As the conversation continues, Belén talks about critics and reviews, audience interaction, racism, and more. Her work has evolved over the years and she discusses her search for deeper meaning and closer contact with audiences. She explains how she started connecting with her Roma ancestry and how she sees Roma culture within broader Spanish society and today’s flamenco community.
Several things strike me about Belén’s artistic approach. She embraces both the thoughtful, intellectual mind and the spontaneous, intuitive mind. Many artists lean heavily on one approach or the other, but she clearly relies on both. Of particular importance to her current work is the concept of “present time,” which is rooted in a performance’s immediate context. Amongst other things, this context includes the culture of the country she’s in, the physical space where she’s performing, and the people for whom she’s performing.
The interview was conducted on April 06, 2018, at the Ikea restaurant/café in Jerez De La Frontera, Spain. It is being presented over the course of several posts.
For whom do you really perform? Is it for yourself, the other people in your group, the public, or something different?
I dance for myself. That’s something I needed from the beginning and it’s never changed. Dancing has always been a way to heal my wounds, my problems, and to understand myself better. There was always this very private ritual and I didn’t relate to anybody, not to the audience, not to the musicians. Little by little I started to open [up] to the audience and share. There was a big change after Mayte Martín and the company we had, in which I introduced the audience to my game. But it’s always been my game. I started playing with them, allowing them to enter, and share. Until then, it was me, by myself, not even the musicians, very private. I think that was not good for me. It was too closed. Sometimes I couldn’t get through to the audience, there was no transmission. If you’re an artist, there has to be a transmission.
Do you remember your first performance? Was it a good experience or bad?
I was a bad, bad, bad experience. It was with my father, in his company, and I was in the last of the last row. I had a terrible time. I was shy and I was terrified.
What are some of your best experiences on stage?
With Mayte Martín in Jerez, for example, in the Festival de Jerez. It was one of those perfect days, perfect. Another one that I remember was in the Bienal [de Sevilla] four years ago. I had just divorced my husband in August and this was September. I was horrible, really bad, and I closed the show with a Soleá. It was José Valencia and me facing each other like this (gestures), and it was incredible. It was a catharsis for me. I broke loose from everything, totally free.
And what about some of the worst?
The worst (laughing)! Two weeks ago in Oslo in this little space. It was not a tablao, it was like a little night club, really small. The musicians were not Spanish and I didn’t have time to rehearse with them. [We only had] like 40 minutes or something. We all got on stage without really knowing each other. There was no communication and no way to communicate so they didn’t understand what I was doing. It was terrible, the speed, everything, horrible. I decided I was never again going to dance with someone that doesn’t know me unless I have at least two or three days to rehearse.
When you do a show and there are reviews or critiques written, do you typically read those?
I used to, but no.
How do they affect you?
I used to get so mad. There are these critics, in Sevilla basically, that are so stuck in tradition. They know a lot about singing and flamenco history and all this, but they know nothing about art, nothing. They don’t care about other music or dance or anything. They just love flamenco and a certain kind of flamenco. They used to kill me, cut my head off. [It was] very personal, [they were] mean critics. One day I just said, “I’m not going to read anymore,” and I’ve never read them since.
How does it make you feel if you read something positive, but of something you felt was below your own standards?
Yeah, I get pissed off too. That comes from the kind of critics in Spain that don’t know anything about dance. I always say the same. They know about flamenco, but not even about flamenco dancing. They know about flamenco singing. Maybe they do a good critique because they like me or they like my style or I was good that day and they say, “ah, she’s a very good dancer, blah, blah, blah.” But there’s no base to what they’re saying because they cannot relate it to anything, just to flamenco. [They are] superficial, so I don’t read them anymore, good or bad.
How do you go about picking your collaborators and what do you look for in them?
I’ve changed the goals for my company. [They are different than they were] in the beginning. I wanted a more lyrical company before. I used voices like Mayte Martín, for example, high pitched, more classical. Lately, in the last fifteen years, I’ve changed to more Roma style, low voices.
Is that when you started working with people like José Valencia?
Yes, exactly, more powerful singers and more improvising. After Mayte I started using stage direction, librettos, scripts, and some choreographers. At first I did everything, and then I changed and tried to find people that understood my vision. I never asked the musicians to understand what I did. Generally, they don’t understand. If you get these types of singers like [José] Valencia or José Anillo, they just want to sing. They’re really into their singing, so I just wanted them to sing. I told José Valencia, “sing por Soleá, and that’s it.” Don’t move, don’t go from this light to that light, nothing. Just sing. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. I tried to get more things out of them. Eventually, I understood they just know how to sing and they’re wonderful at what they do, so okay, that’s fine.
One of the things that interests me about the work of companies like yours or Eva Yerbabuena’s and the bigger dance companies is the importance of rehearsals, of getting the shows together. It’s different than the tablaos, where there are no rehearsals at all. Can you talk to me a little about your rehearsal process and what you do to ensure you have a productive rehearsal?
I depends on the kind of show. With the big company, the shows were elaborate so they had scripts. First, I would get together with the director, the script writer, and the lighting designer and we would do table work and talk a lot about what we wanted. I would read the script and try to develop a character. [There was] an elaborate process before we would ever get into the choreography. Then I would go into the studio. I would get some music and start choreographing the pieces. Generally, they were Soleá, Alegrías, Tarantos, but the palo (style) would be a way to get to what I wanted to say. [The choreography] was not based on the Soleá itself; the Soleá itself was not the important part, it was more like an actress. There was this [elaborate process] and then the musicians would come afterwards and learn what they had to do. That was the big company.
Then I had the small one, which was based more on me and my solos. I would use all kinds of music, not just flamenco. I used recorded music and live music. Maybe 50 percent of the show was improvised and there were no flamenco costumes. All that prep work, there was none of it. It was like performance art. That’s the small company and that’s what I’m still doing now. I stopped with the big company two years ago.
With this small company, the Bienal [de Sevilla] and the [Festival de] Jerez haven’t hired me. They did hire me last year in the off-Bienal and I did the show in the street. I finished the show swimming in a fountain because they put me in the Alcázar de Jerez. My last show is called Romnia and it’s about Roma women. The last number is about a drunken bride. There’s a bride in a gown and she’s dancing around the gardens of the Alcázar de Jerez and there are a bunch of people around. I see a fountain a I say, “Ah!” Nobody really believed I was going to go into the fountain because I had the gown on and I was performing. I put one foot in and everybody gasped. Then I put the other foot in and everybody was freaking out! I just got into it and started swimming. I said to myself, “Okay, there’s a fountain. I have to go! This isn’t a venue. This isn’t a theater.” This is what I want to do now. There’s a lot of rehearsal and preparation, but at least half the show is based on where you’re doing it, for whom you’re doing it, and what type of audience you have.
That interests me too. As I mentioned before, I’m also an architect and therefore interested in space. As a performer, you’ve worked in more traditional, small venues like tablaos and restaurants, and also in biggest of theaters. What are the benefits of each type of space and what do you do, if anything, to adapt to the space and physical place that you’re in?
Theaters are great. I’ve been working with Israel Galván for two years with Lo Real. We have these big, big, big theaters. They’re great because, of course, there’s this protection from the black space, the big stage, and the lights. You’re always here and the audience is there. The spaces are very defined. Everybody knows their place and everybody knows what to [expect] from the performance and that’s magical. For a performer, it’s perfect. Of course, you get a lot from not having to relate to the audience directly. You cannot see their faces and you cannot see their reactions. [However], lately, I [haven’t wanted] that. I want to see the faces of the people. I want to be able to go down and speak to them or make them dance or drag them with me to the stage or make them do something. In Romnia, for example, I ask for money with a plate. I go around and ask for coins. Depending on their reaction, I change. I do different things. The bride also goes down when she’s drunk. She goes down because she’s looking for her ring. She’s lost her ring. She goes ahead looking for the ring and I get all these funny reactions. Sometimes I get angry reactions. For example, in the [United] States, they don’t like to be asked for money. They don’t want the dancer to go down and question them. They don’t trust. For me, that is present time. The big venue is not present time. That space is like a bubble and you could be dancing yesterday. You’re in the past and the audience is somehow in a void. You’re in a void. But, when you’re so close or you’re site specific, those people have to react in present time and you have to react in present time. That’s alive. That’s what I like now and what I need now.
What sprung that curiosity and made you want to switch?
I finished with Israel [Galván] and I had played the character of a Roma woman in the concentration camps. It was powerful and hard work. It was really hard and was difficult emotionally for me. I got in touch with my Roma ancestry through that show. The show ended with a curse. This character cursed the audience. She did specific [cultural] gestures, not dancing, just standing up. She was really close. She would crawl… she was dying; she died in the concentration camp. Before dying, she would crawl and crawl and go to the first row. Sometimes she might go down [off the stage]. Israel built this [path] to the front row and I would crawl and stop just in front of the people in the first row and do my curse. My curse was heavy with really Roma signatures. “I’m cursing you because you did nothing about this!” Something like that. When I finished that show I said, “okay, I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to lose this contact with the audience and with my ancestry.” I wanted to go deep into that. Then I did my solo show Romnia. This is where I play with femininity, Roma [culture], racism, machismo, violence against women, all this. [It’s] all really close [to the audience] because I do it in spaces with only about 60 or 80 seats. I do it in the streets too.
There’s the social and cultural situation here with the Roma and that has a whole history to it. Flamenco has also become such an international art form now. People come here from all over the world to study. What have you seen as far as racism in flamenco? Have you been subjected to it personally in any way?
Racism against Roma is a complicated subject and it’s connected to many things in Spanish society and Spanish history and Spanish art. Since flamenco is made by Roma and non-Roma people, there’s always this blend of Roma influences and Roma ways of living with the non-Roma way of living. In the south it’s integrated, but in other parts of Spain it’s not. Roma are still the “other.” Roma are still judged as inferior, as drug dealers, as criminals, as thieves, as dirty people you cannot trust because they don’t have a home or a job and are not socially adjusted. That’s in Spanish society [in general]. We say in Spain that we’re not racist like in the United States. [In the States] it’s obvious that’s there’s big racism; it’s everywhere, big institutionalized racism. In Spain there’s this political thing where [people say], “we’re not racist, because we’re European.” But, we are. We [definitely] are. In the south you don’t feel it the same way because flamenco in the south is everywhere. Even in the families that don’t have professional artists, there is flamenco. They play, they sing. We Roma are [integrated into] society in the south. In the rest of Spain, if you want to really check out how Roma are treated, you go to the north to Galicia, Asturias, and not to the big cities. Go to the smaller cities and you can see the racism. There’s a deeply-rooted lack of trust. It might not be violent like in France where they burn the dwellings of Roma people. Here in Spain they don’t do that, but, for example, they don’t let them work regular jobs. In flamenco you don’t see racism as much because Roma artists have a lot of power. However, they have artistic power. There is no director of the Bienal [de Flamenco de Sevilla] or the Festival de Jerez or a programmer who is Roma. The big, top decisions to program the big festivals [are not made] by the Roma. The Roma have a place in these festivals, but they have the Roma place. They are ghettoized; they have a ghetto inside the Bienal and inside Festival de Jerez.
They have a place, but they need to stay in their place.
Yes, that’s it, and they need to play their role as Roma doing what audiences expect and what the director of that festival expects. So, Farruquito, we expect that. Perrate or Manuela Carrasco, they expect this, and the modern part of the Bienal… not Roma. And I think this is played [out] by Roma artists as well. They have their own responsibility for not wanting to get out of the ghetto, their artistic ghetto, and by not wanting to take responsibility for their own career. “Okay, so I’m going to organize and structure my image and my career as many non-Roma artists would. I’m going to have my website and good pictures and I’m going to write or go to the TV or radio program to speak about Roma and expand.” No, no , no, they just want to sing and dance and that’s it. Their limitations play against [their own people] because there’s racism outside and inside.
Can you talk a little more about what would have to happen for this to improve?
First, Roma artists have to take responsibility for the expansion of their intellect and [see] their careers from a much wider point of view. [They have to] approach their career in a different way, not so limited, so that when the director of the Bienal comes to a meeting they can read their own contract. They shouldn’t need a manager, who is not Roma, that is taking a lot of money from them. [They should know how to] read a contract, speak English, know about lights, speak to the technicians… you know, like other artists do! Being Roma doesn’t mean being unintelligent or not knowing your rights or not knowing the terms of your contract. So, they have to grow intellectually, that’s one thing. [Positions] also have to open up to the Roma, director positions, director of the Bienal, director of the Teatro Central, director of Festival de Jerez. It’s not just managers, there are some Roma managers, but bigger than that. In politics, for example, there are none. There’s a ceiling there and they don’t pass it. They have to break through that in order to expand.
There have been many stereotypes surrounding flamenco for a long time. What do you think is the most destructive stereotype and if you could get rid of one forever, which would it be?
As a woman, I would get rid of the sexualization and objectification of the [female] body. That would be the first thing. The dancer doesn’t need to look pretty. There was a phrase I came up with years ago for a book by Michelle Heffner Hayes called Flamenco: Conflicting Histories of the Dance. The phrase was, “Somos las antiguapas,” we’re anti-pretty women. I don’t want to be pretty. I don’t want to look pretty, and I don’t want to pretend that I’m pretty. I don’t want to move pretty or get a result from my pretty movement or my pretty look. I don’t want that. I want to cut the relation from what I do, or how I look or how I move, with it having to be comfortable and having to look comfortable. That’s so ingrained in the minds and bodies of us dancers. When you start choreographing, you have to work so hard not to move pretty, not to do things that look pretty or get a pretty result.
Right, you’re whole artistic training is based on delivering a certain aesthetic, so you have to change your basic technique to change that.
That’s right, it’s horrible! I think that’s the most limiting thing for female dancers right now. Well, I don’t know about right now, but during my career it was horrible, and it is horrible. I keep fighting. I don’t have a mirror in my studio anymore. I cut my hair. Right now, I’m performing without makeup. I perform like this (gestures to herself). I fight with all the tools that I have, but still, flamenco audiences want to get something visually. They want to understand and get something they can relate to.
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Media courtesy of Belén Maya Compañía