I walked into the cafe in Wedding, waiting for Anna Castillo to enter. She showed out shortly, wearing a black top, black pants and a black pair of boots. Her hair was hanging down, unlike her stage image as I remembered. She is such a bright woman that you would easily recognise anywhere once you have met her. Anna Castillo is half German half Chile, a young flamenco dancer growing up in Berlin. She used to dance in her room with her parents. People used to tell her: this looks so flamenco. So she got into flamenco first. Describing flamenco as ‘painting the air’ at age five, Castillo got inspired by usual things with their simple movements. One step afterwards, she got inspired by flamenco festival at age eight.
That was the first time she saw the Spanish flamenco. There was an amazing young dancer called ‘La Moneta’ dancing on that stage. Castillo told her Mom, ‘I loved it. It was amazing!’ Her mom went straight to talk to that dancer. She expressed, ‘my daughter wants to dance with you.’ That was a big deal. They even went to the backstage to talk to the performer. The performer replied, ‘ok, you can take the solo classes with me. You just have to come to Granada to dance.’ That’s how Castillo starts flamenco. She went to Spain for the first time, following this specific dancer. Castillo still appreciates her mom did that. It made her first understand flamenco in a deeper way.
It was very personal and strict. She used to cry when she took classes with her. It was professional flamenco. La Moneta comes from Granada, dancing a lot at ‘Cuevas’ which is a place Gypsy used to live. It was the houses on the mountain near cacti-studded countryside. It was a deep flamenco setting. She basically understands the sense and the difficulty of flamenco. It’s not just dancing. It’s also a cultural thing we are transmitting.
It’s a dance which comes from people who suffers a lot. They’ve never been accepted by the society. They are kind of like the outsiders. That’s why this dance has a lot of suffering and fighting in it, which makes it really strong. What does interesting to me is the ‘solo’ thing. It pushes the women into not as anyone’s background on the stage, which is really nice. A very strong woman dance of who has been discriminated for a long time. It has an important message.
However, there’s a lot of amazing male dancers. They dance a little differently. Flamenco is a very traditional thing with a traditional image, such as a woman in the red dress and a man in the black suit. That’s changing a lot. I was taught by a man how to use ‘petticoat’, which is like a big long wedding dress. Flamenco is a traditional thing but changing very fast and floaty. There’s also women dances a male role. It’s getting more and more free from that cultural perception. In the meanwhile, you have to respect the culture. It’s difficult to say how modern and traditional you want to be. The transformation is happening individually.
Perhaps it’s my interpretation of movement. Flamenco is just changing a lot from last twenty years. People get to have for example ballet and contemporary dance so we can mix traditional flamenco movement with other movements. This is unusual. Because of like I said, fifty years back flamenco was a discriminated dance. That was not very usual to dance it. Now it spreads all over the world. It’s amazing. If flamenco dancers get very famous, they tour around the world. They go to Brazil, Tokyo and China. Fifty years back, people would not imagine that. It’s becoming so international. That’s movement of modernization and globalization. If you talk to professional dancers in the school, you would know you normally need to take flamenco classes. Because flamenco has its own character which is interesting to get to know, such as Arabic dancing and American tapping. It’s a weird combination of totally different backgrounds. It’s quite complicated including the rhythm. It’s an amazing way for people to learn different perceptions of the dance. For example, our communications with guitarists. We always work with live musicians, which is such an incredible experience. Obviously I am alone on the stage, but actually, I am not. Although I am not with other dances nor my partner. We have unspoken rules regarding the communication with the musicians, which makes us able to dance and improvise together. That’s how flamenco start.
We have rules, for example, starting a phrase. It’s called ‘Llamada’. If I do this specific movement, everyone would know the new phrase is gonna happen. Even though we have never spoken to each other, I could jump into a session doing this movement. I think that’s a really important thing people/dancers all over the world could learn from flamenco. It is an interesting way of improvisation. With the strange undercover rules, it’s almost a bit like jazz sometimes. They also communicate in a non-verbal way. Flamenco maybe is richer than jazz regarding this communication. Instead of communicating on the stage in jazz, flamenco dancers need to know specific melodies and lyrics. If you know the lyrics, you know the song has to end at some point. For example, at the end of the phrase comes ‘flowers’. You wait to improvise. The flowers are the change. Everyone knows that. Then we change to the solo of guitarist, singer or foot-tapping. It’s kind of complicated structure. I have to say myself I don’t understand it fully. It takes years to understand. From the popular dancing forms, there are twenty-four types of flamenco. We have to know all the rhythms, the singing and the melodies of the guitar. It’s a difficult art to manage. Different flamenco also has different characters. That would kind of define the improvisation as well. That’s why I sometimes like to choose my song so I could improvise freely.
Gestures & unspoken rules
I learnt these rules from stage experiences. I start doing improvisation. That’s really good to start at the young age. After going to Granada, I went to Plaza de Saint Nicolas, which is a beautiful platform to exchange with all the other live musicians there. That’s where I learn the improvisation rules. They are very free, however, the stage performances are difficult. Especially in Germany, it’s difficult to get taught. My teacher taught us doing choreography, explaining what are we dancing. We as the dancers also contribute to the way how flamenco piece gonna transform on the stage. For example, if I would dance ‘subida’ to suggest speeding up gradually, or Salida as a closer. There are workshops/ lessons for pure techniques. If I want to share or understand more of flamenco, Youtube channel is also a great resource. It changes flamenco completely. Before that, some steps and classes are secret and exclusive. Now you can go on Youtube, watching everyone dancing. You see how the structures are, how everyone respects the singers, the guitars and what the melodies are. Some people just learn on Youtube all the time. You can also google different lyrics and ways of singing. Flamenco’s textbooks are actually the internet. Every day I wake up, I watch a flamenco video. To entertain myself, or get to know the dancers I am curious about. That’s the way I get inspired a lot.
The turning point of life
One of my most important experiences in a professional setting was a dance in the flamenco centre of Berlin by Raphaela Stern, who is my main teacher. She has a flamenco night in a big church. The performance includes two singers, two guitars and two people clapping. That’s always in October. I dance twice with it. It’s always an amazing experience because we prepare a year for that. Even after 15 years of experience, it’s challenging to understand all the steps for dancing nicely. This year, there was another experience which changed my personality and dancing. It was a participation in the Club Oval Battle. The reason is I am pretty young in flamenco scene. There are two or three other ones in my age. But I feel lonely sometimes. I needed to learn more. I was desperate to learn more. I wanted to know how the dancing world looks like in Berlin. Although I am from Berlin, I have no idea about other dance scenes except flamenco. That really depressed me. After seeing Club Oval on facebook, I decided to participate the next time.
I was incredibly nervous at the first time. I only told one friend that I would participate. That’s was a heavy raining day. I came after university with my backpack and computer. My friend told me she’s not gonna have dinner with parents for coming to see me. At that moment I knew I need to go. It turned out Club Oval changed my half of the year completely. It made me a flamenco dancer with more self-confidence, forcing me to dance with non-flamenco music. That’s why I actually participated the Diggs Deeper Berlin. I got to know one of my best friend who I met in the Club Oval in July 2017. I was participating three times in a roll. I won every single one of them. That was something I would have never expected if you would have asked me a half year ago. I was so shy, feeling excluded from this huge dancing scene in Berlin. Suddenly I was so accepted and welcomed by this event. That was a real surprise for me, a most important turning point of my life. I realized this completely new scene that I want to explore and learn. I want to take something from it into flamenco. Club oval is such an interesting place. It is definitely one of my favourite places in Berlin. I feel so motivated by the people I met in Club Oval, that’s why I am going exchange in Madrid Spain for a half year. A lot of things change.
How does the urban dance/flamenco scene look like in Berlin?
I have no idea what is it like in Hip Hop community. It is really big. I am just myself still discovering it. I was surprised that they are so accepting me as a flamenco dancer. I was able to participate! I would describe it as an open scene. Everything I have seen is inspiring. Every time I went club Oval I met someone inspiring to me. Then I went classes with them. For example, Prince was my judge in the Club Oval twice. He invited me to dance with him in a show ‘BI NKA BI – Tanz in seiner höchsten Form’ at Pfefferberg Theater, which is the same place I met my teacher La Moneta the first time. For me, it was kind of emotional that fifteen years later to dance in that theatre. That was amazing. I also went to another judge’s wrecking class. I am sure you can use the wrecking dance somehow in flamenco. I also met the entire voguing scene. I think the Hip-Hop scene is really well connected. I was so surprised. I would never expect that. I also a little bit of shame of myself that I felt different and afraid. I was not even trying. I lost so much time and energy, instead of just trying. Everyone is so welcoming.
I dance Flamenco since I was five. I tried everyone out in all the different districts. It’s relatively small. Now we have Spanish teachers coming to Berlin two or three times a year in the different schools. That’s really nice because we are not so isolated anymore. I also travelled to other cities for flamenco. It is all over Germany. Berlin has the good amount of people, musicians and other resources. We never dance to CD. There is always singers or guitarists joining.
Which city is the most suitable place for flamenco?
Seville in Spain is the Capital of flamenco. You can find good flamenco in every corner. Once a while, I would go Seville for learning more. It has festivals and crazy good schools. Madrid is also a good spot. There are things happening. You just need to be aware of it. In flamenco, all the different city has its own flamenco atmosphere depending on the circumstances. Granada has its Arabic influences. Without knowing it, there’s a lot of Arabic touch to it. You want to understand flamenco, you have to visit all the different places to be a part of the different scenes. So to speak, travelling is necessary.
What motivates you to continue this journey? What’s your drive?
Oh god! I wouldn’t say I have a specific drive. It’s quite funny. I sometimes try not to dance flamenco, or I can’t dance flamenco because of my study. Then I got really depressed. Like the last two weeks, I couldn’t dance, and I am having nightmares everyday. I would say it’s almost like a surviving skill for me. I don’t know it’s good or bad, but I just need it. It is my deepest way of the communication. It’s also the only way I know to dance. I’ve always been dancing. I can’t imagine myself not dancing in the future. It’s bad for my own health if I don’t dance anymore. But obviously, my drive is also to be a part of this movement, which is ‘modernizing flamenco’, bring flamenco to a wider audience. A lot of people think flamenco with a specific image, like having the red flower in the head. Flamenco is way much more. We are also learning from other styles. We are having new instruments, new dance forms and cooperators into the movement. I want to push that too. I feel like flamenco is such an interesting way of communication. I want to bring it to more people to see it. How beautiful it is.
Anything you would like to share with our audience interested in creativities?
From what I learn from the experiences, not being afraid of the audience is very important for a dancer. It is so difficult. Even I have so many experiences dancing on the street of Spain, I am still afraid of showing myself in Berlin. That’s just because I was feeling different. We need to explore and understand differences. You need to see the different styles, dancing in different battles. I wish people would be willing to show themselves, standing for their own identities. it’s important to show these differences, which is not only important as a person but also for the dance community, even the whole society. So we can explore more, get inspired. I love to get inspired, seeing what other people do. It’s so nice! Not everyone is gonna like you anyways. It’s worth to show a little bit because someone gonna appreciate you.
With many thanks to Anna Castillo
Photos credits/ Ralf Bieniek and Shantel Liao
Original article in Mandarin contributing to Red Bull please see the link