A month ago I went to a flamenco performance in New York knowing nothing about anything. It was after Christmas and not a lot was happening dance-wise, but I trawled the listings on NYT and there was a reference to Noche Flamenca. They were doing a piece called “La Ronde” and another called “Creación.”
By this point I had spent slightly more on booze than on cultural outings, so to ease my conscience I went online and bought a ticket pronto. The confirmation email said **The venue is a non-traditional space with church-pew seating and may not conform to standard theatrical specifications or expectations.**
It took forever to get to the Upper West Side, and when I arrived it had been dark for a while. It’s funny they said it was non-traditional, because strictly speaking it was anything but. The West Park Presbyterian Church has only one space—it’s the space where people go to church. Somehow they’ve refashioned it during night-time so it had an elevated stage up front, theater lighting, and curtains to the side. An usher showed me to my seat, indicated by a little sticker on the backrest; everyone was American and had big coats and so I was wedged in the middle of a pew like some penitent faithful.
First came the stomping. It was a wooden stage with a hollow core, I know, but when the company first came on stage and danced it was startling. There was a kind of willfulness, not that of a petulant child, but that of people who took literally the phrase “making your mark.” Animal loud. For those who didn’t stomp they used walking sticks, one in each hand, and hit the ground with such force and precision I thought something would break. Everyone was percussive all the time. It was like reading prose that insisted on crazy punctuation.
And then came the singing. It was only when Carmina Cortes began to sing that I realized that, fuck, I don’t know Spanish. There may be no better testimony to human stupidity than my going to a flamenco performance and expecting it to be in English: Noche Flamenca, La Ronde, Creación—I’ve been staring at the words for a few days and somehow it never clicked. Cortes, who I later learnt should be referred to as a cantaora, was introducing the characters... I think. I guess. The thing ended up being 90 minutes long without intermission and every single word went right over my head. (In other words, exactly like law school.)
It is very difficult for me to write about flamenco, especially about the dancing. Some write about it superbly: Juan Ogalla did, in fact, dance in a “shower of sweat.” There’s a solo number where he’s backlit, and even though I was seated near the back I saw specks flying from his frenzied form. When he danced it felt like a death-defying feat. The bit with the castanets was also memorable. Marina Elana did a thing with her arms which I can concur was “eloquently seductive.” But all of this I read after I went home. What was apparent to me, even then, was how wordless I was, how devoid of appropriate vocabulary. The worst fear of every cultural critic is the inability to comment intelligently.
Flamenco is flowing but angular, sensual but sharp. See, I can write a line like that and it comes out okay, but I have no earthly idea whether it is actually insightful or mundane.
In truth, it went more like this: there was this old lady that kept shouting Olé the whole time (which I presumed was acceptable but came across too eager), and then this old man who shouted Olé some of the time, and then there was the rest of us who shouted Olé when the old lady and the old man were in agreement. I have no taste so I predicated my Olés on the basis on technical virtuosity. If a move looked difficult I’d Olé. I Olé-d Juan Ogalla a lot but NYT called him “peacocking” and in retrospect it could be argued his dancing was on the showy side. My parents used to say it was a mistake to bring young children on expensive holidays, because they likely can’t appreciate them and will certainly forget them. That was me watching Noche Flamenca, Olé-ing like a fool.
It was all going swimmingly but then Creación came along. Keep in mind this was a world famous dance company performing a work about love and desire inside a mid-sized Presbyterian Church, featuring flamenco celebrity Soledad Barrio in traditional dress. Suffice to say, it was already not something you see every day.
And then they brought in TweetBoogie.
When I first read the program, scanning the names, I was like: Soledad Barrio, Juan Ogalla, Manuel Gago, David Rodriguez, Emilio Florido, Salva de María, Eugenio Iglesias, Carmina Cortes, and—TweetBoogie?! But I was once again ill-informed and under-educated. How could I have not known TweetBoogie, hip-hop legend of the South Bronx? It was moments such as these that made me question the value of my learning. And so, without fanfare, where the Noche Flamenca company had only moments ago been performing a classical guitar piece, TweetBoogie took the stage in confident strides, in sneakers.
What happened next was one of the most provocative dialogues I’ve seen. Technically it was a duet, because Soledad Barrio and TweetBoogie were dancing at the same time, to the same music, facing each other as though separated by a funhouse mirror. But make no mistake, it was a dance-off: competition and collaboration between flamenco and hip-hop. The methods diverged but the intent was shared. Each, alone, had expressed themselves in a way which seemed almost natural; but together I began to see how distinct and calculated—and strange—each was. TweetBoogie and Barrio embodied their styles so well that each movement, even the way they stop, was coloured by personality and history.
Everything was held in a precious balance. What was perhaps most incredible was that flamenco and hip-hop can talk to each other without talking over each other. Soledad Barrio and TweetBoogie danced in perfect tandem for, I don’t know, half a minute. Frankly I had no idea what they were saying. But the way they said it was spectacular.
Noche Flamenca’s La Ronde and Creación was performed from Dec. 26 through Jan. 7 at the West Park Presbyterian Church at Amsterdam & 86th. Visit their site here.