AH! Flamenco! It wafts the flavor and passion of southern Europe to this discreet northern city, Edinburgh. The annual International Festival in the Scottish capital is beginning to give the impression that flamenco is one of its necessary, regular ingredients. Flamenco companies keep coming back. Keep playing, singing, dancing to full houses of ecstatic aficionados. And others.
It is strange how this festival draws audiences and performers from all over the globe, given what the weather can be like - drear and dreich, to use a Scots word that sums up the worst kind of Scottish conditions very descriptively. Flamenco, bringing with it the steam heat of the Mediterranean, the fiesta extravagance and emotion of an intensely dissimilar culture, is a definite counterbalance. And what could be more different from the delicate strathspey or the sword dance of Scottish Highlands origin
than this ferocious, tense, proud, climactic dance from Spain?
We have the Andalusian gypsies to thank for the music, song, and dancing of flamenco (the word covers all three, but books about music almost seem to forget its dance side), for the juddering stab and hammer of all those toes and heels, the hand-rapping like patterned machine-gun fire, the hoarse mournful singing, the sharp throb of the guitars. But today it seems to belong to the whole of Spain and is evolving in new ways as it moves into a variety of contexts: from pure tourist entertainment to impromp tu domestic performances to highly trained, meticulously directed theatrical presentations like the Ballet Cristina Hoyos in Edinburgh. Handed, not written, down, its performance seems to contain always the elements of fresh discovery, of new variations.
It says a great deal about the adaptability and authenticity of this strand of music/song/dance that it can be taken into such a great shed of a place as the Edinburgh Playhouse - a dusky, unloved interior that feels exactly like the thing I believe it is, an ex-cinema - and there not only survive its atmosphere but triumphantly transform it.
Hoyos' company, by no means large - just 11 dancers, 3 guitarists, and 3 singers - took over this cave and filled it with its percussive, raucous, relentless warmth. These highly professional, artful performers lift a folk tradition up into a form of extraordinary subtlety and inventiveness, while retaining its essential scale and character. You still feel that the individualism of the dancers, backed by the shouted encouragement of the others waiting their turn to solo, belong in small cafes down dismal
At the end of the 19th century, flamenco was indeed sung and danced in Seville's cafes cantates. So perhaps my daydream in the Playhouse was not entirely misplaced.
Even under the spell of the most compelling performance it seems I have this disrespectful tendency for mind-wandering ... and this time, when I focussed on the stage again, my first half-engaged thought was "What on earth are all those waiters doing up there on the stage?" (I sometimes have a similar fantasy in formal concert halls as Beethoven's Ninth sweeps us off our feet: What, I wonder suddenly, are all those penguins doing up there sawing away at the strings and puffing into the tortuous baroque p lumbing of brass instruments?)
It's the way the male performers dress, you see. Black tails for Beethoven, and for flamenco, white shirts, black waistcoats, and pants of inconceivably close-fit that mysteriously climb up under their wearers' armpits. Fascinating. Who decides that this is correct wear for the rooster half of a flamenco dance team? They truly look as if they are about to serve paella, posturing there with such controlled arrogance, or about to pounce on your table with a gigantic menu in one hand, the other arm upraised .
The female half of the team are dressed, I noticed, in fancy dress, yards and yards of flouncing, frilled material, like birds of paradise.
And now the waiters are getting impatient, stamping their feet petulantly - why can't Table 5 make up its mind? What's made the chef so tetchy tonight? The birds of paradise lift their voluminous plumage and twirl and shake it at the waiters. What are they trying to say?
The waiters grab hold of their waistcoats suddenly and advance sideways at the birds, with thousands of little steps. The birds in turn throw alarming tantrums, like children deprived of a toy ... what are they doing in this restaurant, anyway, all these birds, I'd like to know?
Ah, now I think I see: Their increasingly fierce smiting of the ground has a practical function obviously. It is to make sure that all the nails in the floorboards are firmly down in the wood. Or otherwise the waiters might trip, and that can be dangerous with a piping hot cochinillo on a dish balanced on the palm of one hand. That'll be it.
Or no, another thought strikes me. As dust literally starts to rise in billows all about these foot-stabbing birds and waiters, I realize conclusively why it really is that the Edinburgh Playhouse has invited them in for the night. It's because nothing can disturb the settled dust of decades in an old theater like the percussive exhilaration of flamenco dancers.
All the management will need to do afterward is have the cleaners vacuum it up! No problem! And as the clapping and strumming and howling and shouting and skirt-swirling and arm-twisting and head-tossing and hand- curling ascend and ascend to a pitch of utter and transcending climax, I muse on the lengths people will go to get the floor of a stage clean ... and make high art to boot.