In this interview with LEADERSHIP Books & Art, Graves talks about the challenge of maintaining the form and integrity of flamenco when paired with West African sounds and rhythm, her ongoing projects, and future plans. CHINELO CHIKELU writes
Tapping away to the infectious beat of an African drum, the oja, local flute, a Yoruba song and the palma with her body, shoes, and board, sole representation of the flamenco, British Ghanaian Flamenco Dancer, Yinka Esi Graves, creates an energetic piece that seems effortless and non-adherent to the strictures of the technical traditional flamenco.
Graves, with her intrinsic and acquired multi-ethnic background (British Jamaican from her paternal family and Ghanaian on her mother’s side, studied Afro-Caribbean dance, and Senegalese dance) though a traditional flamenco professional, has co-created works on contemporary flamenco with her co-founders at Dotdotdot; Alvin Ailey dancer, Ashley Thomas and currently working on a project with South African dancer, Mbulelo Ndabeni.
Her openness to collaborating other contemporary forms of expressions besides flamenco, she says, has evolved with the added experience of dancegathering Lagos, opening her up to the reality of other ways of creating, and disseminating creations out to the world.
“It is heartwarming to meet people who are likeminded to some extent, on a global scale, and make you think that maybe, things can be done differently. It is also like how united energies can do so much. It is making me think very carefully about the choices you make, as an artist. It makes me realise there are other ways to do so, and it is okay to find other ways to do that.”
An illustration of her collaboration with other works of expression is her global tour with the documentary film, Gurumbe: Canciones de tu Memoria Negra, which she features in. Graves met Gurumbe’s director, Miguel Rosales, in Seville, a few weeks, after her move from Madrid, where she had been for five years. The experience, she reveals, accords her the opportunity to meet with audience who, otherwise, would never have flamenco in their radar, and of people interested in the Black Arts, and those of intellectual leaning in other forms of black expression.
“The sudden attention has been interesting. It has given me a sense of legitimacy for what I am doing. The opportunity came at a time, when I was trying to go deeper into my kind of relationship with flamenco.”
Would you expand on the creative process and experience of that untitled piece at Dancegathering?
I suppose part of being at dancegathering is collaborating and rethinking the way we do what we do, or even doing things they have never done before.
In reality, it was a big challenge since we had just about two hours each day, for three days, that’s six hours to create something. We just started jamming, really, playing around. Awoko, on the flute, began, while I introduced the Bulerías, a kind of flamenco dance, then, the drummer chimed in. Another nice surprise was the singer, Toby, who asked to join. So, the act just came out of nowhere. We were also interested in just going from our meetings, since we came from different artistic backgrounds, and didn’t have the time to create a piece about something specific. We just wanted to see what our encounter produces. It is a kind of initiation of the process, that in the next few days, we worked on giving some sort of structure. Obviously, we work in different languages, and the flamenco is very specific. I knew I wasn’t going to be dancing proper flamenco, with all its required structures for a piece, which, in itself, is a challenge. But I felt that wasn’t the point. The point is to see how we can let our different rhythms co-exist.
Were there specific challenges or ‘torn moments’ in working with the sounds, not just as flamenco but also as a dancer who has to follow the beats and the song?
Absolutely. More than anything it is very challenging as it comes with a different intention. When you dance traditional flamenco, you are singing to a particular kind of song, which is Palos, with different rhythms, specific lyrics and specific terms, they create an energy. For instance, Alegría, as the name implies, is a celebration of oneself, that people dance in a playful way, in contrast to Siguiriyas, which is almost tragic, and possesses a different rhythm. The musicality of the type/style of flamenco, guides the energy of the piece and the aesthetics of the dance, and is supported by the guitar, and the Palmas (the clapping). In a sense, I feel, as a dancer, your job is to use those elements to inspire your movement. For me, what I found very difficult with the piece, because it was actually very false to me, is that, if I am going to keep some integrity of the form (flamenco), which I have come to the gathering as, were I to respond to what I was listening to, maybe I would have moved differently. So, it was like trying to somehow use movements of my flamenco dancing but without them being triggered by the same things.
Another thing is the intention, I noticed that (and this is different in other parts of West Africa), there is this idea of the bass rhythm, and the solos that people do; whereas in flamenco, when somebody is going to do something, they need everybody’s support around them to accentuate it. So, as a dancer when we feel people are leaving us, what we are doing suddenly doesn’t exist anymore. The untitled piece, was interesting for me, because I almost felt like in the moment while I was doing other stuff, it was like “okay, she is doing her thing”, and so they receded instead of coming along so we could all finish together. So, it is that sort of intention, more than rhythm that I think is the most difficult part. If I am to come at it again, or if I had more time, that is an interesting thing about flamenco that would be good to use with these other forms.
