Dancing into the New Normal

Richard Speer

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Marilyn Minter, “Amoeba,” 2008, C-print on aluminum, 40 x 60”.

On a fall Saturday evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spent the month of October, I attended my first live performance since the Covid lockdown of March 2020.  A year and seven months had elapsed without the hairs on my arms standing on end from the frisson of watching something extraordinary happen in real time and real space. This is what we’ve been missing, I thought that night in the cool, high-desert air at 7,200 feet. This is what was taken from us by the virus, the bungled worldwide response, the brazen intransigence and politicization that effectively killed tens of millions around the globe who otherwise would sit at our holiday tables this year and last. This is what was stolen, and is still being stolen, thanks to the pig-headedness of those who continue to dig in their heels rather than trusting science and summoning the compassion that human beings are alleged to harbor for their fellows. The pandemic has cost us dearly in so many ways, one of which is how ruthlessly it shuttered performing-arts venues, putting careers on pause, depriving promising singers, dancers, actors and playwrights of what would have been their debuts or swan songs, and in the meantime cutting the rest of us off from the sheer pleasure of spectating, appreciating and feeling the catharsis that comes from a voice or an instrument in an acoustic environment.

 

I didn’t realize how deeply I’d missed live shows until I walked into the Benitez Cabaret, housed within The Lodge at Santa Fe, to behold the flamenco dancer known as “La Emi,” supported by her troupe, EmiArteFlamenco. I hadn’t known that New Mexico is a center of flamenco studies in the United States, especially in Albuquerque, seat of the National Institute of Flamenco and of Yjastros American Flamenco Repertory Company. So the concert was a revelation. In fact, everything about the two-hour show was heightened, including the implications of the centuries-old dance form itself. Everything was shot through the prism of our halting collective emergence — we hope — from the plague that has jailed us within our solitary homes and heads.

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Flamenco dancer La Emi in performance.

The audience of only 30 or so was masked throughout, with the exception of those actively sipping a beverage. The performers walked onto the stage masked, then removed them. Singer Olivia Rojas intoned the plangent, repetitive cadences and Phrygian scales that give Iberian music its unique timbre. Fleet-fingered guitarist Gabriel Lautaro Osuna and percussionist Javier Saume Mazzei melded with Rojas’s vocalizing, falling into the mystical concentration, verging on trance, that overpowers gifted musicians communing with their instruments. You just don’t get that from listening to a recording at home or watching Youtube. For all their virtuosity, the singer and musicians were there to support the dancers, who appeared in archetypal costumes as if freshly emerged from a bullfight in sunny Sevilla. The backup dancers were resplendent in flowing blouses and skirts, raven hair parted severely down the middle. The star of the show, “La Emi” herself, was a svelte vision in elaborate gowns, fringed scarves, and lace fans, which she deployed to percussive effect, her movements precise, fluid and organic. Arguably, the show belonged to the lead male dancer, Carlos Menchaca, whose hyper-athletic, whirling-dervish twirls and pirouettes generated so much sweat — flung in drenching thwaps in all directions — that I felt grateful for my mask, lest those monsoons of airborne perspiration rain onto my cheeks, my nostrils, my lips.

 

This gets us closer to the crux of why this concert proved so agreeably disconcerting. To sit in the line of salty bodily fluids hurled off a huffing, overheated, passion-consumed human body violates all sorts of protocols we’re warned to avoid. In this era of Zoom grids lined up like antiseptic cubicles, in our studious avoidance of the germ-spewing agora where we used to exchange ideas, we have lost our familiarity with the messy, rough-and-tumble dangerousness of visceral interaction. I remember evenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, when I was graced to see the incomparable Bobby Short crooning at the Café Carlyle, a temple of urbane cosmopolitanism. Yet there Bobby sat at his piano in his tuxedo, sweating profusely under the spotlights, which illuminated the spittle spraying as he committed to sonic ambrosia the old standards of Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers. Of course he was spraying spit; he was pouring his heart out! This is what happens in the moment at a world-class happening. The players give their all, and the audience repays with rapt attention, applause, demands of encores. It’s an exchange of energy, a kind of intercourse, the metaphoric and grossly literal blood and brine of human-ness.

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John Singer Sargent, “El Jaleo,” 1882.

In a sense, this ties in with flamenco as an art form. Like life during the pandemic, the dance forces us to take a new look at longstanding assumptions. It makes the familiar unfamiliar. What do we know of flamenco? For most of us, not much. It’s from Spain, it’s very spirited, and that’s about it. But after even two hours in its sway, we realize that flamenco, finally, incontrovertibly, is a ritualized pantomime of heterosexual lust. This is old-school man-and-woman stuff here, way pre-Stonewall, way pre-most everything we associate with enlightened 21st Century thought. With its virulent stomping of feet (a boon, no doubt, to generations of cobblers and podiatrists), its snapping of fingers and clicking of castanets, it posits a kinesthetic dialogue between a preening male and an elegantly aloof woman. In an era in which #metoo consciousness directly preceded the mistrust and hermeticism of social distancing, it’s difficult to look at these aggressive, predatory dances as anything other than stylized sexual harassment. The man struts and exerts, peacock-like, rooster-like, eyes intense, brow furrowed, carriage haughty, as the woman circles, smoulders, bats her lashes then averts her eyes. And finally in that magical, mythical moment that male chauvinists imagine is truth, not trope, finally they yield to his insistent patriarchal advances. Oy vey. Still, to watch it, the dance is beautiful.

Can we enjoy an anachronism without measuring it against contemporary mores? This is one of the central conundrums of modernity. The worldview presented by flamenco — and tango, for that matter — is the province of the proud. It does not crack a smile, it is dead serious, a sensual, aristocratic mating rite, eons removed from today’s casual hookup culture. This is not Tindr/Grindr sex followed by half-hearted cuddling over Netflix and microwave popcorn; this is consequential coupling. Flamenco time-warps us back to a fantasia of high-romantic, high-melodrama lust and love, a time when a ladywoman’s hand was so coveted and her honor the object of such acidic jealousy, duels were fought to the death on her account. Surveying all this Old-World Sturm und Drang today, it reads as parodic and misogynist, but then, the same could be said as much of opera, Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, Archie comic books, to say nothing of Harlequin romances.

 

In the weeks elapsed since that exhilarating, thought-provoking night at the cabaret, it has occurred to me that flamenco is like pre-Covid life in this sense: We look at it as through a gauze-smeared lens. We cannot see it accurately anymore. It has turned falsely halcyon, dreamlike, elegiac, our conceptions of it hopelessly dated, our attempts to recapture its alleged mystique thoroughly doomed. Our eyes are corrupted; we gaze out through our old prescription spectacles, and yesterday’s landscape recedes in a blur. These times have marked us terminally, branded our hides as surely as with an iron fresh from the campfire, and we just simply can’t go home again. In a way, seeing “La Emi” here in Santa Fe was the perfect break of my 19-month fast. Those dancers, so impeccable and fervent, danced me into the new normal. It’s an incongruous place to have wound up, an awkward, inaccurate simulacrum of the old ways, a kingdom of the wounded, sadder but not necessarily wiser. I wasn’t the only one moved that night. I saw among my cohorts several Kleenexes and cocktail napkins dabbing eyes. This is not the world we left behind, but it is still the world, and for all the challenges we have yet to face, it feels for the moment oh, so very sweet to stride back into the arena.

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Pablo Picasso, “Olga in an Armchair,” 1918.

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