BEIRUT: Yalda Younes looks a little groggy as she sits. As part of “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World,” she’s been busy helping organize today’s international demonstration against misogynist violence in Egypt.
She claims she’d prefer not to be busy, yet whenever she returns to Beirut Younes seems to be swamped with work.
Most people know Yalda Younes for another type of movement. The 35-year-old is recognized as the country’s most-accomplished flamenco dancer.
Younes’ flamenco is far removed from the florid, heavily costumed form that’s most visible in the pop culture consciousness. A student of Spanish master Israel Galvan – himself renowned for his creative deconstruction of flamenco conventions – Younes’ work (often in collaboration with Galvan) is a thoroughly contemporary form torn from its folkloric fabric.
Nowadays Younes is working on a new work called “La Callas,” her second theatrical collaboration with French artist Gaspard Delanoë, which will premiere at the Montpellier Dance Festival in July. She plays a reincarnation of Spanish operatic diva Maria Callas, conjured up by the persistent questions of a television journalist (Delanoë).
“You learn more from questions than answers sometimes,” Younes says. “It’s about the relationship between the journalist, the audience and celebrities ... the sacred, and the need for things sacred.
“The piece has since become about the fragile Callas who lost her voice, about how the audience builds an image of the star, venerates it, then destroys it ... and how people can love you when they just project whatever they want on you until you become a woman with problems ...
“So it’s about what is left when you lose your means, and when you lose the virtuosity that people love you for.
“I’ll be dancing barefoot,” Younes smiles briefly. “It was supposed to be ready for last July, but I was injured and had to stop for eight months.”
Younes says she took her first dance class two decades ago, at the age of 15, and took it up more seriously when she was 20. “It was never like, ‘I’m going to be a dancer,’ ... In my biography I say I’m dancing by chance,” she smiles again. “I don’t know how it started and now it’s probably ending.”
Younes has been weaning herself from flamenco because her doctors have told her she shouldn’t dance anymore. A decade of pain in one foot and MRI scans found a bone fissure. Spells away from dance caused the pain to wane, only to return again later.
“It got to a point where I couldn’t stand,” she recalls. “Bone fissure troubles again, but someplace else in the same foot. So I had to make a bone density test. It turns out my bones are too weak ... It’s not serious. It’s just incompatible with my dancing.
“So it’s okay, I should just not dance.” Her laugh sounds a little rueful. “Because for them it’s just dancing, you know? Even if they took it seriously, it’s not their fault.
“The bones are weak. I dance too strong ... I have several things for which I shouldn’t be dancing at all, even teaching.”
As Younes recounts it, her professional autobiography is studded with remarkable personalities who piqued her interest in the form and inspired her to take her practice in mould-breaking directions.
Delanoë is her most recent close collaborator, with whom she wrote and performed the flamenco-inflected comic farce “I Have Come” a few years back. Another significant creative influence has been Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka, with whom she collaborated in creating and performing “No,” the 2006 piece which saw Younes dance to the sound of digitally altered explosions from Lebanon’s Civil War.
“The process was great,” she recalls. “We went into the studio and he just started recording a series of steps for me, things that remind me of the war. Because from the beginning, footwork reminds me of war sounds.
“I think it’s kind of related. When you dance with so much violence, you’re not tapping, you’re not making rhythm, you’re just hitting, you just hit yourself at the end.
“So we performed in early June, 2006. Then, less than a month later, there was war in Lebanon.”
Her first teacher had once been a young flamenco dancer with a Spanish touring company. She fell in love with a Lebanese man and stayed, and was duly forbidden from dancing anymore. Decades later, Younes says, she started to teach flamenco because she had to feed her kids.
Her teacher moved on to teach at the Caracalla school. When she stopped teaching to open a restaurant, the school later asked Younes to take her spot.
“I couldn’t do it really,” Younes says, “but I knew a little more than everyone else, so I could share what I knew.
“I’d put money aside and every year or so I’d go to Spain to train, then return. So I really feel as though I learned through teaching. This is why I love teaching.
“Because I could never afford staying in Spain for one or two years like everyone else was doing,” Younes says. “I had to compensate to find something for this frustration.”
It was while she was in Seville in 2003 that Younes first encountered Galvan. “I was starting to be bored with flamenco,” she recalls. “I found it too restrictive and predictable. Then I saw a strange flamenco dancer on stage with a guitarist. I didn’t know what to think of it. It was like martial arts.
“I heard he was giving a workshop. The class was too advanced but from the moment I went in, my whole view on flamenco, everything changed. I felt a weight drop from me. ‘Oh, we’re allowed to do that?’ everything from the tradition just fell apart. Finally there was space for me to dance.
“Myself and two American girls and a Japanese, we were like mosquitoes following him around, asking for more classes, while in Spain no one really appreciated him at that time. They thought he was too weird.”
Later, back in Lebanon, filmmaker Ghassan Salhab asked Younes to perform in his upcoming film. She agreed to do it because Galvan agreed to choreograph the sequences for her.
“Every now and then he would look at me and say, ‘Yeah yeah. Do it like this. It looks weird, good!’ Then he told me, ‘You know. You could never dance flamenco. Your body is made in such a way that you can never dance flamenco. Me neither.
“‘But you should push what you have further because you have something strange in the way you dance that’s really interesting.’
“This helped me. It opened another road I hadn’t imagined. It was freeing. You want to respect the tradition and you love it but there’s something that just doesn’t fit you.
“First I was attracted to flamenco through Spanish culture, the feeling it was familiar. When I took a dance class it was the only time I felt at home .... Interestingly, the more I got to know the culture, the further it felt from me, not familiar at all. Then I realized ‘This does not resemble me.’
“I still consider what I do to be flamenco ... For me, flamenco is not simply ‘culture and tradition and folklore.’ The real essence of it is described in a book called ‘The Dancer of Solitudes,’ the book on Galvan written by the French philosopher Didi Huberman.
“He describes how flamenco is a dance of solitude,” Younes smiles. “Traditionally people danced to be in groups. But here you dance to isolate yourself. Lots of music is composed to reach an apotheosis, to explode, to become louder or stronger.
“Flamenco is a dance of nothingness and emptiness. You