When I decided to include Barcelona in my travels, I saw that Palau de la Música Catalana, a turn of the century Art Nouveau performance hall, planned to devote a week to flamenco. I wanted to see the show and chose my B&B because it was within walking distance.
Deeper into the show, one of the flamenco dancers (Sara Flores) sang the sequidilla, one of the oldest and saddest of the flamenco songs.* She moved her robust voice up and down the scales using microtones like the sounds we associate with middle eastern music.
* The program referred to it as a single song, but I’ve found multiple definitions online. Some refer to it as a type of song; others describe it as fast-paced with multiple dancers and lots of energy. Flores sang it solo and slowly, like a lament.
She pushed against the notes till her voice would go almost flat, then she’d rescue it and bring it back into tune. Her sadness and heartbreak seemed so real. As a performer, she was willing to go there and let us see her — hear her — submerge herself in profound grief.
As the song progressed, she occasionally stomped her feet as if the intensity was too much and needed release. I felt so moved by her courage and willingness to let her voice occasionally disintegrate as a way to connect to the deeper feelings of the song.
I’ve never seen a performance like “Arte Flamenco” — it was the real deal — ninety minutes of breathtaking dancing and singing.
Flamenco is a cultural expression that includes dance, specific kinds of music, hand-clapping, singing, guitar, finger-snapping and verbal encouragement of the featured individuals in a particular number. I loved the participatory nature of it, as if everyone on stage was both performer and audience.
Earlier in the evening, Toni Muñoz, the bailaor (male flamenco dancer) performed a solo that lasted at least 12 minutes. His body was perfect for dance — long-legged, tall and slender. His hair flew around wildly as he moved with incredible precision. The longer he danced, the more I appreciated the stamina required by this art form.
There is an improvisational aspect to flamenco like a jazz musician riffing on a musical idea. At one point near the end of the dance, it seemed as if he had become possessed; his feet were creating extraordinary rhythms. It was intense to watch. The other performers and musicians were urging him on, as if they weren’t sure what he would do.
In the way the older woman had reached deep into herself to connect with something darkly emotional, I felt Muñoz was doing the same thing. The exertion was obvious, despite his cool facial demeanor. When he stomped the final part, the audience whooped its approval.
Shipwrecked in a field of air, the flamenco dancer must measure lines, silences, zigzags and rapid curves with a sixth sense of aroma and geometry, without ever mistaking the terrain.
— Federico Garcia Lorca, Spanish poet (1898 – 1936)
But the strongest and most captivating performance occurred at the conclusion. The older woman was singing a different song and then from the rear of the theater we heard a clicking sound. The audience turned to look toward the back.
The lead female flamenco (Susana Escoda, on left, top photo) moved with grace toward the stage while clicking softly then loudly with castanets as though she was having a conversation in sound with the older woman. Soon the two of them were standing side by side.
They danced in opposition to one another — first one, then the other — while the older woman sang. Then the older woman receded to the back and gave the stage to Escoda who danced with such abandon.
Her shoes beat out rhythms that seemed physically impossible. Her feet made the rapid rattles of castanets; she spun around and around while tapping on the stage, her cheeks wet from the effort. As she turned rapidly, I could see her sweat flying up into the lights.
She was fearless and willing to give us everything. Soon the exertion was showing on her face and somehow this made it even more exciting, as if she would dance out this intense emotion in front of us.
And that’s what it felt like, as if she was Working Something Out right there on the stage. She was whirling and stomping with such gusto and bravado, as if she might burst into flames.
The best artists are those who take us inside ourselves, the ones brave enough to embody complex emotions: grief, anger, longing, sadness and despair, frustration and heartache. When it’s done well, the artist instructs us about the nature of these feelings. They guide us into it, as if to say: look at this humanness we share, feel this with me.
Her performance was highly accomplished and raw, all at once. I wish I understood better how we can be captivated by watching someone translate emotions. Maybe they become a proxy for us, a way to examine feelings outside ourselves in ways that would make us too vulnerable to do within.
By the time she neared the end, I felt as if I was holding my breath. Everyone had leaned forward and were urging her on. I wondered how much longer she could endure it.
When she finished, the audience erupted in a way they hadn’t the entire night — yelling, clapping, some of them leaping to their feet. It was as if all of that energy she generated had moved out of her and rushed into us. It was electrifying!