“Where A dancer in a long red dress stands alone in the darkness, facing away from the audience. A keening voice rings out and the dancer’s arms flutter slightly, as if awakened by its mournful sound. “Eres una rosa,” you are a rose, the singer intones. The dancer’s body sways slightly, as if gathering energy, before turning around in one swift motion.
What the audience sees is both expected and unexpected: a flamenco dancer coifed and dressed in traditional style, fierce eyed, focused. But there’s a twist: This dancer is a man — Manuel Liñán, the creator and star of the show “Viva!”
Flamenco being what it is — a centuries-old music and dance that developed out of the collision of cultures in southern Spain — what follows is as surprising as it is refreshing. A performance executed entirely in drag, by Liñán and six extraordinary male dancers, wearing colorful dresses and the fringed shawls known as mantones, hair done up with peinetas (decorative combs) and flowers. While one dances, the others accompany with songs, exhortations and palmas, the rhythmic clapping of hands.
The show, which was to come to the New York Flamenco Festival at City Center in early April — the festival has been postponed by the coronavirus — represents something new to mainstream flamenco audiences: a frank and joyful exposition of queer identity within the frame of flamenco dance. For Liñán, who is gay, dancing has become a way to express who he is. As he put it, “my dancers and I are dancing ourselves.”
“Viva!” has been widely embraced by audiences and critics since its premiere, in 2019 in Madrid. The critic in the Spanish daily El País, Roger Salas, described it as “one of the best things happening in this critical moment in flamenco and Spanish dance.” Such a reception seems unimaginable even 20 years ago. Some have compared the show to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an American all-male ballet troupe that specializes in sending up classics like “Swan Lake.” But “Viva!” is less satire than declaration of love for flamenco, pure and simple.
Liñán’s dancers perform traditional alegrías, tárantos and bulerías, dances full of exciting, rhythmic footwork, curving arms, slaps to the thighs, snapping fingers and sharp turns; as well as dances from the more academic escuela bolera, with its quicksilver, balletic steps.
Nuevo Flamenco, the “new flamenco” that has dominated the scene since the 1980s, has shifted away from the ruffled dresses, shawls and tightly pinned hairdos worn by Liñán’s dancers in “Viva!” And also from the traditional format of songs and dances that “Viva!” follows.
But for Liñán, this backward glance represents something intensely personal, a way of looking at his own awakening to flamenco. “It’s what I grew up watching when I was 11 or 12,” Liñán, 39, said in a phone interview from Madrid, where he lives. As a boy in Granada, he yearned to wear the colorful costumes of his female idols, dancers like Eva Yerbabuena, Matilde Coral and Blanca del Rey and glamorous movie stars of the 1950s and ’60s who sang and danced, like Lola Flores and Carmen Sevilla. “I would hide in a room in my house, trying on skirts and putting on makeup,” he said. “I was afraid of getting in trouble and being ostracized.”
In his dance training he was taught to dance “como un hombre,” or like a man. As with most traditional forms, including ballet and tango, the technique of flamenco has historically been taught with different nuances for men and women. The men are trained to move their hands and hips less and to hold their upper bodies more rigidly; the women, to use more curvaceous, decorative movements for the arms and torso.
From an early age, Liñán said, he felt constrained by these rules: “My body couldn’t hold back these impulses, and soon I started moving my hands as I liked, and my hips. I started to move between genders.”
Rocío Molina, another artist pushing the boundaries of what can be shown in flamenco, recalled being taught this way as well. “I used to change the dances, even as a young student,” she said in a phone interview. She has joked onstage about how unnatural she finds it to move her hips from side to side, as women are taught to do, and how she prefers to move her pelvis front and back, like a man. “I can dance with the same force, or more, than any man” she said.
Molina is a lesbian in a field in which female homosexuality is still mostly under the radar. She is also a famously intense performer. “My dancing has always been very physical, very extreme,” she said. “I have sought out pain in order to reach a trancelike state.” She takes her time, drawing the viewer into her world, then explodes in sustained passages of searing footwork, her body driven forward with a singular force. Her dancing is like a deep dive into her unconscious. In 2018 she danced while several months pregnant, in a piece, “Grito Pelao,” about her desire to be a mother and her decision to undergo artificial insemination.
In her solo show “Caída del Cielo,” which was to have been performed in New York at the Flamenco Festival this spring, she steps into a vat filled with a viscous substance and then proceeds to leave a blood-red smear behind her as she drags herself across the stage. At the time she was creating “Caída del Cielo,” she said, she feared that she would not be able to conceive a child. (She now has a baby girl.) “Every time I performed it, that moment was like losing the child I so desired.”
Like all of her shows, she said, this one reflects the way she experiences the world and her body. “From menstruation to pregnancy to postpartum, women are seen as some sort of monster out of grotesque art, even today,” she said. “I wanted to create a beautiful moment out of that beautiful monstrosity.” Of the two, Molina is the more transgressive performer, but both she and Liñán are united by an interest in exposing their most private selves through dance. Until recently, the subjects of gender identity and sexual orientation had been left mostly to the fringes. The contemporary flamenco artist and theorist Fernando López Rodriguez has traced the existence of drag performers in a coming book, “Historia Queer del Flamenco.”
In an email from Madrid, he explained that flamenco has always had a queer component. In the early 20th century, there were cafes and music halls where cross-dressing artists mingled with more traditional flamenco performers. But under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, drag went underground until the 1960s, when it began to make a comeback, “in the sphere of gay parties and shows, exclusively for cross-dressing performers.” Male cross-dressing was seen as something dangerous. Flamenco critic Estela Zatania said in an email that in the late years of Franco’s rule and for a time after, Spain had a law — Ley de la Peligrosidad Social (or law of social endangerment) — that resulted in persecution and jail for immoral behavior, and which was used mainly to target homosexuals. Dancing in drag was not only uncommon, it was also perilous.
For women, the situation was somewhat different. Female performers like the great Carmen Amaya, a star of the ’30s and ’40s, could get away with wearing trousers and dancing so-called masculine dances, full of the rapid-fire percussive steps known as zapateado, because they didn’t challenge heterosexual norms. Their sexuality simply wasn’t questioned. The trousers, which allowed viewers to see more of their legs, may even have heightened their sex appeal, especially for the men in the audience. Spain has changed. Fifteen years have passed since it became one of the first countries in the world to legalize gay marriage, despite the strong opposition of the Roman Catholic Church. Liñán’s show is a product and expression of this cultural shift.
Which is not to say that his performances haven’t rubbed some people the wrong way. Liñán may be a celebrated and award-winning flamenco artist, but he said he and his dancers have been subjected to homophobic taunts both in the profession and online. “We’ve been accused of being the shame of the flamenco world, told that the devil will take us,” he told me. “Of course it’s painful, but that’s the world we live in.” And yet, there is no question that “Viva!” is a celebration of the art of flamenco, an affirmation of its beauty and its ability to connect with a wide audience. When it played at the Festival de Jerez last month, a reviewer raved that “it’s one of the best things to have been seen at the festival in all its 24-year history.” The flamenco world, it seems, is ready for Manuel Liñán.
© 2020 The New York Times