Dancer Sara Baras has become the flamenco superstar of her generation, performing on the world’s most prestigious stages from London and Paris to New York and Tokyo. Renowned for breaking the rules and doing things her own way, she talks dance, life and gender politics on the eve of her headline show at the Flamenco Festival London.
For Sara Baras, dancing is in her blood. She has been dancing since she was five years’ old, trained as a child by her mother – a respected flamenco teacher in Cádiz, Andalusia – and she first made her name as a young dancer over 20 years ago. She immediately stood out thanks to her striking combination of grace, beauty and technical virtuosity combined with the passion which is the lifeblood of flamenco. She also made her name early on by dancing the ‘farruca’ – a dance traditionally only danced by men, characterised by its intense, rapid-fire footwork and high drama turns and poses.
Despite the fact that it was a man’s dance and had to be danced in trousers rather than the voluminous dresses historically worn by female dancers, she saw no reason not to make it her own. In fact, it was the dance’s very masculinity which paradoxically gave Baras the courage to tackle it and, in fact, made her feel more feminine, she says.
“I feel more naked when dancing la farruca,” she tells me in her Andalusian accented Spanish down the phone from Seville where she has been touring, “and your body is somehow more present. When you put on a dress, your hips, your legs, your whole body handles it in a delicate way so that it doesn’t disrupt the beautiful silhouette it gives your body. For me, the trousers make you feel more exposed, more naked and that makes you feel more feminine. For me, at least.”
“So what was it, I ask her, that inspired her to take on the dance? “Originally [in flamenco],” she explains, “there was one style of movement for men and another for women. Nowadays, we have the same movements and it’s only the interpretation which is important. A man can move his hips but he moves them like a man, not like a woman. A woman can ‘zapatear’ (stamp in the flamenco style), but a woman does so with femininity, not like a man. So I thought I can dance a farruca because I won’t be dancing it like a man. What’s more, I feel more feminine dancing a farruca than other styles which are probably more traditionally associated with women.”
Despite having been considered a man’s dance, la farruca had in fact been taken on previously by the great gypsy flamenco star of the 1920s and ‘30s, Carmen Amaya, kitted out in a dapper white suit, but it still nevertheless made waves when Baras took it on.
“At first, it caused a bit of a stir that I was dancing a man’s dance,” she explains, “and wearing men’s clothes, but people were also very supportive to me. There were some, who people mistakenly call purists, who didn’t want me to progress things, but they were very few. The flamenco world itself wasn’t against it, and now nobody asks anymore why a woman shouldn’t dance the farruca.
“When Carmen Amaya stood in front of a man,” she continues, “she seemed stronger than the man, and why not? In the past, there was a rule which said that women were soft and sweet and moved their arms while men were strong and moved their feet. But that was a very long time ago. So in my case, I think I came from a generation where we became more equal and were given more opportunities to do that.”
In fact, whilst aspects of flamenco may have been more associated with a certain machismo, the culture of the dance’s homeland of Andalucia also bears a tradition of strong women. Consequently, although the traditional image of the flamenco world is one of tightly defined gender roles and a staunch masculinity which might not seem the obvious place for a more enlightened approach to equality of the sexes, the reality has not necessarily been so straightforward.
Photo: Juliette Valtiendas
“There’s a tradition,” says Baras, “which seems like it never changes, but the fact is that the flamenco world moves on, just like life. Nowadays, we as women play a different role in the world generally and we’re still fighting to get more equality – and that’s the same in the world of flamenco. And I think it’s the same for the public.”
This year, Baras celebrates 20 years with her own dance company and she is currently touring Sombras (Shadows) – the show which she explains celebrates the ‘shadows’ of the people who have been important to her at the various stages of her career.
“I wanted to celebrate the fact that my company has now been together for 20 years and I wanted to pay homage to the shadows and ghosts of people who have accompanied us during our years together, and also those moments which help you remember that what you do today is based on everything you’ve learnt in the past. It’s a way of honouring the past without repeating choreography, but giving it a new reading.”
Her new interpretation of la farruca is a key part of the show, an acknowledgement of its importance in her career, albeit in a new guise. “I was 25 years younger when I first danced it,” she tells me, “but it was something that has defined me and I’m still here and I’m even braver now because now I can do it with a violin and a saxophone or whatever I want. And that fusion gives me security and it’s a very important moment for me artistically, and something that helps me grow and to have something to say.”
Baras is clearly committed to bringing flamenco firmly into the 21st century, and aside from la farruca, the dresses she wears in the rest of Sombras, may feature the odd frill and some flowing, billowing skirts but these are often more reminiscent of contemporary ballet than the polka dotted frills of postcards and the strictly-for-tourists flamenco displays.
For her, however, this approach is simply something that goes in tandem with life as, for her, the two are inextricably intertwined. Did she ever think of doing anything else, I ask her. “No,” she laughs. “I grew up knowing that dancing was what I wanted to do. It was just a part of me. This isn’t like a job that you do from nine to five. It’s my means of expression, my way of feeling. For me, dancing is my life.”
Sara Baras will be performing Sombras with Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras at Sadler’s Wells, London, from 2 to 7 July
Photo: Juliette Valtiendas