Victor Bravo is a flamenco artist and Dance Director of the Museum of Flamenco Dance in Sevilla, Spain. He has pursued a stage career performing pure flamenco as well as working with classical and modern dance companies. Some of the well-known companies with which he has danced are those of María Pagés, Lauren Postigo and Joaquín Cortés.
I met Victor after attending an after-hours flamenco performance at the Museum, housed in an elegant 18th century mansion just steps away from Seville’s majestic cathedral. I was privileged to be among an intentionally small audience enjoying the artistry from close proximity to the dramatically-lit stage. In the intimate setting and over the span of an hour, I felt the depth and spectrum of human emotion--from soaring joy to profound sadness--through the expressiveness of the artists baring their souls on the stage.
My conversation with Victor was a similar experience; in telling his extraordinary story, he evoked life’s heights and depths. I hope you find inspiration in his account of his life as both an artist and an ongoing work in progress, as we all are. — MP
Meg: What observations could you share about flamenco as part of Andalucian history and culture?
Victor: Flamenco is not just concentrated in Andalucia. The gypsies have always had important gitanerías (gypsy quarters) in Barcelona, Madrid and France. Of course, today flamenco music has an important impact and following throughout the world.
Flamenco is a unique expression of an art that is both traditional and evolutionary. It continues to be free, so that each artist may be able to create his or her individual stamp (su sello propio) at any given moment. Flamenco continues to give us the opportunity to express each experience (cada vivencia) in its totality (cada todo). As in any art, flamenco gives you everything (te regala todo).
We depend on art. I don’t know what my life would have been without music. Nature is art in its purest form…the sea, the leaves on the trees…I would like to dance in total silence, but there is no silence…our very hearts beat!
Meg: Tell me about when you first became interested in flamenco.
Victor: My grandmother was my artistic inspiration; in fact I have taken my artistic surname, “Bravo” from her. She was the only person in our family to have aspired to become an artist–a singer. However, as was typical of most women of her generation, she renounced her ambitions to devote herself full-time to her family.
I clearly remember being about four years old and watching flamenco performers on television. I was enthralled and would secretly imitate them when I believed no one was watching. One day my mother caught me imitating the flamenco artists and asked if I would like to learn to dance. I was a terribly shy child and shook my head “no” in answer to her query. She asked the same question on several other occasions when I was “caught in the act” and announced that she was not going to ask again. This would be my last opportunity to study dance at a proper academy.
I was five years old by then and knew that this was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. I overcame my shyness and threw myself, heart and soul, into learning the flamenco style folk-dance called Sevillanas. In a matter of several weeks, I could perform all four parts of the Sevillanas with castanet accompaniment! Even as a very young child, I had always wanted to be an artist. When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer “a painter." This was before I was so passionately and deeply infected with the "flamenco bug.” I guess it was in my DNA!
At about age six or seven, I began to devote myself to the study of flamenco dance. My first professional instructors were the legendary flamenco artists Matilde Coral and her brother “El Mimbre.” The essence of their inimitable style was both elegance and a strong personal stamp that became the basis of what was to evolve into my particular interpretations. By the time I was fifteen years old I had completed my preliminary studies and was awarded the “Dance Career Diploma” (Carrera de Danza). I make particular mention of this because it was most unusual to achieve this distinction at such a young age; a student is usually at least eighteen years old before being granted the diploma.
Meg: When did you first perform professionally?
Victor: My first professional performances, at about age fourteen or fifteen, were benefit galas often given in homes for the aged. I was obsessed with performing on stage. Because I was basically such a shy child, these live performances before an audience gave me an opportunity to express my inner self in ways that I could not manage on a more mundane daily basis. Even before I had completed my “Dance Career Diploma” studies, word reached me of a ship anchored on the River Guadalquivir here in Sevilla featuring flamenco performers.
I was just thirteen years old when I approached the director of the ship El Buque and informed him that I wished to audition for the spectacle. The director Juan Cortés knew I was not telling him the truth about my age but said that I could audition. He made it clear that he could not offer me a proper contract and I assured him that it made no difference to me. I just wanted to dance–to perform flamenco before an audience.
The dance that I was to perform for the audition was “Tarantos”, a very pronounced and distinct gypsy rhythm that I had never danced before. On the spot, I turned to the guitarist and asked him to mark each beat very strongly. I improvised, feeling the rhythm and recalling and imitating performances I had previously witnessed! The director was impressed; I was hired; my parents remained unaware that I was performing on El Buque. I was in Heaven.
