Movement

The Vanguards of Flamenco

How flamenco’s three fiercest figures are breathing new fire into a historic art form.

SINCE ITS INCEPTION in the late 1800s, flamenco has entranced the world. Evolving from the folkloric dances and music of southern Spain, it also takes cues from gypsy culture and classical styles of Spanish dance and guitar. The art form has developed into a rich, diverse genre, with enough demand to become a regular part of Spain’s theatrical programming.

Tablaos,
however, are a bit different. The experience is intimate in these small clubs, which evolved from old singing cafes. Unlike the staged, choreographed, and heavily rehearsed flamenco productions of theaters, the shows here are entirely improvised. Their nightly flamenco programming can be a launching pad for young artists looking to hone their improvisation skills and personal performance style, while getting some coveted time in front of a live audience. The spaces are often oppressively small, maximizing profits by packing the crowd to capacity, with waitstaff slinging sangria and mixed drinks before, during, and after the shows.

It was on the tiny stage in the cramped black-box tablao of Madrid’s Casa Patas that I fell in love with flamenco dancer Israel Galván. I’d discovered Galván years prior, but it was not love at first sight. The first time I saw him perform was from the far fringes of a large auditorium as part of a fundraising gala, and my most lucid memory of his performance was thinking, “Well, that was weird.” At the time, Galván was at the precipice of international stardom, and it was precisely his unconventional take on flamenco that catapulted him squarely into the adoring limelight in cities across the world.

When I dance, I sweat, and I sweat my fears. Dancers are lucky enough that they have both a physical and spiritual experience, and that we can release those fears on stage.

Galván has managed to do what almost no other flamenco artist has done: break into the far larger and more broadly respected contemporary dance scene. He hasn’t done this by fusing the two genres, but rather by creating a modern choreographic language entirely his own. Over the years he’s implemented signature moves — the open-palm hand that zigzags through the air like a fish swimming through water, the angled or diagonally outstretched arms that mimic clock dials, or the spread-finger hand positioned over the head resembling a rooster’s comb. Although Galván says the latter is a peineta (one of the decorative combs worn by women in traditional Spanish dress). All are considered classic Galván.

I saw Galván for a second time in 2009 in one of his most talked about productions, “El final de este estado de cosas, redux,” his personal take on the Bible’s Apocalypse. The piece is dark, and at times chaotic. A heavy metal band adds to already harsh overtones. The national newspapers at the time all fixated on what they considered a morbid scene: Galván dancing atop and inside a coffin. Long ago, he told me that death has always fascinated him. When I remind him of this, he explains, “When I dance, I sweat, and I sweat my fears. Dancers are lucky enough that they have both a physical and spiritual experience, and that we can release those fears on stage. Death is part of life, so death will always be with me. We’re professionals, but even so there is always a bit of madness in what we do, and I think the best way to address death is by dancing it.”

In 2009, I didn’t fully understand this vision and found his staged work jarring and cluttered. I didn't realize just what was hidden behind all of the staging until that night in 2011 at Casa Patas. By that time, Galván was already a flamenco superstar, playing 1,000-seat theaters. Performing at a cramped tablao was a thing of the distant past, but a year earlier, Casa Patas had launched Pellizcos Flamencos, a small festival of sorts that invited a handful of consecrated flamenco artists to perform in the wee hours of the morning, long after the tourists had retired. Galván’s performance was entirely pared down, and, in true tablao fashion, entirely improvised. In this situation, a flamenco artist’s every flaw can easily be laid bare, but Galván’s genius shone bright: quick on his feet, fascinating the audience with a single detail, unafraid to infuse a humorous self-awareness into his dance. With nearly perfect rhythmic timing, the way he interacted with his musicians was the essence of flamenco.

Every night in tablaos across Spain, singers, dancers, percussionists, and guitarists gather unrehearsed, sometimes having never worked together before, to perform live. They can do this because flamenco is a heavily codified artform. Without these codes and a strict adherence to them, there could be no improvisation, and the dance or music would not be considered flamenco. So even when dancers push boundaries, there are basic rules that cannot be broken. But Rocío Molina took flamenco improvisation to new heights, famously improvising for four hours straight at Seville’s Flamenco Biennial in 2016, accompanied by a myriad of guest musicians, engaging members of the audience to choose songs for her to dance to. Audience participation is not a part of flamenco tradition. The shouts of praise and a well-timed “olé” are customary, but anything more would traditionally be considered disrespectful to the craft. Molina dared to encourage otherwise.

