Outback Flamenco - An interview with Sebastian Sanchez
While he was on tour with 'Flamenco Fire,' and travelling extensively throughout Queensland, I had the opportunity to chat with flamenco dancer, Sebastián Sánchez, about the 'Flamenco Fire' tour, and about flamenco in general.
Sebastián Sánchez, a very easygoing and grounded individual, is Australian-Spanish, and a professional dancer who takes his flamenco seriously. His parents are Spanish and he has two brothers and two sisters. Sebastian's father is from Jerez and his mother is from Zaragoza. They came to Australia in 1974 as migrants with Sebastián's two eldest siblings. The Sánchez family lived in Brisbane for over twenty years, where Sebastián and his other sister were both born. In the mid 1990's his parents decided to retire to Malaga and having just finished high school, Sebastián decided to return with them, living in Spain for nearly eight years before coming back to Australia to obtain a university degree.
THE INTERVIEW: Interviewing Sebastián Sánchez as he sat in a motel room, two hundred kilometres East of nowhere and deep in Western Queensland, I was able to get a very relaxed and honest response to some probing yet casual questions. What Sebastián had to say was crucial and insightful for anyone studying flamenco. I hope, like me, you will find this detailed and descriptive window into his flamenco lifestyle engaging and invaluable... But before we get into it... let me first set the scene...THE TOUR: With the support of Red Chair, three flamenco dancers, one flamenco guitarist and one flamenco singer from Spain set out to take flamenco to a broad range of towns, covering every corner of Queensland - a uniquely Australian flamenco tour that included places such as Burketown on the Northern Gulf, Proserpine on the Eastern Whitsunday coast, and Quilpie (about as far due west from Brisbane as the train track will take you, as long as your experienced at riding in cattle cars). Over the course of 30 days, this talented group performed 16 shows in some pretty full-on and far-out places - beginning out near Mount Isa and ending in Toowoomba. They performed in 'A' grade, 'B' grade and even some 'C' grade venues. The venues ranged from big theatres, down to council halls, and even a street party in a remote town populated by only 650 people.According to Red Chair, the focus with this tour was to avoid big cities and concentrate more on getting flamenco out to people who would otherwise never see flamenco in their lifetime. The added benefit of this was the performers, including Olayo Jiménez from Spain, got to explore the diverse countryside of Queensland and meet its people. Olayo Jiménez is no stranger to our shores, but I couldn't resist asking Sebastián how he has enjoyed the tour and specifically the Australian Outback.
"In every show he puts out 110%, people are really responding well to his art, he's enjoying the wildlife, but I think he likes the beaches more. He's been living near the sea in Spain, in Malaga, so I think it reminds him of home."
If you've never been far from Australian cities (or even to Australia if your one of our many international readers), Burketown, for instance, is what Australians call 'a one pub town', which says more about the town's people than the town's facilities. It implies that the pub is the be-all and end-all of the town's cultural activities. Burketown lies 25km from a remote coast (the Gulf of Carpentaria), north of the gulf savannah grass plains and 2661 kilometres from its state capital (Brisbane).
In Sebastián's words, "Everyone is at the pub. That was an interesting place, but the people who came to the show really enjoyed it!"
I asked Sebastián how people have received the cantè (flamenco singing), since I believe that for many Australians it is an acquired taste, and often the last aspect of flamenco that they appreciate.
"With flamenco cantè, I find that it's hard to appreciate it on a disc and on a CD, but once you see it live, in your face, you see the emotion - and Olayo definitely sings with a lot of emotion and expression - it's easier to connect! You're right, cantè is usually the last thing that Australian audiences usually connect to, but dancing with cantè, and playing with cantè, makes the show, and makes it a lot better. It has more soul to it. There is so much you can do with guitar, the cajon and other instruments, but to get to the traditional aspects of flamenco, to what flamenco is all about, you have to get to the roots (in my opinion) and cantè is where it all came from!"
For Sebastián, as a flamenco dancer, cantè is the soul and source of inspiration. He has spent extensive time in the last few years learning flamenco in Andalucía, in classes accompanied by a professional flamenco guitarist and singer.
"Learning to dance with cantè is the hardest and the best way to learn how to dance flamenco."
Sebastián talked a little about the idiosyncracies and differences between flamenco in the different towns and regions of Spain, highlighting the differences between Seville and Jerez against the more progressive flamenco of Madrid. The latter containing more musicality, embracing instruments like the electric bass or the violin and a reliance on the cajon as opposed to the classic musical lineup - singing, palmas and guitar - seen in Seville and Jerez. It seemed timely to ask about his style and more specifically about his relationship with the flamenco guitar.
"I like my guitarist to always play relaxed. I don't want to be on edge, to get every single intricate part of my footwork right to every Golpe. He needs to accompany, and he has to feel relaxed playing with you. When you don't have a singer, you rely heavily on a guitarist to come up with some really cool falsetas that you can do an escobilla to, or a rematè to. But when it takes it to the point of being millimetrically, metronomically exact to your footwork, I find that improvisation can just fly out the window. When you are doing a fifteen minute choreography, there have to be moments were you are free to do a bit of improvisation, and that's when your guitarist needs to be relaxed and watch you as a dancer. He needs to be following the dance and not looking at his guitar, his monitor or the ceiling - and that's not easy!"
