What is passion? In preparing for this interview, I asked this question until the word ‘passion’ became completely meaningless for me. In an effort to reach clarity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Passion is described as, “strong and barely controllable emotion.” It’s edgy & implies something that is (or appears to be) always within a hair’s breadth of going off the rails. This was the starting point for my conversation with Carmen.
1. What’s your take on passion?
The core idea for me is that it is an intangible desire to pursue a state of being or to pursue some kind of objective. I think there’s a very strong element of irrationality and intangibility in passion. People create and destroy life with passion. Passion is the fuel to desire – it may or may not mobilize us, but it makes us realize that we need to do something. We need to let go of whatever we have going on, and move beyond ourselves.
2. How do you think flamenco plays with that edge?
Oh, my gosh – flamenco’s a big tease! We play with that edge because if we don’t ‘get there’ we have not succeeded. If we just do a very sort of copacetic performance, very academic, beautifully, all the notes in place, all the steps, the lines, you know, my makeup looks great, your hair looks great, the notes are all in – but it’s devoid of that interpersonal and inner push… Or if I go somewhere other than what we practiced, I’ve got to bring you with me, right? So I throw a little morsel of something and I need you to respond to that and you give me a little something so I know you’re with me. It’s incredibly passionate, because if it’s not done through passion, it fails. It goes back to the idea that passion creates and destroys life. Flamenco is always toying with life and death. Always! Life and death in the moment of a string, a foot going down, of that note releasing from a singer’s throat – It’s always life and death – it’s either hit or miss. As much as you practice it, as much as you know it, as much as you will it, sometimes it just doesn’t come out. So you need to make sure that it does come out, you tease it, you play with it. When you don’t have passion and you try to do something like flamenco, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
3. How do you balance control with the ‘barely controllable” in flamenco?
That refers to duende*. You’re playing with the edge and the audience is a big part of it.
The thing is, though, when you’re working on the cusp of that irrational passion, that edge and you go all out, it can be a train wreck, and then it’s disappointing. That’s the risk – you don’t want disappointment because then everybody feels bad and we all lose.
So this is my interpretation and understanding of duende, as I understand it: It doesn’t always happen. It’s a very special state – it’s extreme control within chaos. Internally I’m calm, and I need to be calm because the chaos from outside needs to be harnessed so it doesn’t fall apart. So duende comes in and wraps its arms around that chaos. It’s like the eye of the hurricane, it oversees everything. It doesn’t contain it, but allows it to continue expand, yet things are so on the edge that it just takes one thing and the whole structure falls apart. Duende nurtures the passion and holds everybody in the pocket. It needs to hit a peak, and in order for it be successful it needs catharsis or you leave people in a state of want; the desire hasn’t been fulfilled. So it’s based on rise and fall, meaning the catharsis has to happen at the peak of the tension. If you go past that point, you lose it. As much as we like tension, we can’t live there all the time, so it has to resolve. Duende is extreme control so that everything is executed just so, and we can’t will those things to happen.
What gets us in flamenco is the human element, beyond perfect execution of what ever you’re doing. At some point, somebody comes in and connects. Sometimes our flops are part of that humanity. We don’t want to flop to the point where people feel uncomfortable but showing that vulnerability allows people to break down those barriers. Because flamenco is an art form of the human spirit, if you’re able to get the audience to trust you with their vulnerability, when they do that, they’re part of that whole flamenco energy. This is part of the thing with the singing, which is what audiences struggle most with in flamenco, is that a truly good singer just knows how to connect. The senses are being excited in so many different ways, but when you have a person who transmits the humanity of it, that’s what draws people into flamenco.
* Duende is a word used in flamenco that refers to “a state of mysterious inspiration.” I’ve always thought of it as a state of being where the artist steps outside their ego and allows the art to come through unhindered; so if a piece is described as ‘having duende,’ it has an otherworldly quality to it. I also love Carmen’s description of duende as the graceful ‘helper’ of flamenco.