This tour-de-force solo was the culminating dance in Noche Flamenca’s “Entre Tú y Yo,” at the Joyce Theatre, in November. The company, which Barrio founded with her husband, Martín Santangelo, in 1993, is based in New York and will perform “Entre Tú y Yo” in Philadelphia in January, before returning to the city in March, to perform “Antigona” at La Mama. The program notes tell us that “Entre Tú y Yo” comprises short pieces choreographed by Santangelo: erotic vignettes inspired by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde”; a dance based on poems by refugee children; and two traditional, partially improvised solos, including Barrio’s. But these parts are so artfully stitched together that the performance—which takes place on a stripped-down stage, with dark, Goyaesque lighting and only a few chairs for props—feels like something much simpler: a gathering of dancers and musicians. For two hours, and not a moment of lag, we are given a tremendous show.
The setting is designed to take us back to flamenco’s misty origins, which lie with persecuted Roma people who came from India, some of whom settled, in the fifteenth century, in reclusive slums and cave dwellings in Andalusia, in southern Spain. But flamenco, an art of the dispossessed, also drew from musical and poetic traditions of Arabs and Sephardic Jews victimized in the expulsions and the forced conversions of the Spanish Inquisition—not to mention from African and Caribbean music and dance, which were imported, exported, and reimported in the Atlantic slave trade. It was influenced by outcasts, too, including peddlers, prostitutes, and impoverished women hired to weep at funerals. Its suppressed eroticism may owe something to restrictive Roma and Catholic sexual mores: today, it’s hard not to see in it a kind of feminine revenge for the cult of virginity. Flamenco’s music and dance were later also shaped by ballet and the commercial culture of glitzy urban night clubs and music halls, and by foreigners who saw in flamenco something exotic, erotic, oriental. Even Franco’s regime, which initially favored folk forms that were seen as safer, eventually promoted flamenco as a part of Spain’s tourist industry.
One of flamenco’s touchstones, embraced by Noche Flamenca, is the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who was executed in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. In the twenties, he set out to reclaim the ancient origins of flamenco’s “deep song.” He did not invent the idea of duende—a kind of demonic spirit that could possess a musician or a dancer—but he was among the first to attach it to flamenco. Duende, he wrote, is like a muse or an angel, except that it is an emissary of “black sounds,” with “wings of rusty knives,” which “smashes styles” and “leans on human pain with no consolation.” Barrio grew up in Madrid, amid stories of her family’s suffering during the Civil War—her grandfather was imprisoned by the Franco regime—and it was Carlos Saura’s 1981 dance film based on Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” that inspired her to dance professionally.
Despite its mixed and wide-ranging sources, flamenco often sees itself as a bloodline. The “Entre Tú y Yo” program notes tell us that many of Noche Flamenca’s musicians are Gypsies (a term proudly used in flamenco circles) or were taught from childhood by Andalusian masters. But a number of flamenco artists have been non-Gypsies or foreigners. One of the company’s dancers is Argentine; another is American. Santangelo is part Argentine and part American Jew; Barrio is Spanish but not Gypsy. She says that many Spaniards, because of the brutal history stretching from the Inquisition to Franco’s fascist regime, know little about their ancestry. Santangelo told me that one of his teachers, the famed Manuel Santiago Maya, known as Manolete, used to wear a Star of David. When Manolete was asked why, he responded, “I don’t know—my grandfather wore it.”
The music in the show is the work of Santangelo and the guitarists Eugenio Iglesias and Salva de María. Much of it is based on traditional forms, but not all. The performance opens, for example, with a flamenco version of “Historia de un Amor,” a lyrical popular song by the Panamanian songwriter Carlos Eleta Almarán, used in the 1956 film of the same name by the Mexican director Roberto Gavaldón. When, in the show, Carmina Cortes’s hoarse, guttural sound tears through the melody’s smooth fabric, we know we have begun.
