Dances of life and death

Forget tacky tourist entertainment. Don't bother with pretty boy Joaquin Cortes. If it's real flamenco you're after, says Nadine Meisner, don't miss the rule-breaking dancer Eva Yerbabuena and the guitarist Paco Peña
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The Independent Culture

Clever Spain for having the richest identity in Western Europe. Its culture is famed worldwide, from paella to Picasso, from castanets to Buñuel. True, bullfighting is not an obvious export, but flamenco... Bring over any raggle-taggle collection of fire-and-angst foot-stampers and the emotionally constrained Brits will be clamouring for more. These days, there are as many forms of flamenco as there are ruffles on a fantail dress. There is jazz-flamenco, narrative flamenco, and glam-flamenco of the egregious Joaquin Cortes ilk.

Clever Spain for having the richest identity in Western Europe. Its culture is famed worldwide, from paella to Picasso, from castanets to Buñuel. True, bullfighting is not an obvious export, but flamenco... Bring over any raggle-taggle collection of fire-and-angst foot-stampers and the emotionally constrained Brits will be clamouring for more. These days, there are as many forms of flamenco as there are ruffles on a fantail dress. There is jazz-flamenco, narrative flamenco, and glam-flamenco of the egregious Joaquin Cortes ilk.

Then there are flamenco productions built around a theme, as in Paco Peña's shows, the latest being Voces y Ecos, a retrospective survey of flamenco's different periods, to find the original inspiration that still breathes today. And there is New Flamenco, modernising and rule-breaking, of which Eva Yerbabuena is the hottest current exponent.

One of a growing breed of non-Gypsy professionals, she returns to London with her cuadro (group) of five dancers, three singers and musicians including a flautist (a mould-breaking addition) as well as her guitarist husband Paco Jarano.

Yet flamenco is only one strand, mainly found in Andalusia, of the extraordinary variety of Spanish folk culture, the result of a Moorish-Jewish-Hispanic melting-pot and of vigorous regional identities. "Flamenco is a very specialised art form that has emerged from Spanish folk traditions," says Peña. "But its rhythms are much sharper and it makes greater demands on the performer's artistry, especially the singer. The singing, which is the main essence of the music, has such a unique style, it requires a person of huge ability to do it, not just a typical amateur folk-singer. Flamenco is no longer a folk-tradition, it's an art-form."

The biggest wave of Gypsy immigration occurred in the 15th century, after their expulsion from India. Some tribes wandered west, entering Andalusia via North Africa. ("Flamenco", as applied to Gypsies, may come from a mispronunciation of the Arabic felagmengu meaning "fugitive peasant".) Others followed a different route towards Eastern Europe, arriving into northern Spain from France. They naturally brought their own culture – and it is tempting to see parallels between flamenco's foot-beats and the elaborate percussive cycles of Kathak, the classical dance of northern India. But the migrants also substantially adopted what they found around them, grafting and developing and overlapping.

The zapateado started as a flamboyant display of intricate stamping, already popular among 16th-century indigenous Spanish – Cervantes thought it very rowdy – before becoming a pyrotechnical number in a Gypsy recital. In the same way, more recently, the sevillana, the familiar Seville variation of the seguidilla dance, has been taken up by flamenco. Castanets, though, remain definitely non-flamenco, wooden bivalves descended from the crotalos or finger cymbals manipulated by the dancers of ancient Rome. But even there, leading flamenco performers have been known to slip them on, to the disgust of purists who claim that they distort the sinuous flow of arm movements, particularly important for women.

If "the mother of flamenco", as Eva Yerbabuena says, is the singing or cante, this is bad news to those whose grasp of Spanish is limited to ¡Olé!. What are those hoarse, wailing voices saying? "Their words reflect the turmoil of Gypsy persecution," says Peña. They don't tell stories, but set out their feelings in brief coplas. "A copla is a short piece of poetry, just three or four lines," he says, "and each song consists of several coplas which are not necessarily related." The singing, like the dance and music, divides into three categories: chico, the lightest, most cheerful; intermedio; and jondo, which is the core of flamenco, derived from ancient religious chants and songs. This is the expression of naked despair, when the voice becomes an Arab-sounding solitary cry in the wilderness, and the dancer knits his or her brow, possessed by a dark soul or duende.

Spanish dance first stormed the world in the first half of the 19th century, when Lola Montes (who was reputedly Irish) left a trail of bleeding hearts, and Manet painted Lola de Valencia, the dancer who taught the ballerina Fanny Elssler her celebrated Cachucha solo. This, though, was Spanish folk dance, refined into a theatrical art, known as the Classical Bolero School. The dancers performed delicate, balleticised steps, all the while manipulating their castanets – very tricky, like simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your stomach. This hybrid form is rarely seen nowadays, but at the time, it appeared all round Europe and inspired ballet choreographers and dancers. The great romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni learnt to play castanets for her created role in La Gitana, and the choreographer Marius Petipa, who had worked in Spain before settling in St Petersburg, made a speciality of fusing Spanish dance and ballet.

Flamenco's international popularity came in the 20th century, but in Spain it peaked earlier, entering a golden age in 1850, with the birth of café cantantes. These taverns paid Gypsies to perform, where before flamenco had belonged in private or informal gatherings. The performers turned professional and flamenco started its expansion, growing in sophistication and – on the down side – becoming more commercialised. Stars such as La Argentina (1890-1936) and Antonio (1922-1996) incorporated flamenco into their Spanish dance recitals, toured it round the world, and brought it on to theatre stages.

And so the growth of flamenco continues apace, some of it sublime, some only worthy as a tacky entertainment for tourists. When Peña and Yerbabuena talk about respecting tradition, they mean, in essence, that they have tried to avoid the latter genre. Peña, a guitarist born in Cordoba, puts less emphasis on innovation, partly because of the theme of Voces y Ecos. "But there are all kinds of legitimate attempts to develop the form further by bringing in ingredients from other cultures," he says. "That's fantastic – as long as it works, if it makes you go into yourself and learn, so that your art becomes richer." Yerbabuena, who was born in Frankfurt before moving to Granada to live with her grandparents, has been most inspired by Carmen Amaya, the whirlwind Gypsy of the 1940s who performed in trousers and danced like a man. Yerbabuena in turn challenges received ideas. She does this not just by including non-traditional unison groups – a feature often seen before – but by renovating her entire grammar. Pared down to a limpid, deceptive simplicity, it seems to strip flamenco back to its original bones, yet it expands its potential, entering into unexplored realms of movement. Much of the choreography is necessarily set, but, she says, she does leave leeway for spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

Does she agree that a big proscenium theatre contradicts flamenco's intimacy and sense of spontaneity? Wouldn't it be better to watch flamenco in a tablao or night-club, the modern version of the café cantantes? The reality is, says Yerbabuena, that performers in tablaos see a bunch of tourists and don't necessarily give of their best.

Meanwhile, Peña embraces this alien setting. "The earth we inhabit now is full of compromises, I have to accept that," he says. "But I also think the theatre stage is a wonderful place to isolate yourself and project to the audience. So I accept the challenge of getting up there and making the audience feel."

Eva Yerbabuena, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020-7863 8000), tomorrow until Sunday 14 July; Paco Peña, Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (020-7863 8222), 9 Oct-9 Nov

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