Flamenco fire burns bright in Andalusia

March 02, 1997|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everywhere I went in Spain, fellow travelers were raving about flamenco, the folk dance and music of the Spanish Gypsies. I had to see it for myself, so I hopped on a train and headed for Granada, in Andalusia, the Southern part of Spain.

Although purists may say authentic flamenco no longer exists, the performance that I found was still a feast for my eyes, ears and soul.

"Flamenco is a mix of all cultures," said Tatiana Garrido, a "professora" of flamenco at the Escuala Flamenco Mariquilla in Granada. "Gypsies brought influences from all over the world into our dance," said the 23-year-old beauty with jet black hair and piercing black eyes. She and her mother, Mariquilla, an internationally acclaimed flamenco dancer, instruct 350 students in the ancient art of flamenco. Many of their students aspire to become professional flamenco dancers.

Garrido said that her flamenco is authentic Gypsy art. We are the "purest and most universal," said Garrido, whose school is recognized by the Flamenco Institute at Granada University and the Catedra de Flamencologia, a center for study, preservation and promotion of authentic flamenco.

Emotional inspiration

Gypsies are a historically nomadic ethnic group who live throughout Europe. They are thought to have come originally from northern India. Many Gypsies have lived in Andalusia since Queen Isabella forced them to settle or be thrown out of Spain in 1499. Until recent times, inter-marriage between Gypsies and Spaniards was eschewed by both groups, and their cultures have developed separately. The discrimination that Gypsies have had to endure is often seen as the inspiration for the emotion displayed during flamenco performances.

Garrido invited me to watch her dance. Her group of 10 musicians and dancers (bailaoras) performs nightly in a 1,000-seat theater, El Neptuno, in a shopping area that is otherwise deserted at night. Flamenco usually is found in the tourist areas at intimate tablaos, or flamenco nightclubs.

That evening, all but a very few in the large audience were Japanese tourists. Although I thought this was strange, I later learned that flamenco is very popular in Japan. While waiting in line at a tablao in Seville, I met a young Japanese woman, Shoko Yoshida, who belongs to the flamenco club at Sophia University in Tokyo. She makes her own flamenco dresses, studies flamenco dance once a week and performs as a hobby.

The stage of El Neptuno was set to represent the Caves of Sacromonte, just outside of town, where a large population of Gypsies once lived. With copper pots and pans floating on white stucco walls, it felt like a kitchen. Red, green and orange wooden chairs with painted flower trim and straw seats were strewn around the stage.

Just before the performance, the stage and room became pitch-dark. Three guitar players entered the stage, sat in the chairs and began to play. Under low lights, a young Gypsy woman came onto the stage. She was dressed in a long, black, flowing robe and veil and carried two lighted candles. A long-haired man lay on a table, as if dead.

These two dancers, along with the cante (woman singer) who appeared as the strumming began, and the guitarists performed a "ballet" about the death of a lover.

When that nontraditional number ended, a series of more classically flamenco performances began. Each performance was characterized by musicians madly strumming their guitars and wailing; and dancers in long, flowing, ruffled dresses, wailing, stomping feverishly to the music and clapping hands. The action and the emotion bounced back and forth between alegrias (happy songs), soleares (love songs) and tientos (sad songs).

After each number the crowd erupted into frantic applause. "When there is a break and applause, it's startling because I don't think of the public. I am only within myself," Garrido said to me earlier.

The crowd went wild when the dancers performed from their chairs. These traditional chair dances were hardly a chance for ,, the performers to rest, however, since they were stomping, clapping and screaming -- using their whole bodies -- while seated.

Dancers control the room

The energy of the room was completely controlled by the dancers. They determined the mood of each set. It is the communication between dancers and musicians that touches or, the case of bad flamenco, doesn't touch the audience.

"It's like when a couple gives birth," Garrido said. "There has to be a sharing of emotion between the dancer and musician." During the performance, knowing glances between singers and dancers were exchanged, as were shouts of encouragement.

Flamenco is open to interpretation by each viewer. "It's all about strife," said Robert G. Anderson, 30, an American tourist from Pennsylvania at El Neptuno. "I relate it to the American blues," he said.

Commercial flamenco performances are sometimes assailed by flamenco enthusiasts, many of whom feel that authentic flamenco has been destroyed by its popularity and commercial success.

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