Yerma, Kathak, Flamenco and the Edinburgh Connection
In the first series of the BBC Young Dancer competition back in the spring of 2015, we remember being particularly spellbound by the young Indian Kathak dancer, whose name I cannot now remember. That same summer, Andrew and I saw a dance performance at the Edinburgh Festival, chosen by us simply on the basis that it’s foundations were in Kathak, and we wanted to see more. The dancer was Amina Khayyam, and the performance was the dance company’s stunningly beautiful and poignant interpretation of Lorca’s play ‘Yerma’. The dance form was balletic, expressive, emotional and bewitching.
Amazingly, and fortuitously, this week we met Amina Khayyam and her company once again, but this time in the very rural setting of Las Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Last year, at around this time, I had the great fortune of chatting to Anna Kemp for my radio programme, ‘Life Stories’ on Talk Radio Europe. Anna, although originally from the UK, has been based in Spain since she graduated from Oxford, and was actively involved in the Spanish TV and film industry. Working on the film version of Gerald Brenan’s book, ‘South from Granada’ [see previous post about Gerald Brenan] brought Anna to the area south of the Sierra Nevada and, having fallen in love with the small white village of Laroles, she and her husband bought a house there, lived and worked from there and decided to create an arts festival that ‘punches above its weight’. The aim of the festival is “to create an economic and cultural catalyst in an area threatened by unemployment and depopulation” by bringing in music, dance and theatre of the highest quality.
We were both so inspired by the work that Anna and her team have done in creating “Festival Me Vuelves Lorca” that we determined to get involved this year, either through volunteering or attending a performance, or both! Sadly, work on the house and setting up our own new business rather prevented us from taking the time to volunteer our services for the whole period of the festival, but as soon as we saw the words ‘Kathak’ and ‘Flamenco’ in the programme, we booked tickets. It didn’t dawn on us then that there was a link to our first Kathak performance back in Edinburgh.
“One” was a collaborative, work-shopped production conceived by Anna who wanted to bring together two great dancers - Flamenco dancer Belén Maya and Kathak dancer Amina Khayyam. It seems such a natural collaboration, both dance forms based firmly in traditional roots telling social stories through expressive and emotive movement.
For a week, the company of dancers and musicians from two different cultures worked on the music and choreography, using the emotional struggles experienced by an immigrant in a foreign land as the framework, and how the spirit of music and dance can cross political and geographical divides and create harmony.
The musical forms from the two cultures also have great similarities - driving rhythms and percussive beats provided by voice and instrument.
We drove across to Laroles with a huge amount of anticipation. It has been a tough week for us in one way or another. We have both felt slightly holed-up in our little hobbit house in Moclín while summer blazes around us, and although we do spend as much time as work allows to get out and about, sometimes it just hits us that we are confined to rather a small space. So, to escape once in a while is becoming something of an imperative.
The theatre space in Laroles is such a magical area; you can read more about the creation of Me Vuelves Lorca in an earlier blog post. When we visited last year, the festival had just drawn to a close, so it was thrilling to return to see it in full flow. We had booked into a little bed and breakfast in the village of Yegen, the village where Gerald Brenan lived from 1920 to 1934, and we must have made the booking in rather a rush. I think we were possibly going through a financially straitened five minutes, and simply selected the bed and breakfast by lowest price. Our night was to be spent in the Pensión La Fuente, literally around the corner from the house where Brenan had lived. The room we were given was simple, with french windows that looked out onto the makeshift awning covering the terrace below, and we could hear the tumbling of water as it tipped into the fountain just beyond. The owner and his wife were extremely welcoming, if a little surprised to see two English chaps pitch up. Despite the simplicity, the room was spotlessly clean and it turned out to be rather a fun experience, all in all.
Laroles is about 30 minutes’ drive from Yegen and we gave ourselves enough time to grab a drink or two before the performance.
Having taken our positions on the stone terraces stepping up the hill away from the stage, we were fully entertained by the comings-and-goings of the members of the audience as they gradually arrived and filtered out across the auditorium. One thing we have noticed about Spanish audiences is that the start time of a performance means very little. 21:30 was the scheduled time for curtain up, and as the allotted time came and went, there seemed to be little sense of urgency. An area of the auditorium had been reserved for the VIP party of the Mayor and Mayoress, and a few words were to be said before the performance started. By 09:50, the VIP party had still not appeared. As someone who has directed plays before, I would have been apoplectic! The rest of the audience barely seemed to notice that time was marching on, but eventually the party arrived, speeches were given and the performance began.
Amina Khayyam made her entrance and with the lowest of lighting and the smallest of movements, we were immediately entranced. It was then that the penny began to drop - that we had seen this dancer before, but we couldn’t remember when.
Kathak dancers perform barefoot, tie bells around their lower legs, and swirl and pirouette with all the ease and grace of a ballet dancer, using delicate hand movements as extensions of their minds as they weave their detailed, expressive tale. The musicians, combining the rich and earthy elements of both Indian and Spanish Flamenco influences, were fabulous, and you could see them all, without exception, picking up cues and working with each other, and the dancers, to create what seemed like spontaneous and intuitive waves of rhythm.
When Belén Maya made her entrance, her stature and poise provided a dramatic contrast to the elfin-like Khayyam, and the harsh tapping of the Flamenco shoes clashed stridently with the shimmering of bells. In a sensitive move, the Kathak dancer removed the shoes from the feet of the Flamenco dancer, and there was an elegant and sensuous swan-like embrace as one culture welcomed in another. In one section of the dance, the sinuous, writhing hands of both women intertwined in one mesmerising and exquisitely measured moment; quite entrancing.
The whole event was beautiful. Sitting there in glorious countryside, at one stage with flashes of lightning creating silhouettes of the mountains in the distance, the intense and magical sounds of Indian and Spanish music perforating the still night air. If we were to level one criticism, it would be aimed at the photographer for the evening. The performance was very intimate and intense, and there were times when the photographer wandered around the back of the open stage to take photos, each time flashing a light before triggering the shutter - distracting for the audience. We have also got slightly used to the fact that Spanish audiences are quite happy to chat through a performance, and the group next to us were fairly chatty, although it did seem that their conversation related, in the most part, to what they were watching on the stage, so they can be partly forgiven.
After the performance, Anna invited us to have some dinner up in the bar area above the auditorium, and it was as Andrew and I were discussing where we had previously seen Amina Khayyam perform that the memory of Edinburgh 2015 came back.
Chatting with the performers, it seems that further collaborative work between Belén Maya and Amina Khayyam is on the cards, and we did our best to ensure that Granada be included in their itinerary. After all, Moclín, our new village, is believed to have been the inspiration for the setting of Yerma, Lorca’s play that provided Amina Khayyam with her own inspiration.