Even in her flamenco shoes, Eva Yerbabuena is barely more than 5ft tall. Yet she is a towering presence as she strides into her rehearsal studio on a chilly January afternoon. Firing off orders in front of the mirror, she runs her dancers through a gruelling workout of jogging, stretches, sit-ups and back raises. My abs start aching in sympathy as she outdoes them all on the leg lifts. I think it helps to have short legs.
Yerbabuena is one of the biggest names on the international flamenco circuit: she picked up the Flamenco Today prize three years in a row, the Spanish National Dance prize in 2001 and a Time Out Best Performance award for her British debut in 2002. Today, in the small town of Dos Hermanas, near Seville, she is rehearsing the “Madness” section of her show 5 Women 5. To a Briton, flamenco can seem like madness – all that untrammelled outpouring of pride and passion. But watch the dancers rehearsing and it’s clear that flamenco is built not on some kind of chest-baring exposure of the soul, but on strict, buttoned-up discipline.
watch the dancers rehearsing and it's clear that flamenco is built not on some kind of chest-baring exposure of the soul, but on strict, buttoned-up discipline
Yerbabuena repeats a rhythm over and over, adjusts the angle of a dancer’s arm, calculates the weight of step. Only when everything is just right can they let themselves go. And Yerbabuena, casually rattling off a brilliant display of gunfire footwork, seems in complete command.
It’s a mask, though. “Flamenco is a cover,” she confesses. How so? “I used to be really, really shy. Flamenco was a kind of refuge, a place where I could go.” Later, over lunch at her local restaurant, that becomes easier to believe. She hides her soulful eyes behind outsize dark glasses until we have settled at the table and ordered. Yet she is not cold or aloof. Rather, she comes across as modest, unassuming – sometimes even childlike. She shows me a little silver elephant dangling from her necklace. It turns out she has a soft spot for elephants. “And dolphins,” she says. “I like animals that think.”
Out of the blue, she asks what my star sign is – and guesses it correctly. “And what’s mine?” I try to change the subject, but she politely insists, so I have a try: “Cancer?” She smiles – correcto! – and starts rambling on about signs and ascendants. But no, Eva, let’s talk about you.
She was born Eva María García Garrido in Frankfurt in 1970 (the moniker Yerbabuena, or “mint”, was given much later by a guitarist friend). Two weeks later, she was back in the family home near Granada. There she was raised by her grandparents while her parents – a builder and a hairdresser – continued working in Germany. At 11 she began flamenco classes, but it was only a year later, when her father took her to a flamenco festival featuring the famous singer Camarón de la Isla, that she was smitten for good. She turned professional at 15, leaving home the following year to work and study in Seville. It was here, aged 19, that she met her husband, the guitarist Paco Jarana, who is now also the composer and musical director of her company. It was here, too, that her career began to take off as she collaborated with some big names and started to win prizes.
Yerbabuena is happier talking about her work than about herself, however. She even thinks of her awards as recognition for flamenco rather than for her talent. “I’m often asked why I dance flamenco,” she says. “I ask the question myself. And I think for me, flamenco is a mission. I want to show people flamenco, to show how I understand it.” And that is the key to Yerbabuena. She has two distinct, sometimes conflicting sides: the private woman and the public performer. She has a strong sense of family and home, preferring the seclusion of Dos Hermanas – Jarana’s home town – to the bustle and grandeur of Seville. Yet she runs her own dance company, creates her own work and maintains an extensive international touring schedule.
The same tension marks her relationship with flamenco. Yerbabuena is not content to be simply a vessel for tradition: she wants to find her own voice, to use flamenco as a medium for her own ideas. It is no coincidence that her first show, in 1998, was called simply Eva.
This was the piece that made her name. It was contrasted favourably with the flashy displays of entertainers such as Joaquín Cortés, and also – more equivocally – with more traditional stagings of “pure” flamenco. Neither showpiece nor showcase, it seduced even those critics who had no great love of the dance with its simple costumes, disciplined group choreography and sparse, elemental style.
It was also, crucially for Yerbabuena, a vindication of her ideas and a boost to her self-confidence. Its success was a surprise – and not only for her. “There were people who were surprised because it was a woman who decided to form the company, a woman who decided to make the choreography, to stage the work,” she says. “The world of flamenco has its machismo, you know? So some people – especially men – wondered: did she really do this on her own? Was she really capable of that?”
It was this response that inspired her next piece, 5 Women 5. “I started thinking about various historical or mythical women – Carmen, Lady Macbeth, Penelope – who had struggled for their liberty or for their achievements. Initially, it was going to be a piece about one woman, but I couldn’t choose which. In the end I decided to think about their emotions. 5 Women 5 is about five feelings, feelings that can change a woman’s life: love, loneliness, ambition, madness and maturity.
“Initially, some of the men felt uncomfortable about their roles,” she recalls. “Instead of being protagonists, they were representing the different faces of men in the life of a woman – father, lover, husband, son. And that made them feel uneasy.”
When he enters the ring, the bullfighter doesn't know how or even if he will come back. He is on a stage. I identify a lot with that when dancing.
Yerbabuena used ideas from the very macho sport of bullfighting: the solitude, the ambition, the feint of the cape, the struggle. “When he enters the ring, the bullfighter doesn’t know how or even if he will come back,” she explains. “He is on a stage. I identify a lot with that when dancing. You have to deliver your best in the moment.” And even 5 Women 5‘s title echoes the famous poem Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejía by Federico García Lorca, with its doom-laden refrain: “It was at five in the afternoon, at five in the afternoon” – the hour when the bullfight begins.
Lorca was part of a movement in the 1920s that believed flamenco should resist the commercial imperatives of the café cantante (music hall), the recording industry and the stage. He would no doubt have disapproved of Yerbabuena, who today divides both purists and progressives – as I witness after a thoroughly traditional flamenco show at Seville’s Casa de la Memória. I mention Yerbabuena to Melinda, a young American studying flamenco in Seville, and her eyes widen. “At her best, Yerbabuena is the best,” she says with enthusiasm. “She can really choreograph drama. But if she wants to, she can do a kick-ass alegrías.” But Helen, an Australian who first came to Spain to learn flamenco in the 1960s, is dubious. “Why change the steps for the sake of it? It’s pointless and you ruin a style that’s been built up over years.” Helen’s daughter Farida, another lifelong flamenco fan, just laughs and relishes the debate.
“Relax!” says Yerbabuena. “Enjoy what you see. Don’t worry if it is more pure flamenco or less pure flamenco.
“Flamenco is my whole life,” she says happily. “Flamenco is, you know, de puta madre – bloody brilliant.”