For starters, a confession: until last Saturday, I didn’t totally get flamenco. I’d been told it was all about the spirit and passion of the performers. I’d listened when those in the know described a complex interplay between musicians and dancers, and I’d sat in theaters enjoying the soulful melodies, admiring the dramatic physicality, and trying hard to feel the duende I’d heard so much about.
It is with humility and awe that I recant the belief that I am not ‘a flamenco person.’ The show that turned me around: Piano Abierto.
It was a sweltering September evening, but when Rosario Toledo stepped onto the Lobero Stage, it gave me chills. She had appeared out of the darkness of the wings without fanfare, as if the music had conjured her. And what music! This was a cascade of sparkling notes unleashed from the keys of a piano—loose, fluid, clearly contemporary yet rooted in the yearning and intensity of traditional flamenco. David Peña Dorantes stroked the piano like a lover: tender, then aggressive, then sensuous.
For a moment, Toledo stood absolutely still, the ruffles of her deep orange dress swaying at her ankles, her elbows jutting out at her sides, her chin raised. The next rush of notes sent her spinning in tight circles, hands whipping over her head. Her dancing seemed to flow straight from the notes, as if the tune had taken physical form. Possessed, she threw her arms forward in circles aggressively like a bird of prey, and her mouth gaped open.
She strode off as suddenly as she had entered, and then Joaquín Grilo was there, his grey shirt unbuttoned at the wrists so that it tasseled around his flying hands. He strutted like a peacock, jerked his head like a rooster, and shook his body like an incensed bull ready to charge. Tete Peña delivered a torrent of percussion, and Grilo responded, holding his upper body rigid tight while his feet dashed out a fierce and rapid rhythm.
The intensity built until finally it pushed the ecstatic audience to its feet mid-way through one number. “Yes!” I heard one man shout amidst cries of “Ole!” I found myself laughing, my head tipped back, and I realized I knew what duende what meant, after all.