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Flamenco ‘performance spaces’ in London: Deconstructing gender binaries within the dance form

Flamenco ‘performance spaces’ in London: Deconstructing gender binaries within the dance form

Momina Khan
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                  As I entered the Sadler’s Well venue for Flamenco Festival 2018, I saw huge posters outside of beautiful and sensually pictured women, in long and blowy skirts in the wind, with the men dressed in their tuxedos and with the artists being projected as the carriers of ‘Spanish Culture.’ 

I walked in the ticket office, collected my printed ticket and entered the theatre venue. The lights were switched off and the curtains were drawn. Even then, I could feel the anticipation of the crowd lingering in the air. People whispered into each other’s ears as the curtains slowly started to draw back, two guitarists came forward and then a female dancer supporting them, started dancing slowly to the music. She started gently, slowly gaining ground and standing in the middle of the guitarists. Her movements marked a sort of brewing femininity, with the two guitarists trying to manoeuvre the woman’s movement. The audience was just sitting there, far apart from the stage, so far there was no interaction with the performers.

Performance : ‘commercial’ and ‘local’ Flamenco venues in London

The performers seemed as though dancing and performing in an isolated territory in which the audience were just spectators and not participants; it marked isolation between the performers and the audience. Furthermore, the audiences were not permitted to make any noise or demonstrate any sort of gesture or sentiment towards the performance.  According to Timothy, the contrast of demarcating the “public” and “private” spaces manifests in ideological symmetrical boundaries of “male” and “female”, which further perpetuates concepts of “identity.” This ideology of “complementarity” works on authenticating a certain branch of ideology, while deeming the other as inauthentic. In this performance, the performers had become a separate territory, completely separated from the audience; the intimate dialogue going on during the performance was kept in between them; the audience was just a spectator.

After the first part was over, La Chana (the main performer) who was making a comeback after a long break and after a history of domestic abuse by her ex-husband, was assisted in by the guitarists and the female dancer to sit on the chair, in the middle of the stage. As soon as she entered, the audience applauded loudly and gave her a standing ovation. In one sense, this marked a very ‘personal’ relationship with the performance, and seemed to contrast the initial performance, where there was no interaction between the audience and the performer.

La Chana’s entrance induced a sense of long lost longing in the audience, stirring a sort of emotional response in them; they felt connected. As part of the audience, I could not help but join in. As the performance proceeded, La Chana, could not stand up and perform, due to her domestic violence related injuries. She chose to sit, and just follow her instincts with the beat of her shoes, trusting in her musicians to follow her. She sat and put her skill of the beat on display, through which she demonstrated her vigour and excitement; with crisp and well-articulated movements of her hands and wrists turning delicately with each movement well defined, it demonstrated an energy of perseverance.

Although there was a certain degree of isolation between the audience and the performer, the energy of the performer still can create a dialogue with the audience, which gives it its feminine element. On the surface, due to its venue, the performance has a mask of a very isolated and therefore, masculine nature but as it unfolds, it carries within a strong sense of belonging and is able to unfold the intrinsic and intimate nature of the performance, hence bringing out the femininity of the performance.

Interpreting the point of culmination: Duende

                  In her documentary, she speaks about her certainty in the beat and the point she reaches while following her instinct within the dance form, is that point is where her body intertwines with her soul. It is a sort of ‘event’ that marks the realms to a new space where there is no duality. This marks a sort of transcendental space, in which there are is opposition. In a certain sense, that transcendence alludes towards duende; as Lorca suggested, “Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline.” It is that force that reckons inside the soul of the being; it is something that can only be conceptualised through the sense of feeling and not through the intellect.

In other words, it is that which can only be interpreted through ‘feeling’ and not just the rational faculty. It is that moment in which the ‘real’ can only be felt and grasped. “The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things,” in that sense, duende is something that exists within its non-existence, it is a sort of path of transcendence, a space where new possibilities can occur. It is that space where there is no definition, or form; it is genderless.

Experiencing the Pena (traditional) Flamenco Performances

Attending the Pena Flamenco performances on the 8th of April, 2018 I entered the Church Hall of the Holy Apostles and was welcomed by the people sitting on the round tables right next to the stage. A woman who I had met at the Flamenco workshop greeted me and asked me to join her at her table, alongside her friend who was an old lady. The woman had been learning Flamenco for ten years; as we sat at one of the round tables, I saw the crowd dressed in long, bright colours, standing in a row to start dancing. But it was quite difficult to distinguish the performers from the guests, because many people sat around the tables next to the dancers.

Slowly, the music started playing and everyone in the crowd joined in. I forced my friend to dance with me as we joined in. People welcomed us and were very inviting and open. As, I joined in and tried to copy the movements, the performers in the front of the row were trying to accommodate and teach everyone who was willing. In that sense, the intimacy that the audience felt through the dance was on the surface ‘exclusive’ but at the same time it was quite inviting.

As the music went on, the audience and the dancers kept on following the rhythm; it became difficult to differentiate between the performers and the audience as many people there had some previous knowledge of flamenco, the only factor that was distinct was some of the dancers’ costumes. However, as the music went on, mostly everyone present started moving all over the place. While dancing, I could feel the intensity of the music, which the woman later told me is called “duende.” It is experiencing that space which is genderless.

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