|Soleá, Fandangos, Zambras y Garrotín
Barcelona, 1913 - Bagur (Barcelona), 1963. Dancer. Pilar López has evoked the extraordinary impression she had on her and her sister the first time they saw her dance in New York. "Was it a woman’s dance? Was it a man’s? It did not matter: it was unique and its dimension incalculable. With her dress on she was so strong, so fiery, that you would say it was impossible for a woman; but when she had on her tight trousers, her little blouse with the waist coat, her small head like a jet black orange, her seven centimeter heels, her beautiful panther face, her unrepeatable dance of alegrías, she danced with the strength of a twenty year old lad, while exquisitely feminine, however. And now, dance! What a way to dance!, what feet so well placed in flamenco style, what harmonious legs, what strong footwork, with rhythm, clarity and music. And then those most flamenco arms, the prodigious whirling. Indeed, that art that calls the duende and ángel, that are so difficult to bring together. That woman had that and more".
Carmen Amaya was then a consecrated performer. She was born in a thatched hut in Somorrostro. Her father was Francisco Amaya "el Chino", a guitarist who made a harsh living "from one tavern to another, in permanent late nights of sour wine and thick vomit". When she was no more than four years old and was a skinny dark Gypsy girl, Carmen began to go out with her father at night to earn a living. The man played the guitar and the girl sang and danced. Then they passed the hat round, or simply picked up the coins the public threw on the ground. They also began to appear at third rate little theaters. José Sampere, a smart impresario of varieties was the first to take them to a hall that was a proper theater, the Teatro Español in Barcelona. However, due to her age, she was not able to work legally, and that caused constant tension, and quite a bit of picaresque, to hide her from the police. It was at the time of the International Exhibition in Barcelona (1929) that her name appeared in the press for the first time, thanks to a sharp critic, Sebastián Gash, from the newspaper Mirador having seen her and he wrote: "Imagine a little Gypsy girl of about fourteen sitting on a chair on the stage. Carmencita remains unmoving, like a statue, haughty and noble, with indescribable racial nobility, hermetic, absent, ignoring everything around her, alone in her inspiration, in a tremendously hieratic attitude, to allow her soul to rise to the inaccessible regions. Suddenly, a jump; and the little Gypsy girl dances. It is undescribable. Soul. Pure soul. Feeling made flesh. Rending movement at right angles that becomes live geometry".
Vicente Escudero saw her dance then, and remarked to those accompanying him: "That Gypsy girl will bring about a revolution in flamenco dance, because she is the synthesis of two great styles merged in genius: that of the old dancer, from waist to head, with the imponderable arm movement and that rare fire in her eyes; and the exciting style of the dancer in her prodigious variation of the feet". In 1935, she was hired by the impresario Carcellé and he presented her at the Coliseum in Madrid. That was probably Carmen’s real consecration nationwide. The cinema also called on her art. A small role in La hija de Juan Simón, with Angelillo as the great star. Then María de la O, with a proper role, Pastora Imperio.
When the events of 18th July 1936 took place, Carmen and her family were at the Zorrilla Theater in Valladolid, working for the Carcellé. They were well off then and had acquired their first car, and had already hired Ramírez to drive it, who thereafter was like another member of the family. They had to go to Lisbon to fulfil a contract but their car was commandeered the first day. Without transport and documents to cross the border, they were not able to get to Portugal until November. After quite a few setbacks and problems they managed to set off for Latin America on a ship that took fifteen days to cross the Atlantic. Alfredo Mañas writes: "It was an epic trip, full of fear, of terror; Carmen was absolutely terror stricken at that and other trips to America. She expressed it with a symbolic phrase of a moment of difficulty: "What a life this is, Mañitas: the Civil Guard on land and sharks at sea!"" In Buenos Aires, Carmen Amaya and her company were successful far beyond all forecast. Sabicas, who arrived later, gave a first hand testimony: "Carmen was already in Buenos Aires and was creating a scandal. She went for four weeks and had the theater packed for nine months. Tickets were sold a month and a half or two months in advance. We then got together and spent about seven years together. In the United States alone, we were together from 1940 to 45".
When Carmen Amaya returned to Spain in 1947 she was already a unarguably a star worldwide. Her long years in the Americas had allowed her not only to firmly establish her art, but also for her legend to grow unceasingly. Things were told about her then, and have continued to be told, that seem scarcely believable. However, they may have been true, at least some of them, due to the human nature of this Gypsy genius. The most incredible stories began to circulate about her surprising personality. For example the fried fish at her luxury rooms at the Waldorf Astoria.
