The history of flamenco is complex and fascinating. Many of the details of its development are lost in antiquity, but what is certain is modern flamenco finds its roots in the Roma Gypsy culture of Andalusia in southern Spain. During the 500 years of Roma migration from India that began in the 9th century, flamenco evolved from the overlapping influences of Roman, Moorish, Indian and Jewish cultures into the rich and diverse art it is today.
In 2010 UNESCO declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Seville is the epicentre of the art, and the performance Tai and I saw there five+ years ago was a highlight of our visit. A couple of weeks ago we stopped in Seville on our fourth Spain road trip, and Mike, ever agreeable (HAH!), said he’d happily accompany me to a flamenco show.
Excited, I secured short-notice tickets at the same theatre Tai and I had been to (another perk of off-season travel). La Casa del Flamenco is Seville’s premier venue, but is also intimate. Housed in a 15th century building in the old quarter, seating is limited to 65 people for each show. The performers in the troupe are revered and among the very best in the world.
It was just as I remembered with audience seating surrounding a lovely, two-story covered courtyard. A slightly raised stage had four wooden chairs set along the back wall. There is no sound system and no special lighting. At 7:00pm sharp a woman walked out and announced the rules: absolutely no photos, filming, or clapping along during the performance. At the end of the show the performers would do a short segment where photos and filming were allowed.
In flamenco’s original form there was only voice, no instruments. A simple cry with a rhythm beaten on the floor with a staff or cane. Flamenco today is comprised of five elements, cante (singing), baile (the dance), guitarra (guitar), palmas (rhythmic hand clapping), and jaleo (calls of encouragement.) Jaleo, roughly translated means “hell raising” and “uproar.” What I hadn’t known at my first show years ago was that every performance is improvised, just as it had been when the art originated. The performers may have never even worked together! This convention ensures no two performances are ever alike, making it all the more captivating.
Two men, a guitarist and a singer, quietly took their seats. The guitar began slowly and as the tempo increased the singer joined in. Despite not understanding the lyrics, his soulful cries conveyed such raw emotion I was moved. The dancers, one man and one woman, took the stage as quietly as the others had. Their eyes locked on one another as they started to inhabit the music. Gradually circling each other as if sizing up an opponent, it was mesmerizing to watch the way they connected and began to feed off each other’s energy. The speed of their feet, stomping their own refrain, while their hands and fingers moved with elegant fluidity, each digit doing its own dance, telling its own weighty tale. Each expression, the strike of a heel, a snap of the fingers, a pluck of the strings, was powerful, passionate and sensual. It felt a little as if we were peeking in, watching a singularly private interaction.
As the show continued a second singer joined in. The dancers each performed alone as the other sat accompanying them with palmas and jaleo. Far too quickly the show reached its crescendo and ended, leaving me both exhilarated and a little sad it was over. As we left the theatre and wandered the narrow cobblestone streets in search of tapas, I couldn’t help adding a flourish to each strike of my heels on the stone pavement. Sharp clacks echoed off the narrow walls along our way.