In the last week, we saw three performances of flamenco dance, and singing, at the old Sadler’s Wells theatre in London, near the Angel, Islington. I always go to these performances in hope, looking for those moments when the dark spirit of duende will unaccountably rise from the depths, and drag everyone, performers and audience alike, down into those very depths. But it doesn’t happen much. I wonder why. Is it, as I often feel, because modern people are just too lame and flabby, too safe and secure, for the Daemonic Spirit to break through all the layers of their comfortable indifference?
At one point in one of the performances, I wanted to jump up and shout what a friend of Lorca had once thrown at a lack-lustre fandango put on by the famous gypsie singer Nina de los Pines [Child of the Combs]= “This is a spectacle that would not be out of place at the Paris Lido.” Nina was so stung by this rebuke, she re-ascended the stage and gave one of the most electrifying performances of her life. The point is, it had suddenly become life or death.
In the more northerly traditions of Shamanism, the shaman must be ready to die in each moment. This is true of the warrior– you must live each moment with the intensity of one who can die before that moment ends. It is not about being ready to die in the ‘next’ moment, for that would take a subtle pressure off this moment. No, you must live and die in this exact moment.
I found myself muttering ‘vamos ya’ in the performances, like the Lakota ‘hoka hey’ [both mean ‘let’s go’], wanting to encourage the performers to climb to the rim of the well, and dance and sing on its absolute edge. I was wanting to shout at them, as encouragement, ‘inhabit the moment where you die as well as live.’
‘Inhabit the moment.’ This kept coming back to me as I watched.. It slowly dawned, as I witnessed the moments mostly being allowed to slip by, uninhabited, that we feel time’s passing — and that time is passing us by — because we do not inhabit the moment. And we do not inhabit the moment because we are not prepared to live and die in every moment.
I suddenly saw the struggle, the fight, the terrible and beautiful battle ‘on the rim of the well’, in Flamenco differently. It was each moment being contested, with the powerful and pulverizing fight that is being sung, danced, foot stamped and hand clapped, being entirely geared to entering, claiming, and operating from within, that moment– that moment where in order to live you must be ready to die.
In many of the performances I watched, no one was ready to die, at any moment, and so the moments of intensity, the moments so electrifying in Flamenco, slipped away. This left in me an inconsolable sadness.
The first performance was a modern classic of Flamenco= the version of Carmen created by Flamenco’s only great male dancer from the previous generation, Antonio Gades. I saw this wirey gypsie first perform the Flamenco version of Bizet’s Opera 20 or 30 years ago, in a film directed by Carlos Saura. It was unbelievable. Even better was another film collaboration these men did of Lorca’s ‘Blood Wedding.’ This has a knife fight at the end, in stylized slow motion, more heart stopping than a million Hollywood ‘heroic’ films, attaining nothing more than comic book violence.
I knew rationally Gades would be an old man now, yet hoped beyond hope he would appear. In the programme I learned he was dead. In the event, the company that he left behind made an honourable attempt, but it was not as close to duende’s dark spirit as the original film. It had some good moments, but the story was just the story, it did not become Flamenco, for me anyway; and the irony of this is that Carmen was a gypsy.
I found myself remembering and mourning the loss of Antonio Gades, pale, thin gypsy, a wraith of the Daemonic.
In real Flamenco, the human voice is central, and the earliest form of this music was just the singer’s harsh voice, unaccompanied. The guitar came later, as did the dancing. Everything arrayed around the voice is merely its accompaniment. Maybe the problem in these performances is that they have tried to make Flamenco dancing into what it is not– an end in itself, or the primary emphasis and focus. I’m not sure that works.
Some of the singing in the performances I saw was raw, and verged on duende, in brief flashes. But the guitarists — and I don’t care what their fame in Spain is currently — did not even play real Flamenco music. It was far too upbeat, melodic, ‘Spanish’ not gypsy. I hated most of the guitar playing, however skilled.
The second performance was billed as ‘Flamenco Puro’, and the ‘pure’ in Spanish was translated into English as ‘raw.’ That immediately appealed. If religious people realised that ‘purity’ actually means ‘rawness’, it would help them shed much false piety. Raw, naked, exposed, no pretence, no artifice, direct, immediate, true to what it is and nothing else– this is purity.
In the event the raw Flamenco, a male singer, was cancelled and we got a rising star of the Flamenco world, a young female dancer called Eva Yerbabuena. I don’t know if it is a problem that many of the younger generation of Flamenco artists are Spanish, not gypsies. At any rate, this dance performance was to me without any duende, not even the hint. Grace, fluidity, skill, even beauty, yes; duende, no. Myfanwy could see how non-involved I was watching this. She said, you cannot have duende to order, in a large auditorium. Of course she is right on that point. The old gypsy singers and dancers and guitar players could never be ‘booked’ to give a concert at a certain time and place. They performed when the dark spirit called them, seized them, Shamanically possessed them. The best Flamenco took place in small bars in country villages; or in the poor and often dangerous gypsy zone of Granada, Seville, or [from the 50s and 60s] Madrid, or at family gatherings in small houses up in the hills. The very attempt to transpose this intimate gathering to a big event in public perhaps cannot work. During Eva’s evening I felt something in the first and last numbers only. The first had an older woman under an electric light bulb on an otherwise dark stage; there was something in her that contained a memory of duende. Always the older people are nearer it than the youth.