When I was fifteen years old and had my diploma, I was contracted to perform on a cruise ship sailing the Mediterranean. This time my father signed the papers giving me permission. The ship stopped in ports in Greece, France and Monaco. I performed in bars and restaurants, meeting artists from many different parts of the world. I felt very brave embarking upon this adventure and at such a tender age, but what an education it was for me!
Meg: How did it feel to be on stage?
Victor: The first time I was really aware of the public’s enthusiastic applause for my performance, I was surprised. I felt a rush of adrenaline that still happens every time I am on stage. This feeling remains unsurpassed by any other of life’s “highs.” It is an exhilarating moment, an orgasmic high, a sweet catharsis.
The most important aspect of any flamenco dancer’s performance is the ability to connect with his singer (cantaor), with his guitarist and with the audience. This spark of artistic transmission is known as duende, the essential spirit or soul of Andalucian art. For me this magical component includes the very air in the venue, as well as the performers and the public.
My most special performing moments have always involved a radical change from any dance interpretation I have previously done. The duende appears spontaneously and unannounced. My performance executes a complete 180̊ turn–in Spanish da la vuelta a la tortilla (turns the tortilla completely over)!
Meg: Can you give a brief overview of the Museum and describe your role there, and how you came to be associated with it?
Victor: When the Museum opened, Cristina Hoyos called me and asked if I would give flamenco classes there. I have always loved to teach, so I answered affirmatively. That initial offer quickly turned into my becoming the Director of Dance of the Museum. That includes the classes along with the flamenco performances given nightly of song (cante) and dance (baile). So, at the present, I am involved in giving classes and performing at the Museum, as well as being an independent artist performing at various venues and flamenco spectacles. I continue to feel a strong desire, a need really, to create.
Meg: How do you like teaching?
Victor: I learn by giving classes–they pull me to another place. The process of learning for each of my students is very important. I am always very conscious of the fact that each student has his or her own pace and own interpretations. It is critical that each individual exhibit complete honesty (that they desnudarse, which means “take their clothes off”–divest themselves of all artifice.) I teach with much affection for my students and that affection is reciprocated. When I can observe the process at work and the evolution of my students, I am filled with great satisfaction. Patience is the keystone of the process.
Meg: Do you have a couple of role models you could single out as being an inspiration for you?
Victor: I have no myths–or I should say, I have many, but none in particular. I am always open to what any artist may “regale.” That may happen when the artist is one of the great world performers or it may happen in a spontaneous flamenco juerga (a gathering in a small flamenco club, or in the street), where an unknown artist will exhibit the duende that transforms. The artist need not even be a gypsy or a Spaniard. Flamenco is an international art that transcends time and cultures.
I can tell you what I don’t like–the commercial stuff, the large auditoriums with cameras flashing and the dancers performing mechanically with no fire.
I have no idols because flamenco is such a personal art. I never follow the masses. I flee towards danger and not away from it. I will risk something new because it arises from a genuine emotion from within, not because it is a step or a rhythm I have learned or copied from someone else. It is for this reason that I don’t have a sello propio or a personal style that is identified with me. Each time I dance, I create anew according to the emotions that accompany me.
Meg: I am curious, as someone with so much passion for flamenco–does your social life revolve around it, as well as your work? Are your friends fellow performers or do you associate socially with completely different people?
Victor: Flamenco is my art, but what is true of flamenco is true of life itself. For that reason, I cannot separate my art and my life. My friends are from the world of flamenco as well as being far removed from that world. It all comes together to form a totality that is expressed in flamenco dance when the universality of emotions transcend time and culture and are shared by performer and audience alike.
Oddly enough, I had to leave the world of flamenco in order to find it. I delved deeply into classical and more modern musical forms and into the theatrical world, in order to discover that flamenco is an artistic expression of life experienced fully and felt deeply. This is one of the reasons why I believe that theater is such an important and integral component of transmitting the flamenco experience. If someone were to ask me to choose my favorite color, I could not do so. Why do we have to choose? If I were to limit myself only to flamenco, I wouldn’t feel well. I would feel unbalanced…not integrated. I need to nourish myself. Everything fascinates me. Life doesn’t revolve around a limited group of friends, a closed circle, an artistic ghetto.
Meg: Do you have some particular dances that are your favorites that you could describe?
