Space beyond reach
Amal Choucri Catta applauds the storm of exasperation and grief that is flamenco
Chapi Pineda Flamenco, Main Hall, Cairo Opera House, 28 June, 9pm
Chapi Pineda and his flamenco ensemble from Cordoba landed in Cairo with little fanfare. The lack of publicity left a void. There was nothing that might have suggested their quality, let alone the variety of the programme, the music, songs and dances. The only details available were of Chapi Pineda himself and of the singer Juana Castillo, who specialises in opera. That was strange: flamenco singers usually specialise in the cante, the song accompanying the tap-tap of the heels and the stamp-stamp of the feet. So just what kind of flamenco was Chapi Pineda planning to present on this single performing night in Cairo Opera's main hall?
A short TV ad showing flamenco dancers in lovely costumes, appearing a few days before the performance seemed to do the trick. The audience streamed into the opera house, packing the auditorium almost to the rafters, making exaggerated shows of appreciation and waiting in vain for many dancing performances -- they got rather more music than dancing, including Gershwin's Summertime and the Habanera from Carmen.
The female dancers shown in the ad, with their long billowing skirts, were absent: the audience was given one male and one female dancer, both excellent, and an ensemble of three guitars, one percussion, two signers, a pianist and, of course, Juana Castillo, the amazing soprano. It was, then, not to be only flamenco, but flamenco mixed with jazz, and with opera.
The crowd was loud and late. Doors to the main hall were already closing and the lights dimmed as a steady flow of viewers came streaming in, trying to find their seats in the dark much to the annoyance of those already seated. Sounds of a lonely guitar filled the air as the curtain rose on a semi-circle of musicians, with Chapi Pineda in the centre, playing his melancholic tunes of sorrow and suffering, of death and desolation. Joined by the percussion and gradually by the other instruments, the mood changed. The music suddenly soared, wild and free, growing louder and clearer, like the colours projected on the backdrop, emphasising contrasts as the performers materialised from a sinister realm of shadow.
Then the dancers ignited the stage with a turbulent choreography: he was handsome in black, she beautiful in a long red-and-black skirt with frills and ruffles insolently flouncing as she whipped into a turn, lashing her skirt in figures of eight. She stirred up turmoil and so did he. Trim and bold, he indulged the audience with showy pirouettes, nailing the heel of a farruca to the floor as if it were a punishment he enjoyed meting out. This was a spectacular male dance, one of the more recent forms of flamenco, and it was extraordinarily emotional.
In the end the performers seemed to mock their own soberness, transmuting the finale into a fierce rejoicing as she took her turn, smiling and shrugging, launching her fusillades of heelwork, her arms mastering and molding space one might think beyond her reach.
As the performers left the stage the guitar joined the piano in a doleful, dispirited melody, evoking ghosts of past griefs. Then Juana Castillo advanced on stage to the brief prelude of George Gershwin's Summertime, from Porgy and Bess. It came as a surprise and left many wondering how flamenco had been simultaneously programmed with opera. Castillo's soprano was quite lovely; she sang not with a Negro but with a Spanish accent. Many would have preferred her to remain Spanish: after all, if she had to give her audience jazz she could have chosen a traditional, or even a modern Spanish melody. She did stay on, however , for the next number, La noche, returning to romance by guitar, piano and percussion while meandering dreamily in her high- heeled red sandals and her Nile-green attire.
Colours projected on the backdrop blew up as Chapi Pineda announced the next alegrias, a lively dance from Cadiz with traditional folk music from Aragon. Its main characteristic was the abundance of the guitar accompaniment and the intricacy of the dancing. It was presented "specially for you in Cairo" said Pineda, and the audience applauded appreciatively.
Beatriz Cabrera, the enchanting young dancer, returned for her solo in a black polka-dotted top and a long, frilled, white skirt, darting and swinging and pulling herself up as taut as a bow while opening her arms, like the wings of a heron flying home at sunset, then bending towards some musically astute footwork. At first her dance appeared to have a prickly toughness, but then she cracked a smile and her movements turned richer, warmer, punctuated with ardour by her heels.
Then he came along -- white shirt and brown trousers reminiscent of dead bulls and bloody arenas: this was Spain, and Spain the name of the dance. The drama came from the wails of singers and the guitarists' rush of notes, the beat of striking hands and the heelwork, a choreography of solitary outbursts and intense reunions. In a sense everyone danced: the guitar players' fingers skipped on the strings and the singers quivered while swaying forwards and back. Black, white and red predominated, standard territory for passion that gives rise to both joy and lamentation. Suddenly the dancer stopped and walked away.
Juana Castillo reappeared, her red gown suggesting the aria she was to present, the celebrated Habanera for mezzo-soprano from Bizet's Carmen. Once again the soprano seemed like a foreign body among the alegrias, the ferrucas, the tapping and the stamping. Carmen was Spanish, but it was Bizet's Spain and it was far from flamenco, which is not just traditional music and dance but a philosophy of the soul.
Andalusia, flamenco's home, has a strong musical tradition that goes back to the 15th century. Throughout its long history, Andalusia was home to people of different cultures, including Romans, Jews, Arabs and Africans. It was in the 15th century, as tribes of nomadic gypsies settled in southern Spain, that flamenco was born. Their arrival coincided with Ferdinand and Isabella's conquest of Granada, the last bastion of the Arabs, and their subsequent expulsion from Spain. Writing about life in Spain from the 15th to the 17th centuries, the historian Felix Grande states : "The Jews were massacred, the gypsies persecuted, the Arabs exterminated, the Moriscoes, converted Arabs, expelled, and the Andalusians generally exploited. If we do not relate to the music, to brutality, repression, hunger, fear, menace, resistance and suffering, then we shall not find the reality of Cante Flamenco. It is a storm of exasperation and grief."
While earlier records suggest that flamenco was, at one time, unaccompanied, it is rather hard to imagine it without the guitar which forms an integral part of the song or cante, and which was in regular use by the 19th century. The guitar has, of course, an exceptionally long history in Spain.
In the 19th century two types of signing prevailed in Andalusia, the Cante Gillano of the gypsies and the Cante Andaluz: the fusion of these two forms resulted in the Cante Flamenco, a type of melody popular in Andalusia, used in both song and dance. It is a branch of the Cante Jonda, the deep song, evocative of African trance-inducing rhythms and oriental poetry.
On stage the colours changed as the male dancer appeared in a black suit with blue shirt: his buleria, the fastest rhythm of the flamenco, was turbulent and wild and of unusual intensity. His quick footwork and lightning changes were fascinating; he had fire at his heels, demonstrating anger and pain with extraordinary passion, losing one of his heels on the way. But that did not bother him in the least: he pursued his non-stop complex dance, evolving from slow, stalking, meditative images to defiant stamping outbursts. Each change of mood or tempo entailed greater depth and range of movement. He brought the house down. But the show was not over yet. Colours changed, the backdrop lifted divulging a velvet starlit sky, while Chapi Pineda announced the romantic Arabian Night, a lovely number closing the show with dance and music. The 10 performers, musicians, singers and dancers were rapidly introduced to the audience who kept clapping for more.
A change in shoes, however, provided the dancer with the right heels to pursue his stamping and his pirouettes, while the overjoyed crowd shouted. All performers danced and disappeared slowly behind the scenes. As the curtain came down the lights came up, the shadows retreated and the colours vanished. The show was not what most had expected, though it was perfect in its way.