In flamenco, rhythm is everything. The guitars lead, joined by hand clapping, finger snapping, cajón (a box drum), heel stamping, and vocal call and response. One of the most astonishing numbers in the show is a castanet solo by the percussionist David (Chupete) Rodriguez, who sits alone, center stage, in a pool of light. He makes the castanets chase, chatter, love, argue, fight, dance—he builds from pure rhythm a complicated and humorous drama. Reyes Martín, glorious in a tight red dress that maps her mature and voluptuous figure, sings and teases the dancer Jasiel Nahin—who answers with a battery of syncopated heel stamps and flips his jacket off one shoulder, like a bullfighter, setting his youthful bravura against her knowing sensuality.
We hear the ancient-sounding “scorched throat,” as Lorca would put it, of Manuel Heredia, an older, bardlike Gypsy singer, with a thick beard and long frizzy hair. In one number, he hurls his lament at the dancer Marina Elana, pulling her into his cavernous emotion. (“Your body has to be the throat of the singer,” Barrio has said.) Then, there is Elana’s sensual duet with a blue satin dress—a sharp contrast to Barrio’s plain black attire. Elana begins on the floor, crumpled beneath a pile of ruffles. As she rises, her bare back to us, she pulls the lavish dress up onto her body, fitting herself into its curves and working its long train into a lyrical dance, an image recalling John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting “El Jaleo.
As for Barrio, she is everywhere, even in her absence. She leaves plenty of heel stamping—and the dress—to Elana, who, at times, feels like an avatar of Barrio’s younger self. It is an impression affirmed in a dance that Barrio and Santangelo choreographed for the two women. The duet is one of the few of the vignettes to break with the flamenco form. In it, Barrio and Elana are dressed, twinlike, in tight black pants and shirts. At one point, Barrio touches Elana, and later they hold each other’s head in an anguished grip. These are startling moments, because flamenco, for all its eroticism, does not abide touching. At the instant of contact, the sexuality of the form weakens and dissipates. Barrio has said that she was drawing on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona,” with its fatally merged identities. Whatever the psychological connotations, what we see is an engrossing struggle over a dance that must be passed on—but not yet.
At its core, flamenco is not about couples or love or sex. It is an improvised solo form about individual fantasy and inner life. The second half of “Entre Tú y Yo” begins with youth. Nahin and Elana each perform a terrific solo full of the joy of technical mastery. Then the elders take over, and the deepest dancing begins. Antonio (El Chupete) Rodriguez (the brother of the percussionist) is a dancer who seems to know everything. In his dance, a traditional form known as soleá por bulerías, he tackles sophisticated syncopations, arms flying, body akimbo, angrier, funnier, masked, unmasked—a man in the throes of himself. He can unleash a fury of heel stamping or, just as mysteriously, turn an open palm into a question: Is this really all there is?
Then comes Barrio’s soleá, another traditional form. Over the years, I have seen Barrio perform this dance many times, but rarely with such heartbreak. Her performance is different each night, but it is never, as she put it to me, “a vomit of emotion.” There are key emotional gestures, and also precise rules and signals between dancers and musicians. They play off one another, making split-second decisions that steer the music, the song, and the dance. The cues are complicated; the more often the dancers perform the dance, the better they get. Which means that, for a dancer, duende is not only a mystical inspiration. It is the work of experience—of aging.
Flamenco is punishing on the back and the knees, and Barrio, who was born in 1964, doesn’t train as intensively as she used to. Instead, she swims. She comes to the stage, she told me, present in the moment, asking only “What can I do?” There is pain, which partly explains the anxiety that the audience senses as Barrio circles the stage, and the touch of fear before she plunges into her dance. She is figuring it out on the spot. “If I can’t raise my leg up, then I look around for a deeper solution,” she told me. “Some nights it is there. Others I am searching for the entire dance and never find it.” She is not looking for a way to disguise or face-lift movements she can no longer perform as she once did. Instead, she allows herself to squat and wail, to go inside her own body and take what’s there. The result is paradoxical: the less she can do, the more her range expands. She told me, “I’d rather have a house with three objects than with a hundred. You can make a design with three things and know them well. A hundred things is not so easy. What are they there for?” As I watched Barrio searching for her dance, I found myself thinking what a relief it is, at a time of interminable newness, to hear some ancient, and aging, voices. ♦