That’s interesting because the African “We Philosophy” which is about communality, seems to allow for individuality when it comes to music and seems as much as it allows for the union of music and dance.
No, I agree, and flamenco does that as well, in the sense that there are moments of protagonism. But it is how that protagonism is perceived that is different. That protagonism is perceived in absolute correspondence to other elements working in the service of that thing. I think it is just an energy intention thing. That was just interesting, because I am aware that being so used to that, and not having those prompts made me somehow lose myself. It was an interesting observation. The musicians I worked with were absolutely amazing, brilliant, and were quick to grasp all the rhythms I proposed, flamenco-wise. It was interesting to see the difference in performative action.
How much do you draw from your African roots in your performances in relation to your more cosmopolitan background?
That’s an interesting question. I feel like there are certain things more intrinsic in the way I perhaps move. I did some Senegalese dancing when I was younger, and I have also lived in Cuba, where I did some Afro-Cuban dancing. And I know that has influenced me; because a lot of the African-Caribbeans in Cuba are totally Yoruba. So, I think it might be there, but it is quite inconscupious. Currently, I just made an application (fingers crossed), for which if I receive the grant, I am interested in spending more time, investigating ways I can utilize the memories, things in my body that I take for granted. Flamenco is very complex, and it takes time to train, even with just the technique, and I am still in that process. However, I have been focused on that for a long time, and I have reached a point, suddenly, where I know that work will continue, and I know what I am doing, and I am now interested to look inwards, to excavate inside of me. It is to also help me find the clearest voice choreographically, and dance-wise, and I definitely think that is connected to my Africanness.
Do you think globalisation has had much influence on flamenco, in terms of encouraging inclusion of other racial influences, like Africa in the art form?
We think globalisation is modern but I think flamenco was born of a global world; in a place where there were African, gypsies, Jewish, Spanish, Moorish populations. Since the beginning of slavery and conquest of the Americas, the world has been conversing and crossing cultures for 500 years. Flamenco, as a new art created in the 19th century, is relatively new, and comes at the end of Spain’s colonial rule. Ironically, it is used as a form of its identity. But, flamenco’s identity in and of itself, is a process born out of its colonial past. This is in the sense that the costumes we wear, half of them are influenced by the Philippines Peinetas (intricate floral hairpins), the Asian chaussures (shoes), which was a previous colony of Spain, the rhythms, which are kind of the Americas, and the older remnants of what the African population left behind. You are right, about globalisation, in that I am able to dance flamenco, and there are more foreign flamenco dancers, something being done all over the world. However, it always speaks to me as something else. That it is something that is always universal, even if it was used as homogenous factor.
It has taught me about history, that we can never take for granted what we are told and taught, as often what we are told and taught, are actually not really true. So, we believe things are one way, when in reality, they really aren’t. There you are thinking flamenco is a traditional Spanish thing, when it turns out to be a multi-cultural art.
Although, we have to be clear, Flamenco was created in a specific place, that is, Spain. There is no question that it is Spanish, but it is that coming together of things, cultures that were there at the time that made it happen.
An admirer of contemporary African dancer Nora Chipaumire, do you think her influence is what drew you to dancegathering, to opening up to other forms of contemporary expressions besides flamenco?
I think it’s been happening anyways. I founded a company Dotdotdot, with two other dancers. I have left the company, but we co-created contemporary flamenco work. The company uses traditional flamenco to sort of express different things, and approach them differently. I also did a contemporary piece with Alvin Ailey alumni, contemporary dancer, Ashley Thomas, now based in Paris. That was already there, and this experience is an evolvement. In general, when you begin to look at something, you see more things leading further down that path. I think what is intrinsic in the African, is not seen as much, not that it is not valued, but it is not seen as if it’s anything. I am going through this experience with a company, where we are working on something that is taking ages, and I am just expected to do something, because what I do supposedly just comes out. I am like “Wait a minute, there needs to be a process.” I feel like I want to take that time to myself and with myself to look at what is already within and start giving it some value as opposed to ignoring it or not giving it any importance.
Any new projects?
I am working on South African but UK-based dancer and choreographer, Mbulelo Ndabeni’s piece. I am also working with Pueblo Marco Vargas in Spain, on a piece expected to premiere by the end of the year. Then, I will be touring with Dotdotdot, on a production we made last year because I was in it. I am also starting what will be my first solo piece. That is a big step for me. That, in addition to this grant process, which I know I will do somehow, with or without the grant, are my plans for 2020.
How do you balance work and family?
I am learning. Leaving Dotdotdot was a part of that because I was too busy. I am very close to my family, even though I don’t live in England all the time. I love what I do, and both feed into each other. I think as a person, whatever I do, I will always be busy. That’s just who I am.
Are you married?
I am not married but I have a partner.
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