Sweat till you drop

Trader Faulkner traces Antonio Gades' flamenco Carmen back to her roots in the ruins of the Spanish Civil War
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"What urged you to decide on dance as a career?" I ask. "Hunger and natural aptitude," Antonio Gades replies. "To eat was then a luxury." I can believe it. Now 60, Gades was born just four months into the Spanish Civil War, and even when I first went to Spain in the late 1950s, over 20 years later, living conditions were still third world.

Gades' father had been a high-ranking officer in the losing Republican army. He'd been seriously wounded fighting Franco's Fascists and had lost an eye. The young Gades' ambition had been to study but, forced out on to the streets at the age of 11 to earn a living to support his family, he had to forgo any thoughts of a formal education.

"We had to survive," he says. "I tried everything. I became a photographer's assistant, a typesetter for the Madrid newspaper ABC, bell boy in a Madrid hotel, cyclist, footballer... Practically knocked out in my first round as a boxer, I thought, Fuck that as a way to earn a few pesetas. I loved dancing as a child, and finally ended up, by chance, in a dance academy. A black cabaret promoter, Harry Fleming, saw me at this dance school and booked me. Great, I thought, now I'm going to dance flamenco. We went up to Santander - I was handed a mambo shirt and some bongo drums. My first professional job in the world of dance was to accompany Princess Memet on the bongo drums. Luckily, I had a sense of rhythm.

"I used to watch other dancers. I'm better than any of them, I thought. But then I saw a few of the greats and realised just how ignorant I was. Luckily, Pilar Lopez, who taught so many of us that later made good, saw my potential and took me into her company. Pilar taught me to dance with my head, not just my feet. She made me aware of the aesthetics of the dance and its subtleties, the importance of sweating till you drop, to mine out the potential within you. Great dancing is the state of mind you create within the character you are portraying. A movement of the arm has to be an impulse from the gut. What is happening between the steps - a pause, a glance, dynamic stillness - all that is as important as the steps. To dance really well you have to convey character in movement and style."

Gades and I were reminiscing in his dressing-room at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow earlier this month, just prior to the British premiere of his latest dance drama, Fuenteovejuna. Due to arrive at the Peacock Theatre in London next May, Fuenteovejuna is Gades' schematised re-working of Lope de Vega's popular play about a community uprising against a tyrannical town governor. With just four main characters, Gades' choreography uses a mixed company of all ages, shapes and sizes to focus Lope's theme of mediaeval village solidarity, creating a stunning theatrical tapestry of assorted music, regional dance and traditional costumes that only incorporates flamenco at the play's dramatic climaxes.

It is flamenco, of course, that made Gades' name and flamenco that, 40 years ago, first brought us together. I was then a young actor experimenting with the rudiments of flamenco as a means of freeing myself of inhibitions and developing physical expressiveness on stage. But all my teachers had been women. Now, I felt, I had to learn the elusive macho style from a real Spaniard. Pilar Lopez and her company were playing at the Palace Theatre. I went along to the stage door and asked if there was any man in the company willing to teach an Australian actor the basics of the Spanish style. The 20-year-old "maitre de danse" was sent down to talk to me. It was Gades.

He was incredulous. "You want to learn flamenco?" I was explicit that I needed co-ordination, style and self-confidence, the means whereby all actors are then free to realise their potential. He took me on to the stage. We went through a few elementary steps. I told him I'd recently been playing Malcolm to Olivier's Macbeth at Stratford. He'd recently seen Olivier's film of Hamlet - Olivier was his idol. "I'll teach you my Farruca," he offered, "if you'll teach me `To be or not to be'." And that's how our friendship began.

The Farruca he taught me, his solo par excellence, he subsequently developed and modernised into the solo he dances for Laura del Sol in the film of Carmen which he made with Carlos Saura. We worked in tandem for four weeks on-stage at the Palace, I watering the floor with sweat, Gades mouthing Hamlet's soliloquy in a thick Alicante accent.

On the day we finished, a group of actors had gathered in the wings to rehearse. It was Olivier and the cast of The Entertainer, about to open at the Palace. "Antonio, come with me," I said. "Sir Laurence, meet the up-and-coming master of Spanish dance, Antonio Gades." Olivier, all charm, shook hands with his gob-smacked aficionado.

At that time, I invited Gades to lunch on my houseboat moored at Chelsea Reach. He came with his girlfriend and her Mum as chaperone. "Welcome to my humble home," I said. "Wait till you see mine," he replied. When I arrived in Madrid a year later, he phoned me. "Take the metro to Pacific St. We are No 54. You can't miss it. See you tonight. Adios." It was impossible to miss it. A gutted shell, No 54 was the only building left standing in a street bombed out during the Civil War 20 years before.

I knocked at a little glass window marked "Portero" in chalk. A man with one eye opened it. "Soy Gades Padre." He was a figure straight out of the Last Supper sequence from Bunuel's Viridiana. But with a difference. This man was no beggar. His carefully stitched and re-stitched white shirt was spotless: poverty with dignity. Senor Gades led me into his home, one room, like a cave by Goya, but again spotless. Senora Gades was beautiful, tall, fair, with fine features, almost Nordic looking. Antonio, dark and aquiline, has his mother's looks. There was a much younger brother, Enrique, stabbed to death over a decade before by thugs in Madrid's Puerta del Sol for refusing to part with his new leather jacket.

In a corner, one bed where all four must have slept. In the middle of the room, a round table with a brasero beneath it to warm their feet in the freezing Madrid winters. We ate, my plate full, theirs with just enough food to look polite. Such was the Poverty Row from which was to emerge the greatest creative force in Spanish dance today. Yet, states Gades, "I'm a labourer at culture, simply doing a job. If you call that being an artist, well and good."

Earlier this month, putting the finishing touches to the revival of his Carmen currently running at the Peacock Theatre in London, Gades might have been directing actors, not dancers. To Stella Arauzo, playing Carmen in the final scene of her fatal stabbing by Don Jose, Gades is explicit: "You want to go with the Torero. You're pissed off with the possessive Don Jose. You're a gipsy - no one's physical or emotional property - so catch that light that wants to show the audience your face, and let's see your mind and body tell us that you'd rather be dead than lose your freedom." Arauzo then dances her final moments with the erotic frenzy of an erupting Krakatoa.

Gades turns to the Torero, poised to take possession of Carmen. "Jairo, turn with a glance of contempt at Don Jose. He's a loser in the game. Pause, and make sure your look registers."

And to Jose - a role Gades himself used to play, now taken by Manuel Huertas - "Loss of face, no alternative. Mtala. Kill her." It was galvanic.

Gades' last words to me: "At the premiere of Carmen in 1875, the Parisians said: `Bizet's give us Carmen from Spain.' Now I'm taking her back."

`Carmen' continues at the Peacock Theatre, Portugal St, London WC2, to Sunday 8 June. Booking: 0171-314 8800