Seville’s Flamenco Museum: Dancing Anger and Ache in the Heart of the City
By Hunter Styles
It is evening in downtown Seville. With bated breath, a seated audience fills the inner courtyard of the Museum of Flamenco Dance.
The ceiling, at the top of the building’s atrium, is echoingly high. The walls are a smooth embrace of stone pillars and brick. And tonight, all of it threatens to crumble beneath the frown on Antonio Granjero’s face.
It’s a look of anger and incredulity, and it is as essential to tonight’s performance as the music and footwork itself.
Granjero has taken the stage as the male dancer in tonight’s flamenco show. The performance, entitled “Vaya con Dios,” or “Go with God,” is the most explosive and energetic dance I have ever seen. It is also the first time I’ve seen a man sweat through a suit jacket in 30 seconds flat.
Performing with the Compañía Flamenca Antonio Andrade, Granjero dances with forceful legs and a serrated brow. From where I sit ten feet away, every inch of emotion is clear on his face.
He is a large man, stock and muscular. He looks out toward us, then back down to the trampled ground, breathing quickly. His feet move in waves of thunder, skittering and pounding as fast as they can.
This is the caliber of passion that has brought Seville a new flamenco museum.
A Cultural Landmark
The Museum of Flamenco Dance – El Museo del Baile Flamenco – opened in 2006, when world-renowned flamenco dancer Cristina Hoyos founded the museum as a center of history-keeping, as well as a place of continued practice.
Despite flamenco’s enormous cultural significance in Spain, this is the first flamenco dance museum in the world. Not only that, it is the largest museum anywhere dedicated to a particular form of dance.
Several hours before “Vaya con Dios” begins in the museum’s performance space, I still have much to learn about flamenco.
It is a sunny, breezy afternoon in early October. In the time leading up to the live show, a group of us get to explore the museum, housed in the 18th century Casa de Palacio – the Palace House, a short walk from the cathedral. It is an ambitious and sophisticated fusion of dance school, historical exhibit, art gallery and performance space.
The building hosts live performances every Friday and Saturday. With regular performances on additional weekdays, however, visitors can find a live show here nearly every day. Standing four stories, with a central inner courtyard extending the height of the building, the museum is a beautifully constructed love letter to the art of flamenco.
A petite, engaging woman leads us on a tour of the museum. She has pulled back her thick black hair, and smiles brightly as she leads us down to the basement level. Dressed in a black, form-fitting outfit, she certainly looks like a dancer. When we ask whether she dances, she smiles softly. She used to take flamenco lessons, she says, until life, with a typical ruthlessness, got in the way of regular practice.
That’s why she enjoys spending time on the lower level.
We come to the bottom of the steps and enter the space our guide refers to as “the classroom.” Here, from October through June, the museum hosts regular dance lessons. Schools and groups from such distances as Russia, Mexico, and Germany have come here to hone their skills over the last two years.
At first glance, with its intimate arches and exposed stone, the space resembles a large wine cellar more than a dance studio. Then we notice the mirrored wall – a must-have for scrupulous students of dance.
Beyond the reach of the mirror, the walls are covered in art showcasing the evolution and history of flamenco. The art brings color to this underground room – a cozy sort of incubator for future generations of dancers.
In addition to flamenco, our guide explains, the museum also teaches Sevillanas, an old folk dance that is distinctly lighter and more carefree than flamenco. Those lessons begin in February and run into April.
But why, our tour group wonders, is this other dance a priority for a flamenco museum?
Once again, our guide shows a soft smile. Has anyone been in Seville during April? Already sheepish, many of us admit we haven’t.
April, she explains, is one of the most exciting months to be in the city, because it’s when the Seville Fair comes to life. For more than 160 years, the Feria de Sevilla has provided Spain, especially the expansive southern region of Andalusia, with a fast-paced and exciting opportunity to celebrate culture and history.
The Feria – equal parts carnival, concert, and costume party – calls citizens to the streets, and the light, happy folk dance known as Sevillanas comes to life on street corners for miles and miles.
Not all Seville residents know how to dance Sevillanas, she adds, but it’s okay to learn during the Feria. For their part, the museum provides lessons in the upcoming months to provide citygoers with a few extra opportunities to learn the steps.
The Feria de Sevilla begins at midnight two weeks after Easter Holy Week, and it runs for six days, through the following Sunday. Travelers in the area during this time will also encounter parades, daily fights at the bullring, and extensive blocks of colorful tents on the far side of the river (an easy walk from the center of town) owned by clubs, trade groups, and even particular families and groups of friends.
Stepping into the Past
Upstairs, our guide leads us into the museum’s permanent exhibition. The ambiance is thick within a few steps inside. Shimmering lights and surround-sound music bathe the first room in energy: serene, but at the same time alive with the echoes of past generations.
Rather than playing full recordings of songs, the stereo plays fragments of music on single instruments. The first to reach our ears is a single Indian sitar, riffing on disparate scales and melodies. The idea is to deconstruct the sounds of flamenco and remind listeners of the deep, complex origins of modern flamenco music.
Influences from traditional Indian and Middle Eastern music, for example, abound. As we study the dark walls of the room, images projected there give us hints as to some of the other sources of what is now so quickly recognized as flamenco. Read more