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Flash Review Journal, 3-16: Flamenco Sources
From Jana Bokova and Edgar Neville, Two Very Different Voyages into Andalucia

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The Centre Pompidou is far from a perfect museum. Fond of claiming to hold the largest collection of modern art in Europe, it's also got a proclivity for hiding a disproportionate number of accomplished female artists. Typically, a visitor is lucky to find two women on display in the permanent exhibition on the 1900 - 1960 floor. Marie Laurencin and Suzanne Valadon, contemporaries (and equivalents, as much as any artist could be said to be) of the early Picasso, are nowhere to be seen. And yet as far as dance goes, the Pompidou shames its US counterparts.

We've already told you about the annual, month-long -- and free -- Videodanse festival. Just before this year's edition closed, we had a chance to check Jana Bokova's incredible flamenco travelogue, "Un Voyage Andalou," a BBC documentary produced in 1988. This time around, it was shown at the ungodly hour of 11:30 on a Sunday morning, when most respectable flamencos are just getting to bed -- unfortunately suggesting that the festival organizers did not have the film's greatest constituency in mind when they scheduled it. For this is a film that, really, tells their story. In contrast to Carlos Saura's strangely sterile 1995 "Flamenco," screened afterwards, Bokova encounters her subjects in their milieu, including the Triana suburb of Seville that was a hub of flamenco until gentrification drove the rents up and the gypsies out; the sea-side town of Cadiz; and Jerez.

I got to the screening just in time (see above -- ungodly hour) to have my heart broken, watching the legendary flamenco patriarch Farruco instruct his five-year-old grandson Farruquito, "Now you will dance a solea. You must have a very serious manner. Like this." The grandfather demonstrates; the grandson, already sporting trunk-like arms and a more serious and intent demeanor than most five-year-olds, begins to stomp. "Do you want to dance a bulerias?" Farruco then asks. "Your father will accompany you." Watching this from the lens of 2005, we know that the boy's father will one day die onstage while accompanying the son, and that the son -- now the main support for the storied clan -- will likely be sent to prison after accidentally killing someone while driving without a licence. All the more poignant, then, to witness the steadfastedness in the child's demeanor as he strains at the bit, arms poised, waiting for the music to begin.

(Farruco will later say, with pride, that what he imparts to his students he made up himself.)

But this is flamenco so there is wit aplenty for Bokova to discover, which she does. She understands that to many flamencos, whether one is a gypsy matters, and this thread runs throughout the film, with the filmmaker eventually asking most of her subjects whether they're gypsies, provoking some interesting responses: El Chocolate -- in stature, the musical equivalent of Farruco -- pausing between songs to answer the question of whether he's a gipsy, responds, smiling wryly, "Well, I'm not a fox terrier," before spitting his wine out. When she puts the question to guitarist Paco del Gastor, he responds with alarm, "No, no! We are afraid of the gipsies."

Del Gastor is interviewed after accompanying Fernanda de Utrera who, as Flamenco-World.com notes in a colorful thumbnail bio, is considered by many to be "the greatest singer of soleares of all time," adding that this is "now difficult to know, as we have no knowledge of how her predecessors sang before recording was invented." We do, however, have knowledge of how de Utrera sang 38 years earlier, thanks to Edgar Neville's1952 "Duende y Misterio del Flamenco," seen Monday at Le Latina as part of the Cinema du Reel festival, presented by the Pompidou's Library. Lyrical as the younger version is -- captured singing with her sister Bernarda -- in Flamenco cante, as with wine, aging deepens expression. (To hear an example of vintage Fernanda de Utrera -- accompanied by the vibrant stomping of Curro Velez and Manuela Vargas -- click here.)

