The popular impression of Spanish dance is a narrow one: the immediate images that come to mind are of percussive footwork and snaking arms, a torero strut and a smouldering glance – the emotive scarlet and black of flamenco. But Spain encompasses a diversity of regions with their own languages, cultures and histories. In the northwest of Spain lies Galicia, a windswept, rain-soaked Atlantic terrain that seems a world away from the dry plains of the south. And whereas flamenco seems to exert a peculiar appeal for the English (perhaps because its dark soul is so very un-English), Galician folk dance will strike a chord of recognition with the Irish, Scottish and Welsh.
They share, indeed, a Celtic ancestry: Galicia was the area of Spain that was most fully settled by the Celts when they arrived in the Iberian peninsula, in about 1000 BC. The Celtic influence remains strong in Galicia to this day, for the region has long been an isolated one: unlike most of Spain, it was Romanised only slowly (and incompletely), it had little contact with the Moors, and it has since been long overlooked as a poor rural backwater by successive monarchs and regimes – including under Franco, himself a Galician. So, like their British Celtic counterparts, the marginalised Galicians maintain a strong regional identity quite distinct from the nation to which they belong (despite, or perhaps even because of large-scale emigration from the area), and for which ‘folkloric’ performances of dance and music provide a special sense of affirmation.
like their British Celtic counterparts, the marginalised Galicians maintain a strong regional identity quite distinct from the nation to which they belong
The Ballet Galego Rey de Viana was founded back in 1949 by the late José Manuel Rey de Viana, who wished to preserve Galician folk dances while transferring them onto the stage in order to reach a wider audience. To create a folk-based company that worked well in a theatrical setting, de Viana aimed for a style that combined a solid base in Galician folk dance (the most characteristic of which are the muiñeira, the fandango, and the jota) with the academic rigour of a classical ballet training. Today this tradition is upheld by his sprightly widow, Victoria Canedo, and the company, now expanded to around fifty dancers and funded by the Galician state, has its own school which trains students in both disciplines. And though balleticised and adapted for the proscenium, the dances are a far cry from the glossy Celtic glitz of Riverdance, or from the touristy turns of some flamenco performances.
The Celtic roots were plainly visible in the enjoyable and attractive eveninglength programme I saw in Santiago de la Compostela in June. It was certainly a surprise for the visitor attending a Spanish dance show to hear the wail of bagpipe reeds piercing through their wheeze and drone, and to watch dancers skipping bonnily in breeches and braces, bodices and billowing skirts, or merrily clacking their clogs.
In the transition to the theatre stage, many of the dances presented have been choreographed into a narrative context in order to help the audience appreciate and engage with the dance. In Zoqueirada Chantadina a cobbler gives dancing shoes to some humble village maidens so they can show off in a cloppity clog dance; Xentes do Mar depicts seafaring fisherfolk; Repenicoque uses the rhythm of stone cutters working as the basis for a dance. Other dances are given the setting of popular festivals (Romaria) or rituals (Pranto, Flores Brancos). In Noite de Bruxas, some villagers come upon a witches’ coven, and dance an ecstatic ritual of exorcism half-religious half-pagan to the pounding of pandeiro drums. (Galicia has, in fact, a long reputation as the heartland of Spanish witchcraft and superstition, and the Cipranillo, the foremost textbook of Galician magic, has been through countless reprints, right up until the 1970s.)
Interspersed with these folky scenes are courtly ones, the performers dressed in baroquely ornate costumes, and moving elegantly with slow. stately sweeps of the hand, and refined inclinations of the head. And in one theatrically effective sequence (Belidas Fiandeiras) a group of spinstresses, whose long heavy dresses make them appear to glide across the floor, trace warp and-weft patterns across the stage.
The programme presents a kaleidoscope of Galician life, from different eras, evoking different moods, from village to court, from daily life to special festivals. In addition to gaining a ‘feel’ for the region through this melange of court dance, folk dance and balletic style, it’s also fascinating to see connections emerging between these forms. The show is kaleidoscopic, too, in its costumes, on which a great deal of attention has been lavished. Authentic, all hand-made, and changed for each scene, they dazzle with colour and decoration.
For me the high point of the evening – a moment which captured the spirit of this convivial company – was the lovely Paso a Tres, a bouncy muiñeira for three women in which they trip, swish and twirl, deftly keeping within the intricate rhythms and interlaced spacing of the dance while maintaining an air of sunny enjoyment. And at the end of the number we were treated to the dancers returning to the stage one by one to take exaggerated, showy bows, each outdoing her predecessor in elaborate, frothy curtseys, flirtily flicking their skirts, and grinning with generous goodwill.