One day in 2013 Rocío Molina, a Spanish flamenco dancer, found herself in a high-security prison in Paris. She was performing as part of an arts festival, and was surrounded by a crowd of rowdy male prisoners in the yard. “It was like a jungle,” she says. “But I went right in the middle of them, and without talking, just stared at them one by one, until they were silent. Then I thought, OK, I will be in charge and now we can begin to play.”
Molina is the kind of dancer who makes you pay attention. She may be only five feet two inches, but she has the fierce intensity of a prize fighter. Born in Malaga in 1984 to a former ballet dancer and a chef, she started dancing aged three and had decided on her career by seven. After training at Madrid’s Royal Conservatory she began choreographing and performing her own work, which has been credited with reinventing flamenco and dragging it into the 21st century.
Traditional flamenco is more like a concert than a piece of theatre. The dancer, encircled by musicians on stage, responds to set rhythms and builds to a crescendo of virtuosic foot-stamping. A number of flamenco artists have tried to make it more theatrical, but they keep the essential shapes of the dance: statuesque curves of the torso, scrolling arms, sensual beauty.
Molina can do all that too if she wants, but she’s not interested in rehashing the past. Rather than rearrange the traditional elements, she works more like a contemporary dance choreographer, developing a new language for each piece, which might involve shapes that look nothing like flamenco – running, kicking and flexing her body, crawling along the floor, or using everyday gestures. There might be awkward silences, video projections or enigmatic (or just plain bonkers) theatricality. She often uses props and changes costume frequently.
One of the most striking things about her performances is their honesty about sex. Her new show, “Caída del Cielo” (fallen from heaven), which will come to the Barbican in London this October, is a case in point. Performing it one evening at the Teatre El Musical in Valencia earlier this year, she was backed by a band made up of traditional instruments – Spanish guitar, cajón, clapping hands – and a drum kit and electric guitar, which opened the show with a kind of post-rock dirge. Then Molina emerged in a pure white bata de cola, the traditional flamenco dress with a long train, before undressing completely. That costume change was followed by others: some toreador trousers, a crop top, a gold bolero puffa jacket, bondage straps and a dress soaked in fake blood. At one point she rode a pole like a broomstick. At another she donned bondage gear and stuck a crisp packet to her crotch. As her fingers reached for a crisp – which instantly suggested masturbation – one of the male musicians swatted her hand away. In traditional flamenco, the men are men and the women are women. Here was a more powerful, complicated, androgynous femininity.
Like all her work, the show began life with an impulso. These are public improvisations which Molina conducts in parks, streets and nightclubs, for up to four hours at a time. She uses them as a way to flush out old habits and find new material. She might take prompts from the audience, ask them to suggest music or exchange text messages with them – whatever happens in the moment. “Sometimes it doesn’t work,” she admits. “But even if it’s not good, it’s always positive.”
One of these impulsos took place in that prison in Paris, which is where “Caída del Cielo” began. There she also danced for a small group of women. Molina spoke to a prisoner who was serving a life sentence, and asked her where she got the strength to live day to day. “She took her hands to her ovaries and said, ‘From here’,” says Molina. “It was quite shocking to me.” Molina took that image as a starting point, and built an episodic piece loosely connected by mood, theme and music.
The day after her Valencia show, in the city’s Turia Gardens, a crowd gathered to watch Molina improvise under the hot sun. This was the first impulso in a new series, from which she’ll develop her next stage work exploring quietness, an unfamiliar concept in the boisterous, heel-hammering world of flamenco. As Molina’s dance unfolded, her hands fluttered over her heart, she spun her long plait like a lasso and balanced a wine bottle on her head. Then she pulled a woman in a baseball cap out of the audience and their two figures wove into a tender dance.
Caída del Cielo (Fallen from Heaven) is part of Dance Umbrella 2017 at the Barbican, London, October 12th-14th, www.danceumbrella.co.uk