With Molina, it was love at first sight for me. One of my favorite memories is watching her perform “Oro Viejo” at the 2009 Festival de Jerez. Dressed in a salmon-colored floor-length nineteenth-century gown with a fitted bodice, blonde hair pulled into a perfectly smooth side bun, she performed a guajira (a dance heavily influenced by the musical culture of colonial Cuba). Traditionally, they are performed by a female dancer accentuating delicate femininity with sweeping, elegant movements and a fluttering fan. But this was not your average guajira. Molina took tiny, quick steps across the stage, coquettishly dangling a fan from her hand while swinging her curvaceous bottom from side to side in a charming caricature of cloy femininity. She looked like a small wind-up doll, beautiful but mechanical. As she launched into the successive turns and the graceful balletic arms that define the guajira, Molina opted for a vivacious and playful approach rather than the typical pretty and poised. These tweaks didn’t challenge the flamenco tradition as much as they infused contemporary meaning into them, and the critical acclaim and positive reception of Molina’s new viewpoint would continue to push her in more radical directions.

Her productions often involve an exploration of the female, reflecting a deep desire to challenge stereotypes of femininity and sometimes outright reject taboos imposed on women. Molina is shorter and stockier than the dance world often likes or accepts, but the sturdiness of her body is perfect for the power of flamenco. It’s a power she infuses with a ferocious intelligence and ingenuity. She has a costuming penchant for spandex-style shorts and sports bras, a far cry from the traditionally voluminous flamenco dress. This is not a rejection of tradition, but an amplification of her choreographic style, born of an appreciation for watching flesh move. The female form is vindicated in her work, obliterating the male gaze that has for so long defined female acceptability.

In the 2016 “Caída del Cielo,” Molina portrays the fallen angel in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” She describes the work as a celebration of womanhood in all of its complexity, navigating the divine and the profane. In addressing humanity’s fall from grace, Molina embraces all that modern society has told women to be ashamed of, from nakedness to curiosity to sexuality, the latter of which was memorably portrayed through a snack-sized bag of chips stuck to her pubis. Each time she’d reach down to take a chip, one of her male accompanists would chidingly slap her hand away. The dance climaxes as she sends chips flying from her waistline, promptly devouring the few chips left in the bag, unwilling to leave unsatisfied.

“My starting point for everything I create is complete freedom. Of course, that means that the final result is feminist, but mainly because of the freedom that has been denied women, because of their silence, their oppression and repression. Therefore, seeing a woman behave freely is groundbreaking when it should be something natural,” Molina explains.


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Full of rich visual presentation, flamenco has had no shortage of dancers experimenting with gender fluidity. As early as the 1880s, female dancer Trinidad Huertas “La Cuenca” was famous for dancing in male attire; by the 1940s Carmen Amaya had taken Hollywood by storm, sometimes in ruffled dresses and sometimes in high-waisted pants and button-down shirts; and by the 2000s we were starting to see men performing with the bata de cola (trained skirts), and embroidered mantón (silk shawls) traditionally worn by women. But perhaps the artist who has presented gender in flamenco in the most spectacular fashion is Manuel Liñán.

Unlike Galván and Molina, Liñán’s choreographic language is less edgy and more exemplary of the elegant, stylized flamenco coming out of Spain’s dance conservatories. His choreographic talent and impeccable dance technique have made him a darling of the flamenco scene. So it came as no surprise when, as a guest in dancer Belén Maya’s production “Los Invitados” at the 2014 Festival de Jerez, he stole the show, performing publicly for the first time dressed in the bata de cola and mantón. His masterful dexterity with the dress train and shawl was so well received that it became his signature style; each new production features a number with these accoutrements. However, the next step Liñán took with his 2019 show “¡Viva!” was not a measured progression of his performance. It was a gargantuan leap of faith.

While other shows have demonstrated that male dancers can lend a different kind of beauty to traditional female costuming, “¡Viva!” can loudly and proudly best be described as flamenco drag — complete with wigs, makeup, padding, and breasts. A drag persona is an extension of a performer’s true and inherent identity, and with “¡Viva!” Liñán wanted to explore the traits of other genders that naturally reside in all of us. He and his male group of dancers are not imitating women, but rather rejoicing in their interior woman — the woman who emerges when covered in the trappings of femininity.

