JOAQUINA WILFORD was not always a flamenco dancer. Born in London to a Spanish mother, she started her professional life as a contemporary ballet dancer with an apprenticeship in New York. But it was during a theatre trip to see the famous flamenco singer from Jerez, Antonio Núñez Montoya, known to the world as El Chocolate, that she had a kind of epiphany.
She said: “El Chocolate is a very famous singer, a gypsy from Jerez, and it was a huge show with lots of dance. It blew my mind.
“My mother was from a gypsy family and I grew up knowing about flamenco. But you know what you are like as a rebellious teenager. I’m from London and I went to dance college — the Laban Centre in London — and did very American training. I wanted to establish myself as who I was.
“But when I saw flamenco I thought, ‘Now I understand this. It makes perfect sense to me. It’s part of something inside of me’.”
The dancer, now known as La Joaquina, went immediately to Spain and started her own dance company, Flamenco Express, which comes to the Kenton Theatre in Henley for a one-night flamenco extravaganza on Friday, March 28.
She said: “First I went to Madrid, to the Amor de Dios school, then I went down to Sevilla and then Jerez. And I still go to Sevilla and Madrid every two months to rehearse and to bring over new singers and new dancers.”
Flamenco is something many tourists will have seen in hotels and restaurants in Spain, but even though this music is a tradition which stretches back to the gypsies of Andalucia, it is an art form that is constantly changing — and for La Joaquina the spotted red “feria” dresses we associate with the dance form is a definite no-no.
“One of the singers coming over in April is a gypsy — and his son is a flamenco rap artist,” she said. “Flamenco has moved on, it’s never stood as one thing. It absorbs different cultures wherever it is.
“Most of our performing goes on here in the UK rather than Spain. Otherwise it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle. And actually there’s very little work in Spain. Strange as it may seem, the biggest centre for flamenco now is Tokyo. There’s more flamenco in Tokyo than the whole of Spain. The Japanese adore it.
“Spain is so very broke. If you go to flamenco classes in Spain they are full of foreigners, because the Spanish can’t afford to go — there’s no work. South of Andalucia is like going into another country, and now it’s even more so because of the recession.”
She explained that the show coming to the Kenton will feature two singers and three dancers: “Manual de la Malena is a fantastic singer from a very old gypsy family and one of the major famous singers in Spain. And then there’s a young singer who’s completely different.
“The three dancers have very different styles of dance. Natalia Garcia Huidoboro is from Madrid and her flamenco style is very urban. Rocía Romero is from Jerez. She is a stunningly beautiful woman who dances gorgeous flamenco — real southern. You can feel the heat in Rocía’s dancing. And my style is musically influenced by London and my contemporary background.”
And La Joaquina explained what it is that attracts her to flamenco. She said: “It’s the only art form I know where everybody improvises at the same time — the singer, the guitarist and the dancer. The level of communication that has to go on between the three of us on stage is amazing. They do that in jazz music but flamenco is the only dance form that does that.
“In contemporary dance they say, ‘Oh we won’t worry about the music, we have a CD or something’ but flamenco doesn’t work without everybody, which gives it a certain magic.”
• Flamenco Express is at the Kenton Theatre on Friday, March 28 at 7.30pm. Box office (01491) 575698 or visit www.kenton theatre.co.uk