Her dance was then "the most fiery flamenco that has ever strutted the stage. The forcefulness and passion she dances with make all other aspects insignificant. Her feet make the stage shake. The incredibly long tail of her dress is like a whip, straight and firm after whirling round. Her muscular arms swing constantly round to drive the contortions of her body". She had a fascinating character, which seduced all who came into contact with her, due to her dance always her almost unforeseeable attitude. Her generosity, for example, was almost pathological. She said in a newspaper interview: "No, the truth is I have never handled money; it bothers me, and I do not believe I have ever gone home with any money. There is so much misfortune in the world and if I am lucky enough to have it, I give it to the first person who asks, or if nobody asks, I pay ten times more for a packet of cigarettes than it is worth, but I go to bed without having to worry about having a cent in my pocket and I sleep well". It seems certain that she had a romance with Sabicas during those years in America, who declared shortly before his death that Carmen and he had been intimate in America for nine years and that they had separated in Mexico. When talking about the matter, Carmen was somewhat indifferent: "I was fond of him. He had fallen in love; he asked my father for my hand, and that is where it all ended ... (...) Because my father started to cry (...) It must have hurt him to think he would lose his daughter Carmen. My parents have always been the first in the world for me, and until then I had never seen tears in his eyes".
Carmen Amaya met many influential people of her time in America. She was in Hollywood several times, to act in a several films. The most outstanding personalities of the cinema, music and culture went to see her dance. Toscanini had to leave his orchestra one day to see Carmen dance and he went to greet her in her dressing room afterward and told her, " I have never in my life seen an artist with as much rhythm and fire as you!" Her beat was steely and she had a prodigious sense of rhythm, with an absolutely unrelentless tempo, that was fascinating due to its perfect exactness in a whirlwind of movements. Nobody had ever turned round like her, with such speed and perfection, also doing the even more difficult when she performed her formidable broken turn backward, that nobody other than her has been able to do. She continually improvised, always created something as she went along, suddenly synchronized with the others at the call of those most intense blows that make one stop at the most crucial moment (...)
Patrick Shupp (dancer) in declarations to Mario Bois, said: "She did whatever she wanted to, guided only by her own instinct; on stage she always had new spontaneous ideas, she was the personification of creativity (...) I will never forget her way of entering. She walked down to the proscenium slightly waving her hips and snapping her fingers with dry, definite clicking sound that set a sort of "internal rhythm". She immediately stopped still, placed the sole of her foot slightly in front of her and began her devilish, tragic footwork. All of her was tragic". And Bois himself, the author of a book on her in 1994, speaks of the impression the presentation by the dancer in Paris after her return from America in 1948 caused on him: "I saw no more fire! That is what I can say! I remember a woman in trousers dancing alone in the center of the stage, and around her all her Gypsies encouraging her with savage cries and clapping like machine guns (...) She was like a flame in the middle of a stove, a flame that twisted about, that crackled, a black, incandescent flame, that fascinated; one could not avoid watching it. For me as a lad then, it was somewhat frightening, dangerous and attractive at the same time, yes indeed, like fire. Her noisy footwork was incredibly swift and precise, in the rhythm and variations of intense percussion. Burning, flaming, she truly "burned up the boards". She brusquely ended each fragment of her dance, transmitting fire to the public, proudly lifting her head, the moment when the whole hall broke out in to applause and cries".
In 1952, she married Juan Antonio Agüero, a guitarist from her company, a non-Gypsy from a distinguished family from Santander. They undoubtably lived a beautiful love story. An intimate wedding. Years later, her husband declared: "They say we did not have a honeymoon, but it is not true. Our honeymoon lasted from the moment we married until Carmen died eleven years later". In 1959, Carmen lived another of the happiest moments in her life, at the inauguration of the fountain they named after her on the Maritime Promenade of Barcelona, which runs through the Somorrostro neighborhood, the same places and the same fountain where she had walked barefooted, in hunger and misery as a girl. One may say she lived the last decade of her life surrounded by the multitude, literally sanctified, not only by the public, but by those who worked with her. Her genius was instinctive, animal, it had little to do with academic learning. Thus, Fernando Quiñones remembers when he saw her at the end of her last performance in Madrid, the only thing she said to him was: "What do you want? For me to tell you about my dance? I don’t know myself, eh!". Carmen Amaya was already terminally ill. A sort of renal insufficiency prevented her from eliminating the toxins in her body properly. Science had no solution whatsoever.
She made a large number of films, but the filming of her last film, Los Tarantos, in spring 1963, was especially hard. Carmen went through with it most bravely. She had to dance barefooted in the freezing cold; every time the filming stopped, she immediately put on a coat, and the never had to repeat a shot due to her. She finished filming, but she did not live to see it assembled. They then went on the summer tour and, on 8th August, when working in Gandía, Carmen was not able to finish the performance. She was dancing one of her numbers and said to Batista: "Andrés, we’re finished".
Her dance sometimes perplexed the experts, as it rarely complied to the established orthodoxy, although it was accepted from her without seeking too many explanations, as one accepts a phenomenon of nature, something that is above good and bad, a miracle. "She was born with dance inside, a dance made of burnished gold", wrote Vicente Marrero.