Despite addressing the topic of gender identity, Liñán stresses that “¡Viva!” was created out of personal necessity, not social commentary. “I believe that I was not able to live my childhood freely. I could not present myself the way I wanted to. I didn’t differentiate between women and men, and what I saw and liked was how the women would dress and dance. For me, it was about clothing and movement, but when I would dance like the girls in flamenco class, I realized that people would laugh and ridicule me, and that let me know that a male should not be doing what I was doing,” recounts Liñán. “That’s when I started cross-dressing secretly at home. I’d put on my mother’s clothes and dance the way I liked, with a skirt, moving my wrists and arms, moving my hair. I understood that if I did any of that outside of that room, people would laugh at me and insult me. It became a private act, an intimate act, when it should have been public. I only did it secretly because I was scared of social and artistic reprisals. And look at how long it has taken me to reclaim this part of my youth.”

“¡Viva!” was not created to stoke controversy, yet it did just that among some parts of the flamenco community. The same can be said of many instances in Galván’s and Molina’s career: the former has repeatedly been accused of not dancing flamenco, and the latter was shamed on social media when a photograph of a brief moment of nudity in “Caída del Cielo” was published online the day after her 2018 performance at the Festival de Jerez.

“Flamenco is a free artform, and I have always felt free while respecting certain foundations. It’s true that what I do has not been done before, but I am a flamenco dancer of this moment, so I can’t perform the way they used to perform. One has to be true to oneself, and this is the time I live in,” says Galván. “If you really think about it, all of the memorable flamenco artists have been revolutionary. Even Carmen Amaya, who is now the exemplar of tradition, was a revolutionary person in the ways she danced and dressed herself. The same for Paco de Lucía, (who revolutionized flamenco guitar and went on to become one of the world’s most respected guitarists).”

Yet, the fact remains that these three artists have been accused by some of having disingenuous motives, “corrupting” flamenco for the purpose of notoriety. At their core, these criticisms stem from the same thing: a fear of change.

Flamenco has become synonymous with cultural pride for many Andalusians, and in particular Spain’s gypsy community. Preserving flamenco is seen as paramount, but, like any artform or cultural practice, it continues to evolve. Flamenco is not the same now as it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago; one of its most important attributes is that it has always reflected the society from which it springs. All three of these artists ruffle feathers because they have been brave and bold in their desire to freely create a flamenco of today. So while it may not be for all, it must be respected. At its heart, that is what flamenco is all about.

Flamenco Connoisseur Justine Bayod Espoz’s Guide to Flamenco Shows

The performances around Spain that are not to be missed.

  • The Festival de Jerez & Seville’s Flamenco Biennial

    To discover the immense diversity that exists within flamenco, there’s nothing better than attending Spain’s most important flamenco festivals. The Festival de Jerez runs 16 days yearly between February and March in Jerez de la Frontera, while the month-long Seville Flamenco Biennial is held every two years between September and October.

  • A Day of Flamenco on the Cádiz Coast

    Flamenco enthusiasts must take a day trip from Seville, Cádiz, or Jerez to San Fernando, the birthplace of flamenco’s revolutionary and internationally renowned cantaor Camarón de la Isla. Start at the Camarón de la Isla Museum for insight into the singer’s life, then visit his final resting place at the San Fernando cemetery, where a monument has been erected in his honor. And have a meal, possibly even catch a flamenco show, at the Venta de Vargas, where de la Isla performed many times early in his career.

  • Almazara de Paulenca

    About 45 minutes outside of Granada, in the Sierra Nevada, is the town of Guadix. After a day exploring its historic center, head to the city’s mountainous outskirts to visit the Almazara de Paulenca, an eighteenth-century olive press that houses an olive oil museum, sixteenth-century guesthouse, and popular restaurant and bar. On Saturday evenings, proprietor and professor of guitar at the Granada Conservatory, Juan Miguel Giménez, and his son, guitarist Pablo Giménez, use the beautifully rustic space to present live flamenco performances, which feature some of Granada’s most talented flamenco musicians and dancers.

