Iberia Japonesa

Thursday evening provided no relief from the humid heat of the day.  I met with The Flamenca, a Flamenco dancer I had met at the gym, to see Domingo Ortega at El Flamenco in Shinjuku.

I had seen flamenco greats like Paco de Lucia on large stages, but this was my first time experiencing flamenco in an intimate and artistic, as opposed to traditional, setting.

Show business people are voracious spectators.  I want to like a performance, and I want to know why I like it.  I want to know if it is the performer or the genre that absorbs me.  Above all, I want to see the performers naked.

All of the best performers perform naked – technique finely-honed to allow loss-free communication between artist and public.  I use a metaphor of a window to describe the function of an artist.  The raw material represents the body and mind, and a window’s transparency is limited by the natural quality of its material.  All our scribbling, in our notepads, our hours in the gym, our still-life studies, our scales, our vocal training, all are efforts to improve the transparency of our windowpane.

But this training alone, the choice of materials, is not even half of the process.  The ability to perform – to communicate through that window – takes work of a different sort.  This is the grinding and the polishing and the honing of our materials so that images pass undistorted into the eyes, ears, and hearts of our spectators, readers, and listeners.

As I was watching the flamenco, trying to understand while simultaneously trying to turn of my brain, it was a great help having The Flamenca, an accomplished flamenco dancer and former Domingo Ortega Company member, providing occasional commentary and technical notes.  She also insured that my glass of vino rojo frio never dried up.

She taught me about the rhythmic styles of the dances, the narrative styles of the songs.  The give-and-take between the musicians and the dancers, the structure of the show itself.  She explained the physical vocabulary and the technical training, the aesthetics of the proper curve, and the American vs Euopean vs Mexican interpretations of the dance’s sex appeal.  She helped me tease apart what aspects of a performance were a direct result of the technical style and training, and which were tied a a given performer’s personality.

I noticed a good performance inspired less questioning.

By the finale, I had developed enough of an understanding of the flamenco vocabulary to appreciate the famous rhythm manipulations of Mr. Ortega himself.  It was like knowing an inside joke or being plugged into a secret channel of communication at the UN.  It made me smile.

After the show I sat with The Flamenca and the performers, listened to their Iberian Spanish, and understood far more than my limited Spanish should have allowed.  More wine came.  Then beers.  They talked to me about Japan, and teaching flamenco to the Japanese.

“They will never be able to dance flamenco becuase they do not understand the passion.  They feel something when they watch a flamenco dancer and want to experience it themselves, so they decide to take flamenco lessons.”

It’s true, I guess.  That’s a little backwards.  It’s a passionate life that leads to powerful dance.  We can not dissect the physical etymology of passion in order to reproduce it.

Begoñia, a dancer whose flashing green eyes had entranced me from the stage, was sitting across from me in a loose and casually drooping pale avocado top that matched her eyes perfectly.  Next to her was the troupe’s solo singer whose voice and laugh reminded me of Spanish hip-hop artist Mala Rodriguez.

I like people who you can look right in the eye for more than 30 seconds.  Again, it is like being plugged into a secret channel.  We talk with our voices, but we understand another message entirely.

Understanding languages is the key to understanding the world.  The more I travel the world meeting new people the more deeply I believe in this platitude.  Understanding languages is different from speaking languages, however.  An openness and a sensitivity to body language is part of understanding any language.  What is unspoken is always – always – more important than what is being said.

Begoñia’s keeps her jawline tilted downwards; she has to lift her eyes to look at me, which she does on occasion.  When she does so, she lifts the right side of her mouth in a knowing way and speaks to her colleagues in Spanish.  They always laugh; sometimes I get a translation, usually not.  As we leave, The Flamenca asks if I understood anything.  I said I understood enough.  She tells me her friends liked me a lot.  I had spoken about two sentences.  It was OK, I liked her friends too.

I find out after we leave the restaurant that The Flamenca has had quite a distinguished career, every year she travels a circuit of Madrid – New York – Tokyo – New York.  She has met with or worked with some of the most well-known names in dance (Baryshnikov, Paco de Lucia), and has even performed in a French flamenco/circus hybrid performance.

She tells me that performing artists pass through a progression of phases in their professional like.  The first stage is associated largely with the sensation of being in front of an audience – of believing in the lie that applause equals love.  The next stage is related to the quality of the work we perform.  We want to take responsibility for what we present on stage.  After some discussion, we decided that this stage is accompanied by a new sort of obsessive training, training to perfect ourselves more than to please our audience.  If the audience likes us, they will appreciate this sort of training.  If they don’t like us, well: that is a bigger problem.

This was all a big flirtation.  Everything.  Some people flirt by prentending to be something they are not; all bravado.  Though with all the talk of honesty and genuineness that night, it was clear that this approach doesn’t hold everyone’s interest.  It was bravado and roleplaying that killed my last night out.  It was candid flirtation that made this night memorable.

Candid flirtation is about showing who you really are and expressing genuine interest in the person you are with.  You need wit, you need class, and you need restraint.  It is more about helping the other person succeed than showing off.  It is a two-person free-form improvisation with each other as an audience.  An audience always knows (whether they know it or not) when they are getting short-changed by a performer.

“Stop asking me to marry you,” she tells me over a drink. “I never say yes.  Never.  I don’ wan’ marry with you.”  She looks off to the side.  “I don’ waste my time.”


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