A small unassuming man picks up his guitar and fourteen pairs of eyes turn towards him; fourteen bodies still as he starts to play a slow section of an alegrias. The whole rehearsal room knows that we, an intimate audience, are privileged to watch Paco Peña’s masterful interpretation of the flamenco form. A dancer rises and begins a sensuous twisting response and I watch her dignified, assured sexuality - hands, head, thighs and rump all involved in this love affair with music. This girl’s got ‘attitude’, a thoroughbred flamenco artist with no hint of the British inclination to say ‘I’m only a dancer’. And she’s not – she‘s an improviser of steps, an interpreter of mood, a preserver of tradition who understands her role to include teasing, challenging, provoking and inspiring her audience and her fellow artists.
But today they are the same thing and the singers, guitarists, dancers and percussionist give her and Paco the same attention and appreciation one would get from adoring fans. The number concludes and the three other guitarists in the troupe make a point of talking to Paco – one of them is a leading exponent of ‘modern’ flamenco guitar playing, but he clearly feels moved by the intricacy and subtlety of Paco’s more classical style. We break for coffee. In this Seville studio I have been directing Paco Peña’s new show ‘Voces y Ecos’ (Voices and Echoes). The privileged vantage point of foreigner and colleague gives me a daily opportunity to witness the creative tensions involved in flamenco today, as it demands the right to experiment with fierce modernism whilst trying to maintain and honour its creative roots.
The word flamenco refers to the song-form and the singer remains the high priest or priestess – unabashed as they pour out passionate longings, griefs and philosophical reflections, potent pop stars with a classical repertoire. The dance responds to the song-and the percussion-that extraordinary clapping and foot stamping-builds tensions and crescendos. The guitar although always present, and with great practicioners such as Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo, it didn’t have a truly celebrated status until the 1950’s and 60’s when Sabicas, a Spanish artist resident in America created a series of seminal recordings that inspired a generation of young musicians to take guitar playing to new heights of technical and interpretive accomplishment and then Paco de Lucia led a movement of experimentation with other influences, jazz, blues, rock etc. All during this time the dancer maintained their role as soloist and interpreter and the wild fluid improvisational patches within known dance frameworks built each artist’s reputation according to skill, sensitivity and inventiveness. So – coffee’s over and the room settles in for a long, painstakingly detailed rehearsal with the young choreographer Fernando Romero. I watch as he teaches complex, exacting steps with no leeway for adaptation or deviation. The dancing divas no longer assume artistic supremacy instead they sweat over his labyrinthine pathways of footwork respectful of his role in the new architecture of the modern flamenco movement. Like the guitar in the 70’s, flamenco dance has been swept into the global flux of influence and counter influence, giving and taking in the exchange halls of the cultural market place. The guitars are precise and repeat their phrases over and over until the dance emerges as a fully conceived and rehearsed piece. Elements of contemporary dance, American tap and ballet all make glimmering appearances and yet it is still essential Flamenco. But it was ever thus, Flamenco in itself is a rich mixture of Moorish, Jewish, Andalucian and Gypsy society and its fertility relies on its capacity for including new influences.
I watch Paco watching Fernando. The older man, revered for his musicianship and admired for his dedication to the theatrical possibilities of flamenco, is keen to extend his own platform to younger generations of artists. Voices and Echoes has a double meaning – it points backwards to the communities that gave birth to flamenco and the artists that shaped it, and asks that their echoes and voices live on in each of us, but the poet Antonio Machado who wrote this phrase had another meaning too. “Wake up singers, no more echoes, let the voices start”.
This show immerses the audience and artist in traditional flamenco forms forged around hearthsides and then refined in the café cantantas of the early 1900’s – ( the equivalent of early jazz clubs in New Orleans) then catapults them into the modern day with all its urban urgency. It requires the whole troupe of soloists, all ages, all backgrounds to learn new material from each other, crossing generation and style. I work with the company - me with no Spanish, they with no English – using a translator. As I shape the show I am both teacher and pupil, learning from Paco and guiding the theatre process every day from 2– 8pm. After that it’s tapas and beer and you might expect the company to retire to bed. But no, it’s the flamenco biennial in Seville, dozens of shows are mounted all over the city and audiences pour in from everywhere. It’s flamenco’s Edinburgh festival - and so we visit shows, criticise, analyse – a company of artists from 22 to 62 – all involved, and as passionately committed to the future of flamenco as its possible to be. Paco says ‘If the roots are truthful, let the future grow”.