Flamenco artists deeply touch people with their performances; their genius at expressing sorrow, jealousy and erotic love is the reason the 200-year-old art form still thrives today. So convincingly do they open their hearts, audiences tend to believe that their artistry must be instinctive, unlike the artistry that they know takes years of work for classical and jazz musicians, dancers and actors to develop. But while a willingness to expose their innermost feelings figures crucially in their effectiveness, like other performers, they need extensive training to become fully accomplished artists.
"It doesn't matter who you are," says 25-year-old Rocío Molina: who will perform in the opening Gala on February 11 at the annual Flamenco Festival at New York City Center and with her own company on February 12: "you have to begin with the basics. It takes work, hours and hours, adding up to years and years. It's the only way to refine your dances. There are no shortcuts. No one cares about an emotion if you don't express it artistically."
Every thrilling flamenco dancer: Molina, Pastora Galván, Manuel Liñán, Belén López, and María Pagés: featured in this year's exciting festival studied with masters of the art form. And every one of them, except López who hails from Catalonia, started in Andalusia, the birthplace of flamenco. They all began the same way, by learning the fundamental rhythms and styles, such as soleá, alegría, bulerías and tangos, which sprang from the dance and music of the Arabs, Jews, Gypsies and Spaniards who lived in the region long ago. The demanding audiences that they grow up among do not allow them to consider themselves artists until they have mastered them. Spanish children who want to learn flamenco begin very young, frequently at age three or four, far younger than their American counterparts who study dance. Often taken under the wing of an old, famed dancer or a relative, they will attend classes almost every day, grilled in the style of their town. Usually, they have been introduced to it in their homes and watched it performed during holidays and at local festivals.
|photo by Jack Vartoogian|
Even today, with pop music dominating radio, television and movies, flamenco holds its own in the center of most Andalusians' lives. Whether hearing it in the taxis of Seville or cafes of Cordoba, its plaintive melodies keep them in touch with their roots. Generally, they learn about life through the lyrics and the dancers' embodiment of their meaning, perhaps in the same way that American youngsters learn about life from pop music, television and movies: though learning about life from the words of Federico García Lorca, whose poems are often a source of flamenco songs, is not quite the same as learning from the lyrics of a Miley Cyrus song.
Students are not coddled. By seven or eight years old, they might be called upon to perform at a festival alone or in the company of a noted artist. "When I was young I loved to watch and listen to flamenco," says Manuel Liñán, who grew up in Granada. "I wanted to be part of that world. I loved to look at videos of the famous artists. I learned a lot from them."
He didn't have to wait long to get his feet wet. "When I was seven," he says, "I performed at my school. I don't remember very much but when I walked on stage to dance, I felt something different, special. I was a very shy guy and when I came on stage everything changed. I could communicate with the audience without words. It was a strange feeling, as if they could understand what I was thinking just through my dance. Afterwards, I wondered how could I have been in front of so many people and not been afraid."
Thus, Liñán embarked on the lengthy and arduous induction into the world of flamenco. Like his counterparts, he would be critiqued by teachers and family after every public performance. There aren't many doting grandparents in Andalusia who praise everything done by grandchildren aspiring to make a name in flamenco, indeed, some of them might very well still be performing and looking forward to going on stage with them.
Moreover, every Andalusian considers him or herself an expert in flamenco, holding very definite ideas about how it should be sung and danced. "All the scrutiny teaches you to be self-critical," Liñán says. "It toughens you up. You learn to analyze the effectiveness of every move and stance. Spontaneity comes with knowing exactly what you are doing. You have to treat flamenco like a baby: you have to feed it, care for it and give it a lot of love."
Because of their youthful start and rigorous training, dancers quickly must make flamenco their life. By the time they reach their teens, they begin considering what companies to join. Becoming a member of a troupe will usually mean leaving home. So, they go out in the world long before 20, a few of them like Molina, Pagés and López forming their own companies shortly thereafter. Pastora Galván, who earned a degree in Spanish dance at the Conservatory of Seville, taught flamenco at Stanford University at only 17. They have no choice but to mature early.
All these experiences add up to a well-rounded education that instills discipline. It also, because of the nature of flamenco, leads to an inclination to introspection that allows them to explore and reveal their deepest emotions. "In flamenco," says Pagés, who performs with her company on February 13 and 14, "we keep perfecting our technique but always are aware of the emotions, the universality, the depth, and the essence of the art form that we first responded to as children."
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Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She most recently coauthored the children's book A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student with photographer Jose Ivey.