This year marked the 24th Festival de Jerez with the critics’ choice award going to Manuel Liñán’s production of ¡VIVA! I have not seen this work live but have been fortunate to see two productions by Manuel Liñán; Sinergia and Baile de Autor respectively. After watching several excerpts and reading a number of online press reviews, which praise ¡VIVA! as a triumph, Liñán manages to glean ideas from a selection of previous works while exploring personal elements that continue to resonate most importantly in him.

At the heart of the work is an ongoing discourse that many flamenco artists continue to grapple with and try to overcome. This concerns the evolution of flamenco as a tradition while it tries to incorporate more universal values in theatrical performance settings. For at least the last two decades many artists have explored flamenco through the lens of contemporary form.

Liñán is first and foremost a flamenco artist, skilled in the dance aspect of the form, and a body steeped in the principles of flamenco. Like him, many of his contemporaries generate work from a range of disparate sources. Some use more folk and popular forms while others have gone in search of the experimental spirit of the modernist vanguard. To some extent it’s now become fashionable to bend the rules but generally most productions still rely extensively on a flamenco mandate, re-contextualising the art form within the margins of tradition.

In my view Liñán sits more at the conservative end, making work accessible to audiences by satisfying preconceived notions of what flamenco represents. As such, the prize-winning accolade does not rest on its groundbreaking choreographic standing or conceptual achievement. Instead it capitalises on a knowledge both culturally and socially embedded, which makes it connect more readily to audiences and especially those discerning critics in Spain.

As a long-standing tradition the resonance of flamenco reigns supreme in a place like Jerez de la Frontera, defining many aspects of quotidian life. Officially named Cuidad de Flamenco (City of Flamenco), Jerez inaugurated its first official festival dedicated to the art from in 1997. As a festival it brings together amateur and professional, enthusiasts and aficionados on local, national and international spheres.

In this particular performance a group of men pose as women in gaudy flamenco attire and vestiges of sympathy expressing a more explicit form of flamenco. Simultaneously however they are driven by the charged, high-definition of opposition, masculine/feminine, liberation/repression, imitation/genuine, complex/straightforward, where beneath the surface of one side of a duality flows the undercurrent of its opposite.

Liñán demonstrates skill dancing in both male and female attire, which he has expertly crafted. His ensemble of men have also established careers in the art form and no doubt deliver a high level of technical skill and artistry, each to their own accord and to varying degrees. The dancers are characterised as divas; a flamenco, drag cabaret, which both ridicules and uses humour to trivialise the art form, much in the same way that transvestism entails.

It is precisely this aspect of the performance where the audience connects. The ostentatious nature of their costumes, make-up and hair are not that dissimilar from the truth. The way they move, behave and carry themselves as men also matches their female counterparts, using a palette of prescribed movement and gesture both personal and exaggerated in its staging.

In a press conference prior to the performance, Liñán defends the work as a gender transformation rather than a representation of women, where each member brings their own set of skills and identity, visualising their feminine side through both costume and dance. The drag metaphor appears as a sign of liberation – a border crossing that signifies agency and newly constructed identities. On the other hand we see a mere masquerade that hides the performers underlying identity. Only in the final scene is the role-play reversed with each performer removing their costume, shoes and wig to reveal the ramifications of a more vulnerable self, sprinkled with just a few scattered remains.

However for the courage to be believable and not laughable, the palpability of the loss or the vulnerability must be felt and exhibited equally. The loss has to somehow trickily walk alongside the courage in every moment and this I suspect is difficult to achieve. In contrast Liñán uses transvestism to describe two contradictory but inseparable performances. The first calls attention to itself as performance while the second attempts to eliminate any trace of performance and pass unnoticed as the opposite sex.

It is interesting for me as a gay man to witness the progression or rather the lack of response to the obvious metaphor being played out here. Yet it would be reductive to suggest that all men who dress in drag are homosexual or that homosexuality immediately implies drag. Many transvestites are heterosexual, or bisexual, and therefore no clear relationship can be established between drag and homosexuality. Nevertheless, the two are often interlinked, as drag has played a fundamental role in gay liberation movements all over the world.

Dancers: Manuel Liñán, Manuel Betanzos, Jonatán Miro, Hugo López, Miguel Angel Heredia, Víctor Martin, and Daniel Ramos.

During Spain’s economic liberation in the 60s and early 70s, official pro-regime film participated as a propaganda machine for tourism, propagating the notion of rapid modernisation. Strategically combining culture and tourism under one banner, the Ministry of Tourism circulated picture postcard images of flamenco stereotypes conceived for an expendable market. Carefully constructed, flamenco dancers dressed in colourful costumes adorned with polka dots, flowers, ruffles, fans and shawls exuded an aura of exoticism.

Liñán’s work cleverly references these rhetorical, overblown images in the form of dancing drag personas, epitomised through an unrestrained passion and spirit, bursting forth into flamenco because it cannot be contained inside any longer. Simultaneously, transvestism is a particularly apt metaphor to describe post-Franco Spain on account of the fact that the Transition appeared to be accompanied by the first public manifestations of drag. The rapid increase of drag cabarets and the first gay manifestation, headed by Catalan drag queens in the 70s, signalled a sexual transition that paralleled the political shift to democracy. While drag cabarets and transvestism certainly existed prior to the fall of Franco’s regime, the Transition permitted a formerly denied visibility, and heightened public awareness.

Curiously drag culture has manifested its way into Spain’s quotidian life. For example in Andalusia, ‘Carnival’ festivities in both Cadiz and Tenerife incorporate an annual drag pageant embraced and supported by a discerning local public. Men predominately compete in a walk down the runway for the best costume display. More recently and comparably RuPaul’s Drag Race has also propelled drag culture into the mainstream. Yet drag cannot transcend the gender norms that it invariably inscribes and nor is it a new identity. Drag has a long history of destabilising identity and rendering it unresolved. 