Victor: This depends on my stage in life! Deep within my own feelings, I play with all of the palos (different flamenco rhythms). Several that I often perform in moments of great emotion are the soleares, the seguidillas and the alegrías. The first two, the soleares and seguidillas are generally expressive of deep loneliness or sorrow and the last one, alegrías means “happiness.” However, for me, both emotions can be expressed in all three palos. Happiness has its shadow side and there can be a great cathartic relief in expressing sorrow.
Meg: Can you expand on that in terms of your own personal experience, how life events have transformed your art, and contributed to its evolution?
Victor: When my father died of cancer, my interpretation of flamenco experienced a radical change. I danced savagely; I tore my clothes in a passionate catharsis of emotion. I danced exactly what I felt. This was the beginning of my own, personal flamenco style.
In 2007, I experienced my own face-to-face encounter with death. I was diagnosed with a ganglion cyst on my aorta and another in my chest. The cysts were cancerous and the prognosis was not good. I underwent both surgery and six months of treatment, with no guarantees that I was going to escape my father’s same fate. Once my treatment was complete, I was given tests to determine if the cancer had been arrested. I had to wait three days for the results. These days seemed like an eternity as my life appeared to pass before my eyes. What would I do with the rest of my life if I had little time to live? I reached the conclusion that it didn’t really matter to any great degree because I felt very proud and satisfied about the life that had been mine up until then. The results came back. I was free and clear of all cancerous cells. I came home to Sevilla to re-encounter myself! That was two years ago.
Meg: You said “I came home to Sevilla to re-encounter myself!” Can you tell me about your experience of “re-encountering yourself,” and what that involved?
Victor: When I was diagnosed with tumors, I knew I was sick, but didn’t know the extent of the excruciating Calvary that was to ensue. I was to endure more testing and more waiting for test results, but I guess my first reaction was to resist, to carry on, to be incredulous, to push the demon away.
It was also during this time that I traveled to Japan to perform a work about the death of the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Lorca was shot by the Civil Guard during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. His poetry was full of references to the “moon”–for Lorca, a symbol of death. The theatrical piece I performed was titled “Fantasies of García Lorca.” During the dance, the moon appears and I struggle with this symbol when shots are heard. The allusion was, of course, to Lorca, but I felt very much “in the skin” of the dance as my own encounters with mortality were so fresh and poignant. At that moment I came face-to-face with death and began to see life through the eyes of someone who holds death’s hand during the day and lies down with the grim-reaper at night.
As soon as the production had finished, I returned to Madrid which had been my home for a number of years, although I was born in Seville and spent much of my childhood there. I was feeling the full physiological and psychological impact of my affliction. I felt that it was not only serious, but urgently life-threatening. I went immediately to a well-known clinic in Madrid and the doctors there confirmed my worst apprehensions–the tests confirmed malignancy. I was admitted to the hospital and three days later, they operated to remove the ganglion cysts in my chest.
After the operation, more tests ensued and a small, but even more pernicious tumor cluster was discovered casting off liquid into the aorta. I endured extensive, months-long sessions of chemotherapy that, among other devastating side-effects, took away 20% of my lung capacity. All thoughts of ever dancing again vanished. Every fiber of my being was concentrated on keeping alive. But even that hope seemed to pale as I reached the point where I simply could not endure the chemotherapy that was killing me as sure as the cancer. The doctors confirmed what I intuited. They stopped the treatment, agreeing that if the cancer didn’t kill me the treatment would.
I became a quivering nerve. My body had stopped; it was no longer mine. I was reaching a place that was no longer my life. For an artist that feels every phase and change in his body and mind, this void was truly a descent into hell.
Meg: It must have been devastating. What came next?
The doctors were surprised that I continued to live. They concluded that the only option available now was to resume the treatments. I could not agree, but I knew I could not refuse either. I did endure five more treatments. I was advised to go home to my flat in Madrid, to eat and to rest and then we would test again. My mother left her home in Seville and came to Madrid, not just to take care of me. She turned into what the Spanish call a madre corage (“a fighting mother"–a warrior fighting for her son).
When the test results came back still indicating the presence of cancer, I was again told to wait for another month before resuming the “dance-of-death”, aka chemotherapy. I fell again into the abyss. I alternately felt strength, debility, self-deception, sensitivity, and energy, a desire to live in spite of everything. And, most of all, I experienced an urgent need to return to my place of birth, to return to my Sevilla…to walk the streets of my childhood…to return to the beginning.
