Dance: Sparks will fly

The egotistical `gypsy passion' of Joaqun Cortes is one version of flamenco but not the truest. Enter the divine Angel Munoz and his partner Charo Espino to set things straight. By Louise Levene
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Indy Lifestyle Online
eing old or fat (or just plain naff) is no impediment to a great flamenco performance. Angel Munoz is 23, he's as lean as a whip, puckishly handsome and he performs in jeans. Do I sound keen? I'm keen.

Munoz made his stage debut in his native Cordoba when he was 16. His parents were thrilled at first but soon lost their enthusiasm when he decided on a stage career. His father, who had wanted him to join the family restaurant business, threw him out of the house. They still aren't speaking.

Flamenco has played havoc with Munoz's domestic life. Two years ago, while appearing as a guest with Carlotta Santana's New York flamenco company, he met Charo Espino and suddenly his marriage was over. Eighteen months later, Angel and Charo are still together. They sleep together, they work together, and they touch each other almost constantly.

It's three in the afternoon, and I'm snatching a brief interview in a godawful coffee bar in Terminal Two of Heathrow Airport. The couple have just endured a five-hour flight from Tblisi. In a few minutes, they'll be on a two-hour flight to Madrid, and then there's a mad rush across town to the nightclub where they star in tonight's show. They are said to shut up shop on Christmas Day and Good Friday, but apart from that they seem to perform every day of the year. There is no such thing as free time, only rehearsal opportunities.

Half of their year is spent touring with Paco Pena, one of the all-time greats of flamenco guitar, the rest is spent dancing on the tablao (literally a small, low stage) of the Madrid nightclub. Tablao: the very word sounds like a saffron-infused spoonful of old Spain. In fact, these venues, once a breeding ground of flamenco greatness, have degenerated into folkloric revue. In Angel's flow of Hispanic phonemes the words "typ-ic-ally Span-ish" stand out in an indulgent sneer. Although the middle-class Madrilenos take in a show once in a while, the tablaos now cater mostly for tourists. Curiously, today's aficionados look to the theatres and concert halls to bring them the big names.

"For people who know, the name is terribly important," says Paco Pena. In Madrid there aren't even any names billed on the marquee, just "Flamenco Show". Angel and Charo aren't bothered, the nightly spots allow them to have a good time with none of the responsibility they feel towards a more knowledgeable audience. "We're very happy now. We always want to be dancing somewhere. We are in the tablao to be active but you still have to make an impact, however crummy the place," Angel insists. He likens the anonymous performances to a jazz club where people drop in just to hear the house band.

The people running the tablao can't be very smart. If anyone ought to have their name in lights it's Angel Munoz. Modern flamenco may be degenerating into a species of Iberian tap dancing, but Munoz is a performer of great nuance and subtlety. He also infuses his work with the vital spice of self-parody that ensures the frenzied fury of the dance is always tempered by an insouciant wit. Star quality, surely? He doesn't seem particularly fussed. Instead he dances anonymously in Madrid and travels the world under Paco Pena's banner.

Pena sets a splendid example to the young egos in his charge. His shows are rooted firmly in the art form itself, and no individual element is allowed to dominate - even the guitar is just another element in the mix, the cuadro. Does Munoz ever fantasise about forming his own company? "Everybody thinks that sooner or later, but there's a huge difference between thinking it and doing it. You have a lot to learn."

His modesty seems innate but Pena could certainly give masterclasses in it. The 55-year-old guitarist is unassuming offstage, and appears studiedly unflashy even when bathed in limelight. And yet, scratch the surface a little, and it's clear that he knows his own value: "Angel and Charo are both very prominent and I know how to show off their qualities, but the company is my company and even if tomorrow they weren't with me my company would remain."

Although flamenco is traditionally presented in the cuadro, in which singers, musicians and dancers take turns to perform anything from the most sorrowful soleares to the cheekiest bulerias, the emphasis on solo variations also makes it the ideal vehicle for the larger ego. Any flamenco performer worth their salt soon acquires a sobriquet indicating their unique status: La Joselito, La Argentina, Rosario and her partner, the great Antonio. Born in 1922, this remarkable bailaor possessed a judicious mixture of vanity and virtuosity that guaranteed his place in the flamenco hall of fame. Many of the big names in 20th-century flamenco have enjoyed the bulk of their celebrity in Spain, but Antonio set a trend for box-office success on a truly international scale. Pena acknowledges that Antonio created a market for solo virtuosity: "Antonio came along by accident and it was as if the phenomenon had to be continued. Antonio Gades has capitalised on that and done great things - he was probably the greatest since Antonio. Jose Greco was an athletic, beautiful man but he never took the place of Antonio."

These flamenco legends paved the way for little Joaqun Cortes, the Cordoban hypemeister who has enjoyed incontinent international success with his globetrotting Gypsy Passion. For the flamenco lover, there are huge gaps in Cortes's range: his act is like a series of paintings in red and black - there is no laughter, no sunlight. Flamenco does not simply consist of an angry young man in tight trousers stamping his little feet and Cortes's schtick reduced a proud tradition to a catwalk for his own ego. He has downgraded the importance of the supporting cast and included interminable chunks of synchronised foot-tapping zapateado - a kind of Riodance - which suppresses the individuality of the other artists in the show. Cortes's main problem is that, although the high-gloss finish makes a very slick show, it can deprive flamenco of its chief appeal, its spurious air of spontaneity.

Our need to imagine "ethnic" dance to be an impromptu knees-up derives from a combination of sentimentality and ignorance. In fact, flamenco has been the province of professional entertainers for 150 years. But watch Angel Munoz and Charo Espino dance together and you see how the real artist can counterfeit a spontaneous response to the music. Dancers such as Espino don't acquire that extraordinary carriage, those cactus- flowered fingers, those magically vibrating feet just by watching auntie Mercedes doing a turn at weddings. Like most modern flamenco stars, she comes from a family of professional dancers. Her free improvisation in the streets of Madrid with her Angel lover may suggest the wildest spontaneity, but looking this natural together takes a hell of a lot of practice

Paco Pena's "Arte y Pasin" is at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool (01253 290190), 16-17 November; Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0171-314 8800), 18-22 November