Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Victor Bravo is a flamenco artist and Dance Director of the Museum of Flamenco Dance in Sevilla, Spain. He has pursued a stage career performing pure flamenco as well as working with classical and modern dance companies. Some of the well-known companies with which he has danced are those of María Pagés, Lauren Postigo and Joaquín Cortés.
I met Victor after attending an after-hours flamenco performance at the Museum, housed in an elegant 18th century mansion just steps away from Sevilla’s majestic cathedral. I was privileged to be among an intentionally small audience enjoying the artistry from close proximity to the dramatically-lit stage. In the intimate setting and over the span of an hour, I felt the depth and spectrum of human emotion from soaring joy to profound sadness, through the expressiveness of the artists baring their souls on the stage.
My conversation with Victor was a similar experience; in telling his extraordinary story, he evoked life’s heights and depths. I hope you find inspiration in his account of his life as both an artist and a work in progress. — MP
Let not the intellectuals tire themselves out searching for it in the old trunks of erudition,
because flamenco is something alive with its feet buried in the hot mud of the street
and its head in the cool fleece of the driven clouds.
Federico García Lorca, 1898–1936
Meg: What thoughts or observations could you share about flamenco as part of Andalucian history and culture?
Victor: Flamenco is not just concentrated in Andalucia. The gypsies have always had important “gitanerías” (gypsy quarters) in Barcelona, Madrid and France. Of course, today flamenco music has an important impact and following throughout the world.
Flamenco is a unique expression of an art that is both traditional and evolutionary. It continues to be free, so that each artist may be able to create his or her individual stamp (su sello propio) at any given moment. Flamenco continues to give us the opportunity to express each experience (“cada vivencia”) in its totality (“cada todo”). As in any art, flamenco gives you everything (“te regala todo”).
We depend on art. I don’t know what my life would have been without music. Nature is art in its purest form…the sea, the leaves on the trees…I would like to dance in total silence, but there is no silence…our very hearts beat!
Meg: Tell me about when you first became interested in flamenco.
Victor: My grandmother was my artistic inspiration; in fact I have taken my artistic surname, “Bravo” from her. She was the only person in our family to have aspired to become an artist–a singer. However, as was typical of most women of her generation, she renounced her ambitions to devote herself full-time to her family.
I clearly remember being about four years old and watching flamenco performers on television. I was enthralled and would secretly imitate them when I believed no one was watching. One day my mother caught me imitating the flamenco artists and asked if I would like to learn to dance. I was a terribly shy child and shook my head “no” in answer to her query. She asked the same question on several other occasions when I was “caught in the act” and announced that she was not going to ask again. This would be my last opportunity to study dance at a proper academy. I was five years old by then and knew that this was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. I overcame my shyness and threw myself, heart and soul, into learning the flamenco style folk-dance called Sevillanas. In a matter of several weeks, I could perform all four parts of the Sevillanas with castanet accompaniment! Even as a very young child, I had always wanted to be an artist. When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer “a painter. This was before I was so passionately and deeply infected with the “flamenco bug.” I guess it was in my DNA!
At about age six or seven, I began to devote myself to the study of flamenco dance. My first professional instructors were the legendary flamenco artists Matilde Coral and her brother “El Mimbre.” The essence of their inimitable style was both elegance and a strong personal stamp that became the basis of what was to evolve into my particular interpretations. By the time I was fifteen years old I had completed my preliminary studies and was awarded the “Dance Career Diploma” (“Carrera de Danza”). I make particular mention of this because it was most unusual to achieve this distinction at such a young age; a student is usually at least eighteen years old before being granted the diploma.
Meg: When did you first perform professionally?
Victor: My first professional performances, at about age fourteen or fifteen, were benefit galas often given in homes for the aged. I was obsessed with performing on stage. Because I was basically such a shy child, these live performances before an audience gave me an opportunity to express my inner self in ways that I could not manage on a more mundane daily basis. Even before I had completed my “Dance Career Diploma” studies, word reached me of a ship anchored on the River Guadalquivir here in Sevilla featuring flamenco performers.
I was just thirteen years old when I approached the director of the ship “El Buque” and informed him that I wished to audition for the spectacle. The director Juan Cortés knew I was not telling him the truth about my age but said that I could audition. He made it clear that he could not offer me a proper contract and I assured him that it made no difference to me. I just wanted to dance–to perform flamenco before an audience.
The dance that I was to perform for the audition was “Tarantos”, a very pronounced and distinct gypsy rhythm that I had never danced before. On the spot, I turned to the guitarist and asked him to mark each beat very strongly. I improvised, feeling the rhythm and recalling and imitating performances I had previously witnessed! The director was impressed; I was hired; my parents remained unaware that I was performing on “El Buque.” I was in Heaven.
When I was fifteen years old and had my diploma, I was contracted to perform on a cruise ship sailing the Mediterranean. This time my father signed the papers giving me permission. The ship stopped in ports in Greece, France and Monaco. I performed in bars and restaurants, meeting artists from many different parts of the world. I felt very brave embarking upon this adventure and at such a tender age, but what an education it was for me!
Meg: How did it feel to be on stage?
Victor: The first time I was really aware of the public’s enthusiastic applause for my performance, I was surprised. I felt a rush of adrenaline that still happens every time I am on stage. This feeling remains unsurpassed by any other of life’s “highs.” It is an exhilarating moment, an orgasmic high, a sweet catharsis.
The most important aspect of any flamenco dancer’s performance is the ability to connect with his singer (“cantaor”), with his guitarist and with the audience. This spark of artistic transmission is known as “duende”, the essential spirit or soul of Andalucian art. For me this magical component includes the very air in the venue, as well as the performers and the public.
My most special performing moments have always involved a radical change from any dance interpretation I have previously done. The “duende” appears spontaneously and unannounced. My performance executes a complete 180̊ turn–in Spanish “da la vuelta a la tortilla” (turns the tortilla completely over)!
Victor: Four years ago, when the Museum opened, Cristina Hoyos called me and asked if I would give flamenco classes there. I have always loved to teach, so I answered affirmatively. That initial offer quickly turned into my becoming the new Director of Dance of the Museum. That includes the classes along with the flamenco performances given nightly of song (“cante”) and dance (“baile”). So, at the present, I am involved in giving classes and performing at the Museum, as well as being an independent artist performing at various venues and flamenco spectacles. I continue to feel a strong desire, a need really, to create.