YINKA ESI GRAVES – FLAMENCO DANCER
Born in London to Ghanaian and Jamaican parents, Yinka started taking dance classes at the age of 5. Currently based in Seville in Spain, she has lived in Madrid, Brighton, Santiago de Cuba and, as a child, Guadeloupe and Nicaragua. She began dancing flamenco at the age of 21 and has not looked back.
This elegant and serene dancer talks to me about her journey so far as a flamenco dancer, how dancing lets her spirit speak, and the similarities between blues and flamenco – amongst many other things.
Why do you dance?
I think it’s something beyond my conscious understanding. My deeper self has drawn me towards dancing since I was a child. Apparently when I was 4 in Nicaragua we went to a Carnival in Bluefields where a large majority of the black Nicaraguans live and when I got home I repeated each and every dance I’d seen to my parents. From that day they put me in dance classes. When I was 17 in Cuba I had gone with the idea of shooting a documentary out there, and in the end I found myself dancing with an Afro Cuban troupe! Now that I have accepted my need to dance (it has taken a long time), I think it’s because I feel a deep sense of joy. I also feel it’s an amazing form of expression for me, a release.
If you had to sum up flamenco in 5 words, what would they be?
Truth, community, beauty, vastness, communication.
Can you recall your first encounter with flamenco culture?
The first time I saw flamenco I was about 12, my father took me to see Paco Peña at Sadlers Wells in London, I really enjoyed it but I don’t recall thinking that I wanted to do that at all! It was when I started taking classes at university that I got hooked…. that was the beginning of the end.
Some have said that the flamenco community is reserved. What has your experience been as a black British female dancer moving within it?
This is a difficult question to answer. What is the flamenco community as such? Today flamenco is quite institutionalised, there are many places to learn flamenco. Having said that nothing is given away. It’s a long journey, attaining a good understanding, good technique takes a very long time and it can be quite a lonely and confused time if you aren’t lucky enough to find someone to guide you through it. As a black woman, I know that I have judged myself, I started with a very apologetic attitude, almost like I didn’t really believe that I could be a flamenco dancer, somehow internalising what I thought most people thought. More than other people’s, I’ve really had to fight against my own judgement. There is no question that it comes as a shock to people when I present myself as a dancer, particularly when I’m going to work with new people. Sometimes the reactions are positive, on a few occasions they haven’t been, but usually after working together people are encouraging and I choose to hold on to that. I could go on for ever about the stereotype that flamenco in many contexts usually plays on, and there is no question that I don’t fit that stereotype. And as a black woman and as a foreigner, like most non-Spanish flamenco dancers, I think I have had to go about finding my own opportunities to get on stage. It’s a vicious circle: if you don’t have experience you can’t improve, so you have to create the space to gain that experience to be good enough to one day be ‘acknowledged by the flamenco community’. I do feel though that if you show love and dedication and keep working and improving and keep at it, windows and doors will begin to open.
What is specific about the arrangement of live flamenco performances?
In many ways live flamenco is unique, like jazz there is a lot of improvisation that takes place, but even more so than jazz the very structure and development of the (musical or dance) piece can vary so much. All involved need to be fully present and communicate to such a level that I think the energy that is released to achieve this is partly what makes Flamenco so enthralling to watch. In a tablao setting it’s very common to meet the musicians you’re going to work with 20 minutes before the show, you tell them what you’re going to dance (as in what palo/style), explain a rough structure and take it from there!
Who or what are your references in the world of flamenco and dance in general?
I have taken class with many people and in truth I feel that I have learnt something from each person, but there are a few people who have really marked my understanding and approach and whose classes have felt as much about dance as they have about life. I’m recalling learning with Manuel Reyes, Enrique Pantoja, Carmen Ledesma and in the past few years a pillar for me has been La Lupi, and Yolanda Heredia’s bata de cola classes are pure magic. People that I watch and watch and watch because their quality of movement and expression kills me include Carmen Amaya, Farruco, Manuela Carrasco, Manuela Vargas, Eva Yerbabuena, Joaquin Grilo, La Moneta amongst many others (I’m so grateful to YouTube!). And outside flamenco dance, Desmond Richardson is a huge inspiration. The first time I saw Hope Boykin in Alvin Ailey she stopped my heart beating. Dada Masilo is also a pleasure for me to watch and Hofesh Shechter’s work I find fascinating and two of his dancers in particular: Maëva Berthelot and Yeji Kim. I have to confess though that the more I’ve got into flamenco the less I’ve looked outside it and I really need to change that!
The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
For me spirit is my deepest truth, the part of me that knows and observes, the part of me that is connected to everything, the part that communicates with the world beyond my understanding. I wish I only knew how to be more connected to it at times although I feel that dancing is one of the times when, if I allow it to, my spirit speaks.
I have heard flamenco being compared to the blues – and vice-versa; the idea that what is expressed through the music is related to the individual or the community’s – often tragic – experiences. What do you think about this?
There is no doubt that flamenco is very connected to the marginalised communities of Andalucia, this is a form of expression usually recounting experiences and customs of these communities. There is no doubt that some (not all) of the palos speak of suffering, unrequited love, and have even been protest songs (back in the day) perhaps fulfilling a similar role as blues did for the African American communities of the Southern States, a form of release, a cathartic act shared within the community. There is also no doubt that both the blues and flamenco move me to the core. I’d definitely say they come from a similar place.
What are you currently involved, and where can we see you perform in the coming months?
Just about a year ago, I joined forces with Noemi Luz and Magdalena Mannion to create ‘dotdotdot dance’. It’s the most wonderful space within which we are able to express and create flamenco as we feel it. We’ll be returning to the UK with our show ‘No Frills’ for our third tour in July. I’m also involved in a project that means a great deal to me, a real opportunity for a completely new type of expression. This is a collaboration with the wonderful Asha Thomas who is a contemporary dancer and choreographer and the piece we’re creating CLAY is very much an exploration of how we fit into our bodies, what we inherit from genetic memory, where we personally feel we can trace our movements back to. This is still a work in progress, we’re hoping to have it by autumn! Other than that as a solo dancer in a more typical tablao setting I am mostly performing in small venues in Seville and sometimes in Madrid. I’ll be performing at a Peña in Murcia in early June and hopefully more things will pop up for the summer! To keep up to date I have blog on tumblr where I put up information about the things i’m involved in: on pulses that move the soul and heels – by the dancing woodpecker.
CLAY (work in progress)
(website still being updated!)
Yinka…Zapateando por la vida