Sebastián adds that there are a lot of fantastic concert guitarists in the current world of flamenco, but he describes flamenco guitarists who can accompany dancers as possessing another skill; one, open to a separate school of thought and, of mastering another technique that needs to be studied. As a dancer Sebastián likes freedom both for himself and for his guitarist, describing the opposite as living on either, the edge of perfection or, utter failure and possibly a breeding ground for tension among the group. A tension he has avoided on this tour, working with flamenco guitarist Damian Wright, who he was quick to praise.Not wanting to focus the interview entirely on himself, Sebastián talked about the Brisbane flamenco scene where he initially studied under Simone Pope (also on tour with Flamenco Fire), an incredible dancer in her own right and the source of training and support for most of the professional flamencos that have come out of Brisbane. This brought me to asking about the other dancer touring with them throughout Queensland - Natalie Slect.
"Natalie has been studying flamenco for ten years now. She has studied in Jerez, in London and has always been one of Simone's top students. This is her first time touring with Flamenco Fire, having come from 'Jaleos Flamenco', the performance group created by Simone Pope and Andrew Veivers. Natalie is doing a great job!"
Sebastián mentioned that the highlight from this tour has been travelling with a group of flamencos who all get along so well with each other, and getting to see some of the amazing countryside that the vast state of Queensland has to offer. This group - with this tour behind them - have all lived a very unique brand of truly Australian Flamenco. A story that I felt had to be shared with some further insight into how an Aussie guy comes late to flamenco and then lives the flamenco lifestyle with gusto, grace and humility.Sebastián started studying flamenco dance with Simone Pope in 2001, one week after seeing her perform at a multicultural festival. Initially not taking it seriously - studying to be a business analyst at university was his first priority - he would attend two weekly classes in a row and then wouldn't attend for a month and then come back again. I asked Sebastián what the turning point was that inspired him to go professional.
"The turning point was a couple of things. After a few years dancing with Simone I thought I was a good flamenco dancer (to tell you the truth), the arrogance of being the only male dancer in class, you get a cockiness about yourself. I was working in the government, as a business analyst after graduating, making good money and then I went to Jerez to do a couple of courses on my holidays. When I came back I had changed!"
On his return to Australia, and sparked off by a workshop with Tomas Arroquero, Sebastián became overwhelmed with a feeling that he only wanted to do flamenco, and he decided to go and live in Seville for a year, which turned into two years and then three. Initially supporting himself by teaching English, working at backpacker hotels, and working in bars, Sebastián trained to the point where he could eventually visit Russia to perform, teach, and hopefully return with savings. He did say that the secret is to live a very humble lifestyle.
"All us flamenco dancers, getting trained up in Spain, are very humble and often share an apartment, share studio rooms and live a very basic lifestyle."
It's coming up to four years that Sebastián Sánchez has called 'Flamenco Spain' home, travelling back to Australia and also to Russia to teach and perform. When he's in Australia he spreads his wings wide to perform nationally and pass on a knowledge learnt from the likes of Andrés Peña, Rafael Campallo, Alejandro Granados and Manuel Betanzos. As Sebastián was praising his main teachers and giving me a detailed window into Manuel Betanzos' school in Seville, I felt it was a perfect time to ask Sebastian to share some secrets with us. This is what he had to say...
"When dancing flamenco you must express your personality, you just can't dance flamenco to how someone has taught you. Yes, you have to learn technique... Yes, you have to listen to your teachers... Yes, you have to listen to their advice, but you have to bring in your own personality. You can't just bring personality with little technique. You need a base to put that personality on otherwise it doesn't look real or respectful. It's important that you learn A LOT of technique, you learn A LOT of body posture and body placement, and foot technique, and 'soniquete' in your feet. With the sound of our feet we need to be careful not dance very hard all the time and, instead, learn to be more percussive (in the groove)."
One of the things that I really liked about Sebastián was his understanding of being a student (in Australia and Spain) combined with a deep respect and understanding for flamenco from a performer's point of view. He went on to share his 'Four Important Secrets for Advanced Students" - but they are worthy of their own article, and so, you will have to wait until the inspiration (from this article) has faded a little before we give them the attention I believe they deserve. I will however leave you with this, my favourite quote from the interview!
"When you're in Australia, you'd love to teach how you learnt in Spain, you would love to tell people, to their face, about the things you clearly see, but I find that Spanish way of teaching too confrontational, they might take it the wrong way. In Spain it's quite normal for teachers to say what they see - 'you're not dancing great' or 'I really love what you just did... Ole!' - in front of the whole class."
Maybe flamenco schools across Australia should put up that old saying 'Leave Your Ego at the Door!' It's good advice.THE FOLLOW UP: In the next article Sebastián will urge you to take your flamenco a little more seriously. For Sebastián, flamenco is not a yoga class, it's a cultural thing. He is living proof that even in Australia, it is possible to bear all the fruits that a flamenco lifestyle has to offer. I look forward to bringing you part two of Sebastián's interview, where he will be urging you to take your flamenco a little more seriously and offering some more advanced tips for serious students and serious lovers of flamenco.Look out for Sebastián Sánchez and Olayo Jiménez as they embark on tours nationally over the next few months. Both of them will be visiting most cities (separate tours), collaborating with local flamenco artists in performances and conducting workshops.
Sebastián Sánchez Upcoming Gigs
Perth Workshop: Casa de Compas - 5th to 9th of September 2011
Perth Performance: Kulcha Spring Season with Flamenco Puro - 10th and 11th of September 2011
Brisbane Workshop: Simone Pope's Flamenco Studio - 16th, 17th and 18th of September 2011
Caloundra Workshop: Red Chair - 24th and 25th of September 2011
Gold Coast Show: Flamenco Juerga at the Bread and Butter Restuarant (Kirra) - 27th of September 2011
Adelaide Workshop: Alma Flamenca - 29th September to 2nd October 2011
Sydney Performances: October (details TBC)
If there is only one thing you take away from this interview... "make an effort to see, understand and learn some more Cante!"