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In Search of Duende in New York

During ten days this February, flamenco artists born and bred in Andalusia, Spain, filled several concert halls throughout New York for the Ninth Annual Flamenco Festival. New Yorkers could once more get a taste of flamenco straight from the source, from the heart of its very existence, from where it continues to live, breathe and evolve on a daily basis.

Judging by the audience of the festival’s opening night performance, “Noche de Sevilla,” however, few non-Spaniards got to see it.

Not that opening night wasn’t well attended. On the contrary. New York University’s Skirball Center seemed filled to capacity. But, as acknowledged by the mayor of Seville before the show, flamenco was a foreign culture for only few audience members.

“I know all of you understand my language [meaning Spanish], but I want to say something in English, too: thank you all for coming,” he addressed the audience and exaggerated only slightly.

There was no doubt a sprinkling of flamenco devotees of non-Spanish origin who sat silently in the concert hall, but not enough to make a mark. Before the show, the lobby upstairs resounded with the soft sounds of Andalusian Spanish and it seemed like a Spanish homecoming of sorts. The city’s entire Andalusian community had come to replenish their souls with the living duende (or soul force) of flamenco.

Duende evades precise definition, but in the words of Federico García Lorca, who wrote a 100-page tract in search of duende, it “is a power and not a construct, it is a struggle and not a concept. That is to say, it is not a question of aptitude, but of a true and viable style—of blood, in other words; of what is oldest in culture: of creation made act.”

By all measures, “Noche de Sevilla” contained the duende New York is in dire need of. The cantaor (flamenco singer) Arcángel and his entourage of two palmeros (clappers), one tocaor (guitarist), a bailaora (dancer), a pianist and percussionist filled the room not only with heart-felt song, dance and music, but also with an infectiously spontaneous creative camaraderie. This was palpable especially between those representing the more traditional pillars of flamenco—cantaor, bailaora, tocaor, and palmeros.

Although Arcángel was rightly billed as the show’s star, (I’m sure many have swooned over a man with such vocal emotional dexterity), no one artist took the lead. At one point it was the two palmeros who clapped with such unpredictably varying textures that they seemed to reroute a song’s course. The rest of the entourage spontaneously cheered and followed suit. At another point the tocaor pushed his own limits in an exploration of just how dexterously a guitar can be strummed, fingered, and knocked. Again, the others nodded heads appreciatively. The bailaora, Rosario Toledo, too, seemed to taunt her male colleagues into varying emotional qualities of music–she tempted, seduced, discarded, loved, and yearned. Toledo subtly snaked her way through the semi-circle of surrounding men, surprising the tocaor with an explosion of rhythmic taconeos (stomps) to his left, stunning Arcángel with sweeping arms and contorted body to his right.

These artists exuded remarkable spontaneity and delight throughout the whole proscenium theater. It is one thing to indulge in artistic whims and flourishes in a backroom bar. It is an entirely different matter to carry the delight of letting these whims take their course into a traditional concert hall. To do so, I would argue, requires duende. And here it was present.

This duende, however, did not transcend some of the ensemble’s more “Western” flourishes. For example, the pianist, Dorantes, had less of a collaborative role. Piano, not traditionally part of flamenco’s musical base, is harder to integrate, even logistically speaking. Collaborations between Dorantes and Toledo were less of a dialogue and more like two monologues. Here Toledo again and again left behind the fierceness of flamenco—aggressive taconeos, clearly carving arms—to indulge in softer, more fluid, “generic” turns and sways. When Toledo broke the rhythm of her stomps and interrupted the viscous flow of passion visible in her body, her energy and expressivity sunk at once and her previously weighted presence became elusive.

Although these adornments sometimes diminished the overall force of “Noche de Sevilla,” they did shed a welcome light on what some of Spain’s more innovative artists are doing today. Diversity in style, it seems, is part of what living, breathing flamenco has produced. Even odder, then, that “Noche de Sevilla” didn’t attract a more diverse audience.

But New Yorkers will soon have another opportunity to search for duende in Spanish flamenco when Soledad Barrio comes to the New Victory Theatre with Noche Flamenca later this month (April 24 - May 3). Based on Ms. Barrio’s previous New York appearances, the audience should expect to be engulfed by the raw soul force that is the bedrock of flamenco, but that not all artists possess. The program includes existing repertory pieces and the world premiere of Camino, a work inspired by stories and poems written by United Nations refugees, souls whose spirits overcome hardship on a daily basis. Their vigor, in addition to Ms. Barrio’s and Noche Flamenca’s, will surely nourish the souls of those who are there.


Mary Staub

Mary Staub is a freelance writer and dancer from Switzerland who teaches at NYU and bikes in Prospect Park. You can find her at


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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