I had finally reached an acceptance of death. The most difficult part was thinking about the people around me, the people who loved me. It wasn’t until this pivotal moment that I became aware of how loved I was by so many. At this juncture, it wasn’t prayers or religious faith that so much sustained me, but the hope and affection of friends that lifted and carried me through the insufferable months of alternating despair and hope. I asked myself ‘What would I do if I had just a little time left?’ The question had no answer.
I felt a tremendous need to move, to connect with the world…with nature. So I strolled through the streets of Sevilla and down by the River Guadalquivir…every day, for endless hours. I really saw and felt every little thing in the fiber of my being. Such tremendous suffering brought me ineffable beauty. I felt reborn. And it was precisely at one of those heightened moments, as I was strolling through the Alameda, that I heard a traditional Spanish copla piercing the air. The bar from which it emerged beckoned to me and I entered. I hastened to a solitary corner and watched the life of others pass by.
An “angel” appeared. We began to talk and when I became conscious of the connection between us, I backed away. I could not allow people in my life that my impending death might harm. But the minutes turned to hours and the hours to three days. I felt that I was on a very slippery slope that could give way at any moment. But it didn’t. There was a great sense of solidity. It was clear that I had found the answer to truly feeling alive while I continued to live. I knew that my “medicine” was simply that… to feel alive! We usually don’t allow ourselves that luxury. My partner made it easy for me by respecting the process that I needed to confront my existential challenge.
I was called to return to Madrid for further medical attention. The journey gave me time to reflect on our three-day idyll. My mind, heart and body were one. Things were clear. I was at peace. As soon as I returned to Sevilla, we went to the Atlantic Coast of Cádiz to watch the sunset. The exquisite beauty was overwhelming. Our lives intertwined at this moment – two philosophies coincided.
Madrid and the doctors again beckoned. The demon would not let me rest. I was being tested, in more ways than one. I could not continue to put my media naranja (the other half of my orange) through this torment. I insisted we part and my partner refused to entertain the notion. When my tests in Madrid revealed this time that there were no cancerous cells apparent, I received a bouquet of seven white roses from Sevilla…“seven” for luck –not for my illness, but for us–and “white” for my rebirth.
From that point, I truly began the process of rebirth…a difficult labor of pushing forth and falling back, a feeling of fear of the unknown where every decision carries with it the pressure of not allowing yourself the luxury of making a mistake.
I am still here. What happened? The up-side, the light, the equilibrium, the miracle, the fight, nature itself, my relative youth, my dancer’s aguante (ability to carry-on, to hang-in-there)…?
Meg: Woven throughout your responses are the words "transform" and "catharsis," as well as "improvise" and "spontaneous." In American society today there is a heavy emphasis on feeling good all the time and avoiding pain at all costs, as well as a desire to conform and "fit in." Could you speak about your views on this, referencing both your personal experience and your art?
Victor: Trying to be happy in society is to struggle against it. We can’t struggle constantly. There has to be a degree of acceptance in life. We must look for equilibrium not happiness. No one is happy always and forever. We must ask the questions “Who are we?” and “Where are we?” and “Where are we going?” You cannot proceed in life going against yourself.
We artists must give ourselves over to living with a society that is both quite frivolous and, at the same time, difficult. An artist’s individual mentality is, by definition, one that is out-of-the-bounds of a “normal” world view. It is the nature of the creative process. But the artist must live in society. You must make a place for yourself. Every time you break away, you must return to convivir (to live in harmony with the rest). My life is a constant psychological and physical struggle against myself. But the moments of struggle pass. The colors change and I realize that I am a human being also. I continue to struggle and sometimes to fail.
Meg: As someone who seems to have connected to your calling very early on and who has had a second chance if you will, what words do you have for those who have not yet found their calling and have a desire to?
Victor: Society works to resecarte (to “dry you out”, “to squeeze out” your creative spark). Look for elements that nourish you (que te nutran). Everything has a process. As you experience the ups and downs, seize the moment when you are feeling good to take risks. Follow your intuition. Don’t think. And a passion will appear. It doesn’t have to be something grand. It is the small passions that will make you happy!
My “Second Opportunity” was not only something presented to me–a second chance to live, to love, to perform–it was a “Second Opportunity” for life to get it right with me.
Muchas gracias to Judy Cotter for her translation of this conversation with Victor.