Ballet Cristina Hoyos is coming to London for the first time in March, although it has been to the Edinburgh Festival twice in the last five years. I meet its founder the morning after her performance, in the lounge of her Paris hotel. She is sitting on a leather couch, a small figure in a black shawl, long skirt and boots. Her black hair is swept up in a bun. She is 47, demure, softly spoken and almost girlishly shy. This surprises me, because on stage she looks rather fierce. I make the mistake of saying so. 'Fierce?' she asks, pained. 'Oh no,' I say, quickly covering up. 'You look fiercely passionate.' She sinks back in her seat, relieved.
Hoyos is regarded as such an authentic representative of flamenco that she was chosen to perform in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She laughs when I ask about it. 'The exposure was wonderful. What an audience]' Both ceremonies were broadcast live worldwide, giving many sports fans their first taste of flamenco. But not everyone in Spain thinks that she is the best example of the genre. Traditionalists say flamenco should look rough and be danced only by gypsies. 'They want dancers to look as if they're suffering, not enjoying themselves,' she says. Her detractors say that Hoyos, not a gypsy, has a style that's too refined, too soft: Chanel, instead of grunge.
She is quick to point out that they are in the minority. Flamenco's vigour comes from the contrast between its fixed basic rhythm and the individual dancer's interpretation. Since she founded her own company in 1989, Hoyos has given the Andalusian dance a new dignity, enriching it with grace and romanticism. The reason her supporters regard her as authentic is that these qualities come from within.
For Hoyos is romantic. Almost 30 years of travel and cheap hotels have not diminished her enthusiasm for what she calls 'the life of an artist'. But then she has no choice, because her will to dance is so strong. 'It's as though someone waved a magic wand over me when I was born.' As a child she would dance to music on the radio. No one else in her family danced; nor did anyone in the poor central Seville neighbourbood in which she grew up. Timidity at first prevented her from taking up her parents' offer of sending her to a special dance school, but she was eventually persuaded. Her professional life began at 16 in Seville's tablados or flamenco shows. A shortage of work drew her to Madrid at 20, where she joined Antonio Gadas, the renowned flamenco dancer. His company became her life. For the next 20 years she travelled the world with him, learning everything she could about flamenco. She won't say exactly why she left. 'There were lots of small reasons that added up to a big reason.'
Her departure was meant to mark the end of her dance career. She turned to acting, becoming a sort of Spanish Joan Collins in a television soap opera. She also appeared in a film, a flamenco version of Romeo and Juliet. But it took less than a year to realise that all she really longed to do was dance. That's when she decided to form her own company. She was in her forties and about to take on responsibility for a group of 17 people - four male dancers, four female dancers and nine musicians. Isn't it exhausting having to provide a livelihood for others as well as giving everything in performance? 'It's logical that I should feel exhausted after every performance. I have terrible stage fright. I worry about the lighting, I worry that the audience is not going to like the show, I worry that I'm going to fall on my face. There's tremendous tension beforehand.'
The camaraderie and high standard of the company compensates for the worry. 'It's a very disciplined group and all the dancers are so good that each could be a soloist.' Her husband, Juan Antonio Jimenez, is also a company dancer and doubles as the administrator. Hoyos and Jimenez had been friends from way back but had lost touch. They met again after Hoyos was widowed and Jimenez was separated from his wife. 'It was love at second sight,' she says. They have been married since 1980, and her face still lights up with any mention of him. 'He's the man I want to grow old with.'
How much longer will she continue to perform? This is always a difficult question to put to dancers, but Hoyos does not flinch. She's sceptical about 'geriatric dancers' and believes the end is in sight. 'I want to continue dancing but not until I have to be carried on the stage.' She's left the theatre once before and won't make that mistake again. This time her plan is to continue as a choreographer. She already supervises the company's choreography with a ballet master.
Jimenez arrives to tell Hoyos that she's wanted upstairs to take a call from Madrid. He is gentle rather than demanding, efficiently taking care of arrangements. She quickly gathers her things, says goodbye, and leaves with him. They will be working together on a new show for London. Hoyos is slightly apprehensive about it, because she doesn't know what to expect from audiences (even Gadas's company seldom toured Britain). They will return from Paris to Spain for rehearsals. A whole six weeks of not living out of a suitcase.
Ballet Cristina Hoyos: Sadler's Wells, EC1, 071-278 8916, 7 to 12 March.
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