Eva Yerbabuena Flamenco Superstar
As she prepares to bring her new show, Apariencias, to London, Eva Yerbabuena talks to Culture Whisper about modern-day flamenco and her quest for new forms of expression
“There are those who see flamenco as a pure, very conservative tradition; but for me it’s not so.”
We spoke via Skype London to Spain where Yerbabuena lives, though her huge international acclaim and hunger for fresh collaborations mean that she tours a lot and is a regular presence at Sadler’s Wells annual Flamenco Festival.
This is a dancer who has collaborated with ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as with the highly individual German dance-maker Pina Bausch. She’s been one of the Flamenco Women in Mike Figgis' 1997 documentary of the same name… to mention just a few of her forays outside the strict limits of traditional flamenco dancing.
Clearly, then, for Eva Yerbabuena, flamenco goes well beyond the polka-dot flounces and castanets that so enthuse the masses of tourists flocking to Southern Spain.
Speaking with a passion that not even the mediation of a Skype screen can mask, Yerbabuena explains: “Flamenco is one of the most impure traditions. It contains an impressive mix of cultures; and is therefore a very enigmatic, magical art form, which has been able to encompass the huge diversity of Spain, and in particular Andalucia.”
That means flamenco is also highly individual: “each person feels, understands, interprets and shares it in a different way.”
Eva Yerbabuena Apariencias photo Toni Blanco
Now in her mid-40s, she sees herself as part of a generation engaged in a quest to expand both the technical side of flamenco, and more particularly its hitherto unexplored connections with other art forms and cultures. She says sometimes when she’s watching a play or an opera she asks herself whether a certain element of it might be germane to her own art.
“We want to go beyond [imposed restrictions of] where flamenco has a place and where it hasn’t one, where we have to [limit ourselves and] keep asking, ‘if I want to work, then what kind of performance am I obliged to put on?’”
In other words, she wants to be able “to go ever deeper into the very essence of flamenco.” And inseparable from the essence of flamenco, says Yerbabuena, is the human voice.
“The voice is the mother of flamenco; it’s [humanity’s] first natural instrument, a primordial instrument. Then comes the guitar, which I think has evolved a lot; and the man most responsible for that evolution was Paco de Lucia.”
One of Spain’s most revered guitarists, Paco de Lucia [1947-2014] was one of the first flamenco musicians to cross over into other musical genres, such as classical and jazz.
“In matters of rhythm and feeling, he led us onto a much higher plane, which nevertheless does not stop being flamenco! I am a flamenco dancer, I wouldn't know how to be anything else; but I try to make use of everything I consider to be part of flamenco.”
You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Eva Yerbabuena’s husband, Paco Jarana, is a flamenco guitarist. He is also the musical director of the company they established together in 1998 - Eva Yerbabuena Ballet Flamenco.
Together with four dancers and a remarkable ensemble of musicians they are bringing Apariencias (Appearances) to Sadler's Wells. However, a key element of that show, “where nothing is what it appears,” is the African singer, Alana Sinkey. How come?
“Many years ago I heard an expression that caused a deep impression in me. I was in my dressing-room putting my make up on [prior to a performance] and I think [the writer] Antonio Gala was speaking at that time, and he said ‘all of us were once black.’ I think that’s the origin of everything.
“For me the music and dance of Africa is so rooted in the earth (…) it has a strength which is more powerful than anything I can reach through technique alone. I am passionate about it; I feel a connection, it’s a very personal sense that I wanted to develop.
“I needed that voice. In a show that deals with appearances, with so many of the things that affect us as human beings, I felt it was indispensable to have an image and a voice such as Alana’s.”
Apariencias doesn’t necessarily have a coherent narrative; as a Spanish critic put it, “it’s an impressionist amalgam,” a series of reflections on themes Yerbabuena is passionate about, most of all image.
“When we see somebody, the first thing we say is, ‘oh, that’s a very flamenco head of hair!’ Hair is a key symbol, and you can’t consider something flamenco unless the hair is right. So I felt the need to break with that concept and that’s what I do at the beginning of this show.”
Eva Yerbabuena Apariencias photo Toni Blanco
Her show contains “more questions than answers.” Does she worry that a foreign audience may not understand some of the symbols and images she brings into it?
“I have always maintained it's not important that people should understand; for me it's enough that people should feel."
Some of the audience will “understand,” some will simply “feel” - but one thing we can be sure of: it’s unlikely anybody will walk out of Sadler’s Wells feeling untouched by Apariencias and the sheer passion and artistry of Eva Yerbabuena.
Apariencias is a Sadler’s Wells 17-19 February as part the annual Flamenco Festival