Yet Eva does understand something about duende, for in the notes to her show she says that “the light illuminates, but it is darkness that intensifies.” In descending to the heart depths of duende, our eyes are darkened to take in the world in a different way. As we ascend the rim, we see the world in dark eyes hanging by a thread, poised over the nothingness of the abyss, a heartbeat away from descending– to death, or death and resurrection, we cannot know which. Eva rightly suggests that we need to acquire these dark eyes with which to see the world’s underbelly, its groundlessness, for in seeing this precariousness, we also see the ‘signs and wonders’ that invite us into the very maelstrom of life and death; these signs and wonders tell us what is at stake matters more than the fact we are at stake in it. This changes our lethargy, and fear. We give ourselves to the rim, gladly. We fight, exultantly, to enter the moment and command it, for the fight that is life and death.
Some practitioners can do more than they can say; the old generation was like that. Some practitioners can say more than they can do; the modern curse.
The last performance was the National Ballet of Spain [Ballet Nacional de Espana], a troupe of dancers not given only to Flamenco, but shall we allow, something that might be called ‘Flamenco-inspired.’ I was dreading going to this, and thought it would be the low point of the week.
After the first act — there were going to be three, a long evening — I was tempted to ask Myfanwy if she minded if we got up and left. In Carmen I was in the heart shouting encouragement; during Eva’s evening, my heart lapsed into silence. The first act of this evening was just not happening. I no longer even knew I had a heart. Technically, as Myfanwy pointed out to me, these ballet dancers trying to reclaim Flamenco were perfect and adroit in a way not seen previously. Their lines were amazing, with arched backs, and curved arms. The effort that went into such precision had to have been protracted. But the first act had no tension, no pressure even to get near the perilous moment. It passed in a twinkling. Every now and again some raw singing burst out, and that kept me awake. But hope was gone.
I was surprised by the second act, which gave up all pretence of trying to be Flamenco, and became just what it was– Spanish dance. Spanish music was played, the guitars were mercifully silenced [Eva had even added a flute to her ensemble, to my utter disgust], and the 20 odd dancers swirled and clapped their very Spanish, and un-gypsy, castanets. And it worked. It was not duende, but it was something else. It was Eros, as the Spanish do it. I liked it. Maybe there was relief that no one was trying to reach Flamenco, and not arriving.
The third act took me by surprise. It had two bravura performances, the first by a woman [Elena Algado], the second by a man [Jesus Carmona]. Something approaching duende arrived, unexpectedly and inexplicably. The woman wore those dresses that trail 20 feet across the ground, and part of the dance consists in how she refuses to let it trap her, but moves it about, as she wants, like a horse throwing back the hair of its mane. In this dance you could see where the gypsies who created Flamenco started their long migration– in Rajasthan, the northern deserts of the Indian subcontinent. For she had become a Hindu goddess, her arms snakes, but as her hands reached the highest arc of their flowing movement, a thousand flowers bloomed. Then came the man, the best dancer in the large cast. He reminded me of Antonio Gades the way he indwelt the silence and stillness, starting slow, and then building relentlessly over 30 minutes to a final climax, or rather, several climaxes, each topped by the next. The driving staccato rhythms of his boots on the bare floor created a drum beat in the heart unique to Flamenco; and I also suddenly realised from where Stravinsky got his driving rhythm for ‘The Rite of Spring.’ I once had a dream in which I heard this primitive music of Stravinsky’s from start to end. The man dancing before us was like that, it was a ritual of the deep heart moving through a sacred ceremony of the Daemonic. At last the dark spirit had come, in what power I will not guess at, because it was enough to have me on the edge of my seat, and my heart exploding in my chest.
I wanted to shout loudly at him, go for it, claim this moment of life and death, be ready to die in what you live. Take it to the extreme. Go to the absolute extreme. We come with you.
The applause was so thunderous at the end, the audience would not let the performers go. They had to keep coming forward to make their sombre, dignified bow. In the end, the theatre management just brought the stage curtain down, to get the poor exhausted dancers off the hook.
But that is the point. When duende comes, such is the intensity, the committment, of the passion it raises in us, exhaustion is banished, and a paradox takes over. By inhabiting each moment of time, time ceases as we normally know it. In each moment, eternity dawns. Nothing can stop that driving rhythm, nothing can stop that life and death fight on the rim of the well.
No one wants it to stop, once in it. Getting into it is harder than plucking hen’s teeth, but once there, none of us wants it to end.
There is a reason for this. The rim of the well is where the heart lives, in the depth. To recover this stance in this place is to recover the real life we should be living, but are not living. Felix Grande= We walk “the dark line that runs from nothingness to nothingness through life.”
We are not in the moment. We are not living ready to die. We are fallen out of the heart.
When it is invoked, and aroused, by the bitter gift and savage wound of the dark spirit, then we are heartened by this. Tia Anica Pirinaca= “When I sing as I please, I taste blood in my mouth.” Our heart, literally, returns to us, and unaccountably, we are in the heart and living the heart. Estrella Morente, a Flamenco singer we did not see, the eldest daughter of Enrique Morente of Granada, says in her notes, “Flamenco opens the heart.” This too is accurate. But even more precise, it is the Daemonic Spirit who knifes us with duende– this tears open the heart, invokes and revives the heart. Suddenly we are in the heart, in its moment, fighting its life and death fight.
And we do not want to leave this moment.
For when we fall out of it, we go back to the living deadness most people endure, lifelong. The deadening of the heart, the closing of the heart, the tucking away of the heart. We all know full well what this is, and what this means. Our death, when ‘finally’ it comes, will be a mere formality.
Obviously we do not want the moment to end. We ‘ole’! those who drag us into it, and can make our heart beat with their feet as they stand on the rim and fight the fight of life and death. To claim this moment is to reclaim this place, and to reclaim this place is to restore us to the heart.
We do not want it to end, we will it to go on. Our will and passion are one, and we want it to go on.
This is the real life.
In the moment.
Ready to die.
Eyes dark, heart dark, with fire.