The story of flamenco in New York is a long and rich one—far too complicated to fit into one room, no matter how big. But you get a sense of the many strands in “100 Years of Flamenco in New York,” an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The gallery walls are covered with images of the Spanish beauties of yesteryear—some posing like matadors, others whirling in ruffled skirts or brandishing castanets, their lips painted a waxy red, or so we deduce from the black-and-white photographs.
There are also pictures of stomping men, and those wearing broad-brimmed hats. There are cases filled with newspaper clippings, green satin jackets and even a 1951 José Ramirez guitar signed by legendary dancer Vicente Escudero. Best of all are four video screens where you can watch historic footage of some of the artists, dancing and even talking about their art. These are just a few of the many evocative pieces of a historical jigsaw puzzle organized by Carlota Santana, director of the Flamenco Vivo dance company, and curated by flamenco scholars K. Meira Goldberg and Ninotchka Bennahum.
From the late-18th century until the present day, Spanish dancers and musicians have trouped across New York stages, presenting audiences with a variety of Spanish traditions of varying authenticity. Ranging from the folkloric to the balletic, many of the early shows had little to do with flamenco, nor did they pretend to. To American audiences, who knew little of Spanish culture, it was all the same. Pretty señoritas in ruffles were all they required.
La Argentina: the mother of theatrical Spanish dance
Things got more serious when the talented Antonia Mercé, La Argentina, (1888-1936), made her New York debut in 1917, dancing to music by classical composer Enrique Granados. A dozen years later, she’d become the darling of New York and all of Europe, performing a repertoire of folk dances from Spain’s many provinces, including the jota from Aragon and “the flamenco of Andalusia,” as one contemporary American critic put it.
For flamenco aficionados, quotes like that send up red flags. Flamenco is not a dance, or even a single musical form. It’s a complex and varied musical tradition that may—sometimes—include dancers. To say that La Argentina danced “the flamenco” would be like saying that Natalia Osipova got up and “did the ballet.” Right away, you know the writer doesn’t have a clue.
“100 Years of Flamenco in New York” necessarily relies on old news clips to tell much of its story. Many of them are misinformed. The curators rightly point out “the exoticizing gaze of New York critics” and suggest that flamenco developed here partly in response to what American critics and audiences expected. They also show how the flamenco scene became a melting pot of many cultures. Ballet, modern dance, jazz and Latin American traditions helped shape the shows appearing on New York stages.
The show’s commentary explains that many of these dancers weren’t Spanish at all. Carola Goya (1906-1994) was born Carol Weller in the U.S.A. and died her hair black before launching her career. José Greco (1918-2000), a world-famous star during the ‘40s, and ‘50s, was an Italian named Costanzo Greco Bucci, raised in Brooklyn. Even La Argentina, in many ways the mother of theatrical Spanish dance, was born—as her name suggests—in Argentina. The charmingly styled Andalusian dances she offered in her repertoire were a far cry from what most people think of today when they think of flamenco.
Carmen Amaya: a flamenco revolution
The 1941 arrival in New York of legendary Gypsy dancer Carmen Amaya (1917-1963) was a revolutionary moment. First among flamenco’s dancing greats, she is still remembered with awe by those old enough to have seen her. In the library’s Vincent Astor Gallery, she stares down from the red wall, looking as self-possessed as a young Rudolph Nureyev. In each pose, her features seem seized by a laser-like emotional focus.
Unlike most of the other women pictured on these walls, Amaya was not a conventional beauty by either American or Spanish standards. Her skin was bronze, her hips narrow, and she lacked the “regal carriage” expected of Spanish dancers. In fact, most Spaniards of her day wouldn’t have considered her Spanish. That’s because Amaya was a Gypsy, or a gitana, a member of a despised ethnic group that had been denied access to mainstream Spanish society for generations. While many professional Spanish dancers learned their craft in genteel dance academies to the sound of tinkling pianos, Amaya grew up in the streets of Barcelona, performing for coins, accompanied by her guitarist father. Her flamenco was the actual flamenco gitano.
On stage there was nothing of the “gentler sex” about her. Amaya’s face alone conveyed more intensity than most dancers express with their entire bodies. Her magnificent furrowed brow, narrowed eyes and flared nostrils epitomized everything that classical Spanish dancing was not. This powerful mien carried through her every movement. When she spun, she attacked with the speed and ferocity of a leopard.
But, more than anything, it was the complex rhythms she created with her hands and feet that marked Amaya as a superb artist. Her partnership with Gypsy guitarist Agustín Castellón Campos, better known as Sabicas, was a collaboration between two great musicians who improvised within the traditional and highly proscribed structures of flamenco. The two can be heard performing an extraordinary bulerías that’s part of a tape loop playing at the exhibition. Visitors would do well to close their eyes and just listen to this tape, before feasting on the imagery in the show. First and last, flamenco is a musical tradition.
You can see Amaya dance in several of the video clips. In the music she uses, one can read the story of her career and also the story of flamenco as it left Spain and traveled around the world. In a 1939 film, “Embrujado del Fandango,” shot in Cuba just three years after she left Spain, Amaya is already dancing to orchestrated music, featuring strings, brass and woodwinds. It is far from traditional flamenco, but close in spirit to paso doble –bullfight music—popular among the Latin American audiences that had become her new market.
Flamenco’s mongrel nature
Every well-curated exhibition has a strong point-of-view, a series of ideas that form an argument. “100 Years of Flamenco in New York” argues for the multicultural nature of flamenco, both in this American city and beyond. It’s always been a mongrel art and always will be, is the implicit message that runs through the show.
Anyone who’s studied the history of flamenco, from its early beginnings to the present, knows this to be true. Flamenco was probably first forged in the nexus of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures that came together in medieval Spain; and it was likely tempered by the Gypsies who arrived in Iberia soon after. It has absorbed elements of many musical traditions in the centuries since.
In the last 50 years, some of New York’s most-respected flamenco performers have been Americans who moved to Spain, lived among that country’s “untouchables,” then brought elements of that distinctive gitano style home to American schools and theaters. The exhibition’s co-curator K. Meira Goldberg, La Meira, is one such researcher and dancer. Henriette Yedid-Halevi Lubart (1947–2003), known as Tibu la Tormenta, was another. The New York flamenco dance scene wouldn’t be what it is today without them—more evidence of flamenco’s international and ever-changing face.
Yet the more essential truth is that flamenco lives and breathes in Spain. It was born long ago in the patios and bars of Andalusian cities and pueblos. And it lives on there. For the flamencos of Spain, it’s more than an entertainment or a way to make a living. It’s a way of life, a musical and philosophical sensibility that permeates everything. For them, New York may be a stop on the tour, a lucrative booking. But mostly it’s just a station along the way.
Among the greatest flamenco artists of the last 100 years, the vast majority were born and bred in Iberia. Within that group, most have been gitanos. Many of their names are not well known in New York because they never or rarely toured. Some were so poor even Madrid seemed impossibly distant to them. If you really want to understand flamenco, their Andalusia is the place to start.
“100 Years of Flamenco in New York” is an exciting and provocative look at the history of this art on the New York stage. Soak yourself in its sounds and images. Follow some of its many intriguing threads. If you fall in love with New York flamenco, sooner or later you’ll probably end up in Spain.
100 Years of Flamenco in New York
Vincent Astor Gallery, New York Public Library of the Performing Arts
40 Lincoln Center Plaza – First Floor Plaza Level – New York City