If Farruco apparently claims to have invented his technique himself, de Utrera is more modest, explaining in Bokova's film that the Utrera dynasty "comes from my mother -- her parents" but adding, "My father is a butcher. In cutting the meat, he sings the seguiriya to bring you to tears." Throughout the film, Bokova shows how flamenco integrates into the daily life of Andalucia. One of the most compelling segments is the Cadiz chapter, which starts with a sort of flamenco hoe-down whose most passionate performer is a middle-aged man whose appearance suggests he's not a professional flamenco dancer. And yet his concentration and pride once he gets up to dance a solo should be required viewing for dance classes in any genre as a demonstration of what it means to give in totally to the music. Later, the filmmaker follows the man to a street corner in Cadiz, where he's hawking lottery tickets, and good-humoredly tells her, "If I don't sell these all today, I'll be dining on French fries tonight!" Later, Juana la del Pipa will share, proudly: "We live a life very poor, but very pure."

The film starts at the Bar Morapio, a cafe in Triana, the Seville suburb that was once the urban hub of flamenco. There gypsy former residents hold a dancing and singing reunion on saints' days. Former because gentrification has driven them out and to the dilapidated suburbs. Bokova doesn't just tell us this; after the jam session, she follows some of the older participants back to their new home. One senior citizen complains he doesn't like it because of the constant noise; he wishes he could fly away like a bird he tells her, slowly waving his arms as he does so.

We meet Moraito Chico before we're told who he is, appearing off a highway as an anonymous young man with a guitar trying (unsuccessfully) to hitch a ride. (According to Flamenco-World.com, Moraito has "played for so many singers that it's easier to write the list of singers that have not performed with him.") Later, after a mini-concert for us and an attentive young woman surrounded by casks of wine, he explains that in flamenco, "The guitar arrived well after the dance and the singing," before offering a morsel of the solea, the style at the base of all others, he tells us. And, with pride: "I'm going to sound presumptuous, but they always say we come from India or Egypt. Me, I was born here" in Jerez, "and I'm going to die here."

If the foreign-made "Un Voyage Andalou" seems completely respectful -- esteeming flamenco as an art without gilding the portrait of the gypsies' real lives -- Edgar Neville's Spanish-made "Duende y Misterio del Flamenco," ironically, verges at times on the sentimental and patronizing. This could be a problem of translation -- as (I think) our live interloper explained before Monday's screening, Watler Terry (!)'s English subtitles didn't necessarily parallel the Spanish original. (Can the Spanish narrator really have said, introducing the segment with the de Utrera/Ximenez sisters, "They may be ugly, but one has to admit they're beautiful singers"?) But I think it's more. Instead of finding flamencos where they really hang out, Neville places his stages in exotic settings -- mountains, ruins of fortresses, sea-sides, Madrid town squares. And instead of the down, dirty, and (for the times) threateningly masculine (she danced in pants and challenged the men for their dominance in stomping) Carmen Amaya, we get the elegant Antonio -- one of the biggest flamenco and Spanish classical dance stars of the 1940s and '50s -- and Pilar Lopez, who became a singular force as a performer and teacher after -- and in part in tribute to -- the passing of her sister, the international star Argentinita. With all respect to Lopez -- click here to read, again on Flamenco-World.com, how and why she is still esteemed, particularly for her teaching, by flamencos -- it's hard to see how someone could make a film about flamenco in 1952 and omit Amaya, by then already established as an international star (and thus ambassador for the art). The over-inclusion of a tart (she's played and introduced that way) named Maria Luz, together with the classically adorned Lopez works featured (among them a touching tribute to her sister in which she's paired with three men, including Alejandro Vega) suggest that perhaps, in the context of Franco Spain, the filmmaker was concerned with presenting a conservative picture of flamenco, reinforcing tourists' images of the form and its place in Spain. (No women in pants, for one thing, which would exclude Amaya.) But she's conspicuous by her absence -- how can you make a film whose title includes the word 'duende' in 1952 and not talk about the dancer who singularly channeled it?

Antonio does his best in the film's most pared down, and final segment, weaving his way into a martinette, accompanied only by an occasional singer. We can still see the build (in pace and force) of his feet in contemporary dancers, but whatever happened to that turn of the torso, in which the dancer raises an arm and then plunges his head and chest into a dip, that becomes a graceful turn? I won't be so cheeky as to say this film should be required viewing in flamenco classes, as it may already be. But it should definitely be on the play-list for ballet men's class, if only for Antonio's epaulement and poise, and I'd like to see more of that lost move in contemporary flamenco men.

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