Blood on his forehead, lead in his heart

Patrias by Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company
Sadler’s Wells, London
July 12, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

Patrias – homelands – are fought for and yearned for by soldiers at war, at least, that is what we are induced to believe. Wilfred Owen knew that it was “the great lie” and one for which he died. How much worse when the fight is in, over and throughout your homeland in a civil war.

Spain was neutral in the First World War. Indeed King Alfonso XIII took the Ballets Russes under his wing when they were stranded by the conflict enabling Diaghilev to collaborate with de Falla, make Cuadro Flamenco outside Spain, and eventually work with Picasso. Spain was not, however, spared the consequences of war.

As fascism took hold in Germany after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the democratically elected government in Spain was challenged by a fascist coup, with the backing of the Catholic church and monarchists. From 1936 to the outbreak of world war in1939, Spain tore herself apart. War in the air, in its infancy in the First World War, matured to its full horror in Spain, culminating in the bombing of Guernica, so evocatively portrayed by Picasso.

Patrias by Paco PeñaPhoto Andy Phillipson
Patrias by Paco Peña
Photo Andy Phillipson

As George Orwell recorded in Homage to Catalonia, the left were riven by divisions and, in spite of support from around the world, both official and unofficial such as that provided by the International Brigades, the country fell to Franco, remaining under his yoke until his death in 1975. Fascism was defeated elsewhere in Europe, which gradually united under trade and other economic treaties, but its rump lived on for another three decades in Spain, even as the country opened up to package tourists and converted its sleepy fishing villages to high rise hotel filled towns. The curtain of the “pact of silence” was drawn down and only began to be lifted long after the restoration of the monarchy in 1978.

The divisions that were a bitter legacy of the civil war remain, however. Old wounds have been re-opened as mass graves have been exhumed during the first decade and a half of the 21st-century in an attempt to root out the truth behind many of the estimated half a million deaths of soldiers, partisans and civilians. One of the most notorious of those deaths was Federico Garcia Lorca, the gay artistic polymath murdered by the fascists at Fuente Grande.

It is these themes that Paco Peña chooses to examine in Patrias, his response to the centenary of the First World War. It can often feel that the pain expressed in cante hondo is distant, historical, belonging to the outsider gitanos and subsumed for our admiration as theatre. Paco Peña brings it right into the present, a cry of shame and agony for the recent past a plea for it not to begin all over again as European countries once again seek division.

This flamenco sears with relevance. No showy fireworks, but real duende, executed against a background of archive footage, songs of the period and Lorca’s brief, poetic biography.

Colours are muted: greys, browns and pale yellows. Zapateado precedes the sounds of gunfire, echoes it, fades away. Palmas and pittas build and fall in waves of tension. The clarity and fluency of Paco Penas technique sweeps all along, finally culminating in Picasso’s harrowing tribute Guernica, it’s screaming horse pleading for a legacy that guarantees “Never again.”