The Spanish take life seriously, self-consciously, but with humor. Since Spain has neither engineered many material goods, nor propelled the sciences and thinking forward in the same way that, let’s say, Germany or France has, she has remained interested in practical life–questions of life and death, religion, the arts. Uninterested in smoothing out human annoyances such as problems of efficiency and natural circumstance, Spain has been left behind in material output; not surprisingly, this has allowed Spaniards to focus their interest on who a person really is, rather than what she or he has produced. During the time that other European countries strove to understand the human psyche, produced large quantities of philosophical literature, or drove technology to what it is today, the Spanish were interested in the marriage between reason and emotion. This is a culture that, over centuries of social, economic, and political turmoil, has always known that great art was possible only on that basis: discovering and understanding the real as well as the abstract. And just like that, the Spanish prove–as the rest of the world struggles to channel ecstasy, anger, pain into art form–that there is really nothing to it. They have been creating works of art that deal with diametrically opposing emotions and realities since El Greco, Goya, Picasso, Lorca, and long before.
Perhaps one of the most expressive and well suited examples of this is one that I discovered last Saturday night. So far, this was my most startlingly moving encounter with Spanish art, or more specifically, dance: the flamenco.
Flamenco. The enigmatic origins of this word are as telling of its history as they are of its performance. Sensual, beautiful, exotic, and emotional–yes–but jarring and disturbing, as well. Historically, this is a dance that can be traced to the Andalusian region of Spain; it was a dance of the oppressed and the poor. Flamenco is, simultaneously, dance, song, and guitar. It is a tripartite act in which all members of the stage participate; together they express through their song and rhythmic stomping, clapping, shouting, dancing and guitar playing their joys and sorrows of everyday life.
Seated in the second row from the tiny stage (imagine: a small, dark, crowded–elbow to elbow–room, marked by the intoxicating smell of wine and expensive cologne), I became a captive audience to a humble group of six performers. A dancer–a tall, lean, quietly attractive man dressed in black–taps his heels in muffled rhythm to one of the singers’ (there were two singers, one young and one old) painstakingly cautious, but melodic ballads. To the singers’ left, two guitarists pick at their instruments, respectfully, as they wait for the singer; smiles and nods are exchanged, and then shortly, the group bursts into life. The dancer’s quiet collectiveness, with his eyes closed at center stage, pervades the show. The liveliness of the singing, stomping, and strumming does nothing but emphasize his tranquility as he begins to move in rhythmic precision–tapping his heels, snapping his fingers–while self-consciously wringing the front of his shirt. The energy on this stage–the musicians’ exchange of smiles, winks, nods, discussion amongst themselves–seemed an almost accidental show of camaraderie, spontaneity, effortlessness. The dancer’s quick progression across the stage–never losing balance or the beat as he spun, tapped, leaped–was only the visual focal point; it was the exclamations of “olé,” the momentary intimacy that the performers and audience shared, and the simultaneous tranquility and anxiety of the music that struck me as… unusual. I was mesmerized. These men were having a blast; they didn’t take the task at hand too seriously, and this made them all the more captivating. These men were here for us, sure… but more importantly, they were here for themselves.
As I watched the dancer’s expression–eyebrows deeply knitted, mouth pursed, beads of sweat rolling down his gaunt cheeks–I realized something: where in American culture do we see such devotion and humility? Here I was watching a man, a stranger, experience every emotion in the book as he made mistakes and–looking embarrassed–laughed, frowned, shouted in frustration, sweated out of sheer physical exertion, pulled at his clothes in (this is really the only word I can find to describe it) ecstasy, until he finally just stopped. I don’t know the man’s story, have never met him, don’t even know his name–yet, I believe that I witnessed what could possibly be the most intimate emotions that he has.
Please excuse my digression, I will return to my original point: at this midnight show in a cozy corner of Madrid, while slowly drinking sangria (shamefully touristy, but so good), I came face to face with Spanish culture at its best. The flamenco illustrates almost perfectly this well-aged Spanish mentality: life and death, love and pain, joy and sorrow are intertwined, and therefore–if justice is truly to be done–must be expressed simultaneously, without shame, and entirely self-consciously.