Úrsula López, Tamara López & Leonor Leal
Painter and Flamenco: J.R.T
London, Sadler’s Wells
18 February 2018
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
The paintings of the 19th century Spanish symbolist painter, Julio Romero de Torres, inspire Painter and Flamenco: JRT one of the many intriguing performances in this year’s flamenco festival at Sadler’s Wells. Placing women at the helm, the festival celebrates them not only as choreographers and dancers but also as singers and musicians, who dismantle the reductive roles that flamenco has traditionally attributed to women. While women have always been integral to flamenco culture they have been limited to a narrow range of stereotypes – the domestic drudge, untouchable Madonna or dangerous whore – and managed or produced by men.
The performance begins with a slide-show of de Torres’ female portraits, sultry Andalusian women (he was essentially a painter of flamenco culture) eroticised, fetishized objects of desire. However, if you search beyond the sexual objectification, you see some defiant, formidable characters staring out at the viewer, such as the portrait of a famous 19th century Sevillian gypsy dancer Pastora Imperio or the celebrity singer La Nina de los Peines. These are the women that Ursula Lopez, Tamara Lopez and Leonor Leal embody, re-interpreting de Torres’ work from a 21st century female perspective.
In each section of Painter and Flamenco the dancers personify not only the spirit and energy of de Torres’ portraits but also the poetry of his art. They dance in solos which display their individual, idiosyncratic styles: the mature, grounded force of Ursula Lopes; the delicate intricacy of Tamara Lopez and the frivolous liveliness of Leonor Leal. Leal plays a languorous woman reclining on a settee but who soon rises, eases into her dance and projects her fiery flamenco essence in a mesmerising endurance test of stamping and fast turning. Ursula Lopes recalling flamenco’s greatest singer appears as a stately grand dame, clutching the cumbersome train of her colourful flamenco dress before charging across the stage with a muscular display of steps and stamping, her face contorted in concentration. Tamara Lopez, as a fragile, traumatised character fights back too, abandoning herself in a vigorous, impassioned display of technique. In this way the dancers tell the story of de Torres’ various subjects imbuing them with power and charisma through nuanced physicality.
The dancers are always accompanied by an outstanding musical entourage – the feisty interactive singers Gema Caballero and Elena Morales and the gently supportive male guitarists, saxophonist and drummer. It’s incredible the conversations that happen between stamping feet, clapping hands, musical instruments and visceral articulations of the voice. Here we see a matriarchal culture of women in action, supportive of each other, encouraging but also haranguing one another.
Solos are interspersed with more experimental dances, in which the women perform altogether. Here flamenco dresses and 19th century fashion are replaced by modern black suits and casual outfits. Sometimes they even dance without shoes but still manage to stamp effectively. Clapping on their bodies, they walk in a square as if on some ritualistic procession and are accompanied by music not usually associated with pure flamenco – timpani drums and a saxophone. While later on the women symbolise a toreador and bull, with gestural choreography that suggests the technical complexities in this relationship between human and animal. It is in these sections that they push flamenco out of its traditional history and into a more innovative and progressive form.
In a final tableaux the performers are a rowdy bunch talking animatedly (in Spanish) about de Torres paintings, enacting other scenarios from them. What I see is a group of assertive women freed from the constraints of their painted images, moving beyond the passivity and sexual clichés yet drawing on a dynamic potency that fuels flamenco.