate in Spain, particularly in Madrid, which despite its great distance from the gypsy heartlands of Andalucia, boasts the biggest and most prestigious flamenco school in the country. Even pure-blood gitanos from flamenco's "golden triangle" of Seville, Cadiz and Jerez have been know to come north to find the best teaching.

As an outsider, you soon discover that the real flamenco, as opposed to the sort dished out to tourists, is an art of secrets. Ask whether the music and choreography are improvised and the answer is yes ... and no. The evidence of the studio suggests that every petulant step, every cactus-flowering hand gesture, is closely rehearsed; the air of spontaneity is artful. Ask how it's possible for a dancer, night after night on tour, to achieve the famous climactic communion they call duende, and the answer is oblique. "You choose people who have the capacity to get to the point almost always," says Sanchez. "And you choose only the greatest musicians who have the capacity to inspire them". Imagine if he owned up and said, "We fake it!", or "True duende happens once a lifetime if you're lucky," (which is probably nearer the truth). Would that make us think less of these fiery specimens, whose prodigies of rhythm from hands and feet seem to erupt from the depth of their souls? I think not. But flamenco is a business with PR considerations like any other, and Sanchez has as strong an interest as any in maintaining its mystique. He's not interested in tourists, though: he's got his eye on us.

"The London public ... they understand," he says, though he can't think where this empathy comes from. But ever since 1991 London has been his testing ground, where he shows his productions before risking them elsewhere. It was his first troupe, Cumbre Flamenca, whose successive visits to Sadler's Wells ignited the recent craze for Spanish dance here. Cumbre was also the first flamenco company not to base its appeal on the talents of one starry individual but on a whole gamut of respected artists, plucked from the annual professional gatherings that Sanchez had initiated in Granada. Corazon Flamenco was its sequel, in 1996, but in this instance Sanchez misjudged British taste, serving up a danced version of 19th-century melodrama that had some audiences tittering at tragic moments. It was too inventive, too hypothetical. British audiences need to believe they're getting "the real thing". And to judge by the new show Sanchez is bringing to the Peacock Theatre this week, he's sussed that now.

Campanas Flamencas is his latest selection of five dancers, four guitarists and four singers, whose ages range from 11 (little Nino, a dancing prodigy whose rhythmic gift already has aficionados widening their eyes in Spain's specialist clubs) to 60-ish, in the miniature-firebomb form of La Tati - a star of star dancers, whose quotation for a day's teaching reportedly left one flamenco school in London wishing they hadn't asked. The Campanas show reverts to the cabaret format that worked so well for Cumbre, and aims to exploit, within one regional style, each artist's particular strengths. Introspective Isaac dances a superb siguiruya; the statuesque Milagros Mengibar shows off her extravagantly sensuous handwork in the form called romera, La Tati fires on six cylinders in a combustive alegrias (they say she's been through three husbands, and you don't doubt it).

You need know none of flamenco's terms to latch on to its moods or its energy, but none the less many in the Peacock's audience will be well- informed. For not only is Britain home to some five million Spaniards, but London boasts the biggest flamenco school outside Spain. Classes run nightly in large studios near King's Cross Station, and aspirations are high. No room here for the keep-fit brigade who just want to flump about and enjoy themselves. The majority of the 120 students are under 30, very dedicated, very serious. Significantly, most are women. Unlike Paco Sanchez, the Escuela de Baile's administrator Rosie Reid knows exactly why the effusions of a far-off culture have caught on here.

"Other dance-forms stress that a woman should be ethereal, thin as a pin, a sweet, light creature that needs caring for. But the Spanish aren't afraid of matriarchal power. In flamenco it's all about saying yes, I'm a woman, I'm a woman with a big fat arse. Here I am. And I mean business." Taking on a huge West End theatre for a five-week run means serious business for Paco Sanchez too. But whether the duende descends every night or not, his investment in talent is sure to pay out.

Campanas Flamencas: Peacock Theatre, WC2 (0171 314 8800), Tues to 8 Mar. Escuela de Baile, NW1 ( 0181 968 6782).