  • Jerez’s Peña la Bulería

    Peñas are nonprofit flamenco appreciation clubs operated and financially sustained by dues-paying members. However, the performances that they organize are open to anyone interested in flamenco. The Peña la Bulería is one of Jerez’s most beautiful peñas, located in the historic and traditionally gypsy and flamenco neighborhood of San Miguel. If you are catching a show at the peña, be sure to walk the entirety of its street, Calle Empedrada, to see statues of two flamenco legends, Lola Flores on one end and La Paquera de Jerez on the other.

  • A Day of Flamenco in Málaga

    Explore this coastal city’s notable relationship with flamenco by starting your day with a Paseo Flamenco, a guided tour that visits different neighborhoods, monuments, and venues important to local flamenco lore. Next, swing by the Peña Juan Breva’s Flamenco Art Museum, home to over 5,000 flamenco works of art, including records, guitars, costuming, paintings, and sculptures. In the evening, catch a live flamenco performance as part of the peña’s “Flamenco en el Colmao” series. Inquiries regarding the tours and performances can be made via Facebook.

  • The Festival de Jerez & Seville’s Flamenco Biennial

    To discover the immense diversity that exists within flamenco, there’s nothing better than attending Spain’s most important flamenco festivals. The Festival de Jerez runs 16 days yearly between February and March in Jerez de la Frontera, while the month-long Seville Flamenco Biennial is held every two years between September and October.

  • Jerez’s Peña la Bulería

    Peñas are nonprofit flamenco appreciation clubs operated and financially sustained by dues-paying members. However, the performances that they organize are open to anyone interested in flamenco. The Peña la Bulería is one of Jerez’s most beautiful peñas, located in the historic and traditionally gypsy and flamenco neighborhood of San Miguel. If you are catching a show at the peña, be sure to walk the entirety of its street, Calle Empedrada, to see statues of two flamenco legends, Lola Flores on one end and La Paquera de Jerez on the other.

  • A Day of Flamenco on the Cádiz Coast

    Flamenco enthusiasts must take a day trip from Seville, Cádiz, or Jerez to San Fernando, the birthplace of flamenco’s revolutionary and internationally renowned cantaor Camarón de la Isla. Start at the Camarón de la Isla Museum for insight into the singer’s life, then visit his final resting place at the San Fernando cemetery, where a monument has been erected in his honor. And have a meal, possibly even catch a flamenco show, at the Venta de Vargas, where de la Isla performed many times early in his career.

  • A Day of Flamenco in Málaga

    Explore this coastal city’s notable relationship with flamenco by starting your day with a Paseo Flamenco, a guided tour that visits different neighborhoods, monuments, and venues important to local flamenco lore. Next, swing by the Peña Juan Breva’s Flamenco Art Museum, home to over 5,000 flamenco works of art, including records, guitars, costuming, paintings, and sculptures. In the evening, catch a live flamenco performance as part of the peña’s “Flamenco en el Colmao” series. Inquiries regarding the tours and performances can be made via Facebook.

  • Almazara de Paulenca

    About 45 minutes outside of Granada, in the Sierra Nevada, is the town of Guadix. After a day exploring its historic center, head to the city’s mountainous outskirts to visit the Almazara de Paulenca, an eighteenth-century olive press that houses an olive oil museum, sixteenth-century guesthouse, and popular restaurant and bar. On Saturday evenings, proprietor and professor of guitar at the Granada Conservatory, Juan Miguel Giménez, and his son, guitarist Pablo Giménez, use the beautifully rustic space to present live flamenco performances, which feature some of Granada’s most talented flamenco musicians and dancers.

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Our Contributors

Justine Bayod Espoz Writer

Justine Bayod Espoz is an arts journalist, producer, and performing arts curator. She holds a master's in cultural management from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Torito Arts NFP, which is dedicated to promoting racial, ethnic, and conceptual diversity in the performing arts. She has written about and researched flamenco for over a decade, lecturing on the evolution of the artform at various North American universities, museums, and cultural institutions.

Irene Blasco Illustrator

Irene Blasco is a Spanish illustrator, designer, and painter based in Valencia, Spain. She works for editorial and advertising projects both nationally and internationally. Her illustrations for advertising have been frequently seen all over Madrid, in the Christmas Campaign 2019, the San Antón Market, or the 2021 May 2 festivities. She has been recognized, among others, with the recent Liber 2021 Illustration Award and with a mention in the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi Digital Award. With an intuitive approach, she likes to explore new ways of expressing creative solutions with a powerful use of color.

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