Spanish dancer Manuel Liñán honours tradition even as he upends it at Vancouver International Flamenco Festival

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      Manuel Liñán is one of the most exciting forces in Spain’s new generation of flamenco dancers.

      And although he’s driving the form forward in multiple ways, in his home country and elsewhere, he’s best-known for one revolutionary thing: donning the ruffled, trailing bata de cola skirt that is traditionally reserved for female performers.

      He’ll wear it again for a vignette in his theatrical new piece Baile de Autor at the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival.

      That’s not something you see in a field that has such clearly divided gender roles—historically rooted as they are in the social mores of Andalusian and Romani society.

      But it tells you something about Liñán’s approach that he’s not dancing in the emblematic female costume to shock.

      “For me, it’s necessary; I’m not doing it because it’s controversial,” the young artist stresses to the Straight, speaking from flamenco’s sunbaked ground zero in the southern Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera. Flamenco fest artistic director Rosario Ancer is translating on a conference call as he speaks in the staccato rhythms of Castilian. “It’s something that’s always been important in my work. Since I was a kid I dreamed of dancing with the bata de cola and shawl. I don’t think there has to be a reason, because it just feels natural to me. And when you’re natural, you’re honest in your movement. When I put on the bata de cola, it allows me to bring something out that’s in me, it’s a part of me, and it gives me inspiration.

      “Something does happen in my body, it gets softer,” he explains. “But I’m not changing my moves because of the bata de cola; rather, it allows something to come out of me—something that is already there.”

      Authenticity and honesty blaze in Liñán’s work, which finds a fresh-feeling middle ground not just between traditional and contemporary flamenco, but between the improvisational intimacy of the tablao and the drama and lights of the theatre. Baile de Autor centres on the dancer pummelling the stage to the rhythms of guitarist Manuel Valencia and cantaor David Carpio, both of whom sit nearby on-stage. Meanwhile, atmospheric racks of rising and falling lights, near-hallucinatory vignettes, and other touches give it the production polish that suits the theatre. The charismatic artist enjoys that balance.

      “I don’t like to put a tag on what I do. I like to move between the traditional and the more avant-garde,” he asserts. “You can move between the two. There will always be controversy about what traditional flamenco is and is not, but they can live together. They need each other to continue.

      “In this work,” he adds, “I feel like it puts together everything that I am, playing with the elements within me as a director, choreographer, and dancer.”

      If Baile de Autor feels dreamlike to audiences, it’s because the artist says its visions came to him in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. “At that precise moment before I fall asleep, I’m still creating in my mind,” he admits. “So it comes from this transition between thinking, ‘I’m going to do this or this,’ and then starting to fall asleep.”

      Authenticity and honesty blaze in Manuel Liñán’s work.

      Liñán has been living flamenco night and day in this way since childhood. He grew up in ancient Granada—slightly removed from the art form’s traditional centres. He says his family didn’t have the means to send him to private flamenco school, but a teacher saw his excitement and talent for the form and let him study for free. That led to work in tablaos at just 13, touring the fests and storied venues of Andalusia, and then, in 1997, following his dream of pursuing dance in the hotbed of Madrid. There, he eventually landed a spot on the stage with its legendary Amor de Dios troupe and choreographing for the likes of the Ballet Nacional de España and Nuevo Ballet Español.

      He finds himself today, both with his bata de cola and without it, in the vanguard of a revival of the art form in his home country.

      “Of course, there will always be people who want it more traditional, but the jovenes, the young people, are way more accepting and open-minded,” he says, tracing the explosion back about five years. “I feel really happy about the way flamenco is evolving. And it’s important for the aficionados outside of Spain to understand that inside Spain flamenco is changing.”

      The Vancouver International Flamenco Festival presents the Manuel Liñán Company at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 14.