As in previous works by Liñán references to his sexuality are both apparent but also somewhat disguised within the principles and aesthetics of the form. For example in Baile de Autor there is a segment where Liñán chooses to dance in a white bata de cola (trail dress), using both a fan and shawl, with extraordinary execution and skill. Yet beyond the first few minutes the gender difference vanishes. I was no longer watching a man in a dress but rather a person transcending the fine details of a form and expressing a genuine self because that is the way he feels it.

Other male dancers including some prominent figures in flamenco such as Joaquin Cortéz, Marco Flores and David Romero have also worn a tail dress and managed it with equal precision. However the use of such objects traditionally associated with women and regardless of gender tend to end up being used in exactly the same way.

The cultural transvestism in Liñán’s piece reflects his personal agenda and offers both a celebratory and clever approach to reframe a new work. Together with his ensemble, Liñán symbolises a liberatory desire, which fleshes out both the context of gender, while simultaneously echoing the political landscape of change in Spain. Conversely the modelling of drag as performance and within its boundaries exaggerates heterosexual gender norms, which both oppose and comply with the regimes of power that constitute him/her as a subject. In order to exist within a socio-political system, the drag performer is forced into complicity, implying that beneath the façade little has changed.

Despite this contextual limitation Liñán defends and seeks cross-dressing as a form of expression beyond its derogatory or comic sense. The ambiguous nature of drag is also the source of the works theoretical and cultural interest. Drag has found voice as both an underground subculture and more so now in mainstream society, symbolising a freedom of expression, ruled out during forty years of cultural oppression in Spain.

The long-term effects of this regime have unquestionably left lasting impressions on the Spanish political, cultural, and social scene. Flamenco became and continues to be a recognisable symbol served up to the tourist in the form of a product and a brand of national marketing, reinforced through historical transcripts and film.

In an attempt to transcend the drag façade ¡VIVA! requires each performer to interrogate their practice in order to create an alter-flamenco drag performer. While this is not a new persona in itself, there is a tension as each artist reaches in and tries to grapple with his or her own personal demons. Experiences of rejection, difference or marginalization, which have arisen through heteronormative codes in mainstream society act as a primary vehicle.   

There is always a sense that Liñán tries to replicate these experiences in his work, leaving us with an honest interpretation of his life or others coming full circle. Seeing him dance brings to my mind an eccentric child back in the early 90s who couldn’t articulate why he felt socially awkward. A child who sat alone or sometimes felt like a wallflower but came alive dancing and twirling in a pretty, colourful dress. A child, who lost himself in a dance and managed to discover a kaleidoscope of colour, mixed with feelings of freedom and a higher self. Untouchable. Full. Absorbed in a moment free from inhibition. A child who dances to express and now wants to work.

By Tomas Arroquero | 16th April 2020

Flamenco Files

When it comes to flamenco and the evolution of an art form, almost all historians describe accounts as approximations because so little of its history has been written down. These uncertainties are kept alive as stories, but the storytellers often contradict one another or take on the character of the author who sometimes imbues the story with their own prejudice or bias.

For example if a reporter interviews a flamenco from Córdoba, the interviewee will almost definitely claim that Córdoba is the “cradle of flamenco.” However the interviewer is likely to receive the same information from a flamenco in Jerez de la Frontera, Seville or Granada, because each of these places has been instrumental in the development of flamenco at different times.

Regional pride pervades amongst flamenco artists from different regions in Andalucía. Regionalism is also reflected in the many different song forms or palos, and these are grouped into different song families. Some families are classified through measured rhythmic cycles, which act as a marker for identification. For example tangos in 4/4 time is both a palo and a song family, which includes the palos of tientos, tangos and tanguillos.

Different styles have also developed within certain song forms and this has contributed to the convoluted classification of styles. For example most flamenco historians will connect the song form of soleá to Cadíz or Seville, but there are several soleares specific to precincts in Seville like soleá de Triana, or different cities in Spain such as soleá de Alcalá, de Jeréz, de Cadíz, de Lebrija and Utrera. Consequently there are hundreds of song styles in flamenco because adaptations have developed over time amongst specific communities and were popularised by key individuals.

As flamenco dancers we concern ourselves firstly with form and the practice of repeating measured sequences with musical accompaniment. Only through experience do we encounter stories about different song forms, which further our knowledge and deepen our relationship to the art form.

By Tomas Arroquero | 5th January 2020

Flamenco Women

An unexpected film documents an ensemble of female flamenco dancers during a 6-day rehearsal process in 1997. The film titled Flamenco Women culminates in a dramatically staged event, which takes place in a large, private drawing room before a swarm of celebrities.  

From the director and musician Mike Figgis the film is captured in both a showing room and the famous Amor De Dios studios in Madrid. The dance protagonists Eva La Yerbabuena and Sara Baras are pioneering artists of their generation and practice flamenco in a way that has now become standard for female performers in the 21st century.

Footwork plays a much more significant role in their work compared to the work of women of former generations. Still maintaining the traditional feminine role these women compose their solos much the same way as jazz musicians do, referring back to the rhythmic meter underpinning the structure of the dance.

Figgis captures a moment in flamenco’s history and manages to convey a key quality through the poetry and imagery of flamenco. Like a fly-on-the-wall documentary the film records realistically the labour of the rehearsal process. Both Yerbabuena and Baras grapple to convey their intentions to musicians and other dancers steeped in the same discipline. Beyond translation these ideas alter the relationship between steps and their traditional arrangements.

The space these artists create while still maintaining orthodox forms of behavior – as flamencos and as women in flamenco – empowers the next generation to take more risk.

Watch the film here:

By Tomas Arroquero | 5th January 2020