Always to improvise. Always. Because that’s what makes flamenco fun; that’s what gives me a sense of freedom; that makes communication with musicians and the audience that much more real.
But then again, there’s something to be said for choreography. Letting your muscle memory take over so that you are free to express…
And even if it’s improvised, there MUST be STRUCTURE.
And PROCESS. It’s all about PROCESS. New steps are made from improvising and experimenting. As Miles Davis said, “That’s why I didn’t write it all out. Not because I didn’t know what I wanted; I knew that what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged stuff.”
I am often asked about improvisation in flamenco. I can only speak for myself, but generally, here’s how improvisation fits into my performances and choreography and how I explain it:
Improvising does not mean you just get up and do whatever you feel in the moment; I have what I’d like to call a tool bag that I can pull from on the spot that is filled with numerous steps. They function like building blocks and also like puzzle pieces. As building blocks in the sense that I use them to structure the dance, to signal to the musicians–overall to give form to the dance. Also, like puzzle pieces–I have to respond to the musicians, and certain steps fit better than others. Let’s say each step is a different shape, and depending on what you’re building you can’t just throw them in a pile–the cornerstone has to be in the corner; some steps can fit in a lot of places, some just embellish–you get the idea…Each step serves a purpose and has an intention.
I like to leave spaces in my dance to ‘play,’ to completely improvise percussively; usually I leave this for a tapado section of the dance (when the guitar just plays rhythms and not melodies or chords).
You have to know cante (singing). Really well. As well as the singer. Because you are interpreting the song, dancing to and with the song, so you have to be familiar with it and listen to the singer’s interpretation. There’s not enough time in this life to study the cante; there’s so much to learn and understand…but I do my best.
I always know more or less the structure I am going for before I begin to dance, although sometimes that changes in the moment–for example I can decide to add another letra or verse or extend different parts of the dance. It also changes if the singer comes in when I had not expected it or the guitarist begins a melody without me signaling. The ability to command and improvise is crucial in those moments. I’ve come a long way when it comes to that, but still have a long way to go. For example, this past week at a tablao, the singer came in when I wanted to close out the rhythm completely, since we hadn’t talked through the structure of the dance beforehand, this was normal. I ended up cutting out a piece of my dance. Another option could have been to do another close after that verse. I constantly evaluate how I could deal with situations differently after I perform…
It’s not all signaled in flamenco through musical or gestural cues. Sometimes, you have to turn around and tell your musicians what you want, especially if they’ve never seen your dances before. Working at Alegrias on Saturday, I closed out one section of my dance and did a call into another rhythm, and had to turn around and say tapado because he started to play a melody. The singer for the other dancer that night has worked with her many times, and would just whisper to the guitarist what she wanted since he was familiar with her dancing. So there is some verbal communication, especially when musicians and dancers aren’t especially familiar with one another’s dancing or playing.
That being said, it’s great to work with musicians you know well that can follow your steps and you can have fun improvising with, people that are familiar with you and your steps. It’s also dangerous to get comfortable. Working with new musicians forces you to be very clear with your steps and very aware when it comes to listening. It can be really refreshing and fun to work with a new group of musicians.
Now, where do these ‘steps’ or building blocks come from? In flamenco they are passed down orally. I like to give steps I learn my own touch, make them my own somehow–flamenco is all about being personal–by changing the rhythms slightly, changing the body, which is accomplished by playing around with the step in the studio usually (or sometimes on stage). Sometimes I take a step from one rhythm and change it so it fits into another rhythm. It’s all an experimental process….
And for the theater, when I want to ‘say something’ specific, my dances are more choreographed and less improvised. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvising, but to make the dance clean and say something specific, you have to choreograph and rehearse with the musicians and theater techies. It’s like having a spontaneous conversation versus giving a speech. Tablao work is more like a conversation that could take many different directions.
And now I’ll leave you with a video of some flamenco being improvised at one of my favorite peñas in Sevilla: