We ought to dance with rapture that we might be alive…
and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.
~D.H. Lawrence, 1885 – 1930
I joined Fran at his corner table, where he had a bird’s eye view of the room. A dapper man in a crisp white shirt set off with gleaming cuff links and an ascot, he would have exuded an aura of power wherever he sat. While we spoke through an interpreter, I recognized Fran’s command of English couldn’t have been too bad as he often began answering my questions in Spanish before they had been translated.
Fran Velez manages Sevilla’s renowned Tablao El Arenal, which was opened in 1975 by his father and mother, Curro and Antonia. The couple was a famous flamenco duo who bridged the world between gypsies and non-gypsies through their continent-hopping performances.
Fran’s father grew up in la Cava de los Gitanos in Sevilla’s barrio of Triana and began dancing when he was 12. Fran’s mother was not a gypsy but was already enamored of flamenco and a dancer herself when she met Curro. While Antonia’s DNA may not have been gypsy, I was told that she was the very essence of gypsy soul. Curro was described to me as gorgeous in a rough-hewn way, swashbuckling, and mysterious-looking. He and Antonia were profoundly connected both artistically and emotionally, and Curro was devastated when she died.
Curro collected antiques, as well as Spanish and taurine art and many of these pieces contribute to the rich atmosphere of El Arenal. Works by the early 20th century Spanish impressionist painter Sorolla adorn the walls, and beautiful bronze sculptures of bull-fighters and flamenco dancers grace niches and pedestals.
While gypsies are very much a part of Andalucia’s broader community, Curro was one of the first gypsy impresarios, parlaying his performance career into a successful business enterprise and integrating into the payo, or non-gypsy, community through his ambition. He and Antonia were known for their active management of the tablao, attending every single performance, fussing over details and quick to rebuke any member of the audience not paying sufficient attention with a pointed “Shhhhh.”
There are now more than 15 artists with El Arenal–more than half of the dancers are gypsies; the singers are almost always gypsies. Fran told me that most of the artists he hires come to him seeking an audition although sometimes he will seek them out. He mentioned a new performer who would be dancing, a gypsy named Moises. With an admiring grin, Fran described how the newcomer had just showed up one day and wanted to try out.
I asked Fran about duende, a term I had heard used to describe certain performers.
“For duende to appear, the artists have to be in the right place, connected with themselves and each other,” Velez said. “If the public is receptive, they transmit that interior force. The environment has to be intimate, being close is important.”
While no doubt Fran had a vested interest in his chosen style of presentation, he expressed great conviction that Tablao El Arenal’s intimate approach to the art was the correct one. I was about to experience the palpable force made possible by that kind of proximity, the phenomenon of duende, defined by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher can explain.”
As I took my seat at a banquette that abutted the small stage, the house lights lowered. At the back of the stage against the wall were five men in black. Three were seated at high-backed chairs, flanked by two men who stood. The men sitting began playing their guitars, weaving together meandering rhythms, as the two men standing began laying down a syncopated percussion beat that at first I found awkward and irregular, but within moments had me mesmerized.
The flamenco clapping is known as palmas and the finger-snapping is called pitos. Many flamenco elements are onomatopoeic: the sound of the blacksmith’s anvil created the martinete; rhythms of different gaits of horse hoof-beats inspired the intricate footwork.
The first dancer, or bailaor, to take the stage was the newly-hired Moises, wearing a fitted jumpsuit, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. One of the men standing uttered an earthy cry that lowered into a chant and then soared into a righteous proclamation, lowering again into what sounded like an insistent warning. The singer segued from one mood to another, and the bailaor went with him, as did each performer on stage.
The call and response became fiercer and wilder, whipping into a crescendo. I was transported by the savage grace and proud bearing of the dancer, the alternately tender finger work and fierce strumming by the guitarists and the lilt and keen of the cantaor’s voice.
Drenched in sweat, his wet hair flying, Moises seemed to have been elevated to another realm, his eyes wide with rapture, when his neck scarf fell to the floor. In a fluid motion he kicked it toward my ringside seat, where it landed on the tablecloth in front of me. I realized I had been holding my breath and exhaled deeply, joining the rest of the audience in heartfelt applause.
Today, I was transported back to that first encounter with duende by a call from the woman who had been my translator that evening. During the course of my stay in Sevilla, Judy became a friend. A native Californian who has taught in Sevilla for more than 25 years, she shared with me her knowledge about and passion for the ancient and magical city, transmitting a sense of wonder and appreciation for its people, history and ambience.
On the eve of my departure for home, Judy and I attended a flamenco performance at the Museum of Flamenco Dance, at the suggestion to me by a Sevilla official. After the performance, Judy and I met the dance director, whom I knew immediately and instinctively I wanted to feature as a “Peer to Pier” interview subject. He agreed to participate, with Judy translating. The result was a powerful account of Victor Bravo’s career and battle with cancer, conveying as only a true artist can the depth and spectrum of human emotion–from soaring joy to profound sadness (http://viewfromthepier.com/peertopier/victor-bravo-flamenco-artist/).
Judy’s call today revealed that the result of the encounter and subsequent project had in fact been more far-reaching. I was deeply touched when she shared that she and Victor have become fast friends, going on to say to me “You changed my life.” To be offered such an affirming validation that I had been in the right place at the right time, fulfilling a purpose to which I was oblivious simply by being me, would be a gift of extraordinary dimensions under any circumstances. As it so happened, Judy’s generosity of spirit in sharing with me the happy outcome came at a time when I was feeling low and questioning my purpose.
That’s what I call a virtuous dose of duende in this dance called life.
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This blog is an excerpt from VFTP’s “Compass Rose” series on Sevilla and flamenco—check it out!