“What is special in Rocío is not herself as a person; it is herself as a medium.” So said the film-maker Emilio Belmonte, presenting his film Impulso to the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2017. The film follows the fiercely talented flamenco dancer Rocío Molina – then 32 years old—as she works on a series of partially improvised scenes (“impulses”, she calls them) in venues across Europe; it ends on the stage of the Chaillot National Theatre in Paris, where she presents the distilled results of those impulses in the form of a single full-length piece: Fallen from Heaven.
Watch that performance, and you can see what Belmonte means. Here is Molina in a white bata de cola (a floor-length skirt with a long ruffled train) that she wraps around her feet, hands placed modestly over breasts and crotch in imitation of Boticelli’s famous Renaissance painting The Birth of Venus. Here she is in a harness and codpiece, crunching potato chips from a packet that’s been velcroed between her thighs. Here she is a seabird, choked with oil and plastic. Here, a witch riding a broomstick. Here, an anarchic punk-rocker, convulsing to the squeal of an electric guitar. In every scene, Molina becomes someone or something else, channelling another character, another creature, another energy or iconography. Molina does indeed appear as a medium, possessed by forces larger than herself.
And yet – who else could this be but Rocío Molina? Throughout, you sense her unmistakable stamp. It is she who shapes the show, who makes the dance come alive through the force of her presence; she who contains that explosive combination of strict technical discipline with the perilous sense that anything might happen, at any time. What is special in Molina is not only herself as a medium, but also herself as a person.
The fuse on her career was lit early: born in 1984 in southern Spain, she began taking classes in flamenco and ballet at the age of three. At seven, she was already trying out choreography, and declared that she wanted to become a professional dancer. By age 17, she’d graduated from the Royal Dance Conservatory in Madrid, and it wasn’t long before this prodigiously talented young woman was making and touring her own choreography: at 22, she premiered her first creation, Entre paredes (Among the Walls); two years later she had her first major success, Oro viejo (Old Gold).
But it was the following year that Molina counts as a turning point, crediting director Carlos Marquerie – with whom she collaborated on the 2009 work Cuando los piedras vuelen (When Stones Fly) – for fundamentally transforming her way of thinking. “He came from a theatre background,” she told Berlin’s Tanz im August magazine, “and helped me find an entirely new approach.” Previously, her works had been bold but still in the recognisable flamenco mould; now, she began to mould flamenco to her own vision, in works ranging from the small and simple Afectos (2012) to the grand and surreal Bosque Ardora (2014), explicitly indebted to the dance-theatre of Pina Bausch.
Bosque Ardora was a crossover success, equally at home on the contemporary dance as on the flamenco stage. A popular and critical hit, it outraged some flamenco purists (one newspaper diarist declared that Molina was killing “real” flamenco), and secured Molina a label that she has been tagged with ever since: iconoclast.
Fair enough: Molina is certainly not inclined to genuflect to conventions that don’t suit her. But it’s unfair to pit her iconoclasm against flamenco itself. Take her technique, for example. Yes, she’ll turn herself upside down, or scooch along the floor, or squat as widely as a kathakali dancer – but the flamenco schooling remains rooted within her body, from the rifle fire of her footwork to the torque of shoulders against spine, or the tendril curls of her fingers.
Furthermore, flamenco favours the soloist, giving space to personal form and feeling. Its history is awash with innovators and rebels, from pioneers such as Carmen Amaya, La Argentinita and Antonio Ruiz Soler to recent experimentalists such as Eva La Yerbabuena, Israel Galván – and now Rocío Molina. Such iconoclasts are integral to flamenco, complementing rather than contradicting its traditionalists.
Keep that in mind when watching Fallen from Heaven and you’ll have the pleasure of seeing Molina as both person and medium as she traverses encounters with Renaissance art, the Gospels, acid-rock, eco-activism and feminist self-empowerment – less a fallen angel from flamenco’s pure heights than a natural inhabitant of its wide open world.