On stage: Flamenco Carmen

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The very word ‘flamenco’ fires the imagination, summoning visions of clicking castanets and swirling skirts. But in fact, flamenco takes three forms – dance (baile), guitar (toque) and song (cante), with singing being the foundation of the art. Originating in the ghettos of southern Spain amidst a patchwork of cultural influences, flamenco tradition is predominantly oral. Only around 30 years of recorded history exist, but most agree that cante has traces of Indian, Persian, Arabic, Jewish, Islamic, West African and Andalusian culture, to name a few. Spain still sees canteas the bedrock of the art form – the guitar wasn’t introduced until the 19th century – but the runaway popularity of baile has changed flamenco from an intimate art form best heard on quiet, cobblestone streets to one on grand stages in front of hysterical audiences.

This is not to say we can’t enjoy it – after all, who doesn’t love swirling skirts and clicking castanets? And in January Beijing plays host to a veritable parade of flamenco groups, with both the Antonio Gades Company (Wed 1-Thu 2) and Compania Flamenca Antonio Andrade (Sat 4-Sun 5) performingCarmen this month.

Dance fans credit gypsies for, if not founding, then certainly popularising the

baile 

component, so it is fitting they take on the story of their most famous representative. Carmen is a factory worker seeking nothing more than absolute independence. Don José is an engaged, honourable solider torn between duty and desire. After shedding his fiancé, he deserts the army and follows Carmen into a life of crime, only to have her tire of his affections. But obsession has taken hold, and utter destruction is inevitable. Flamenco might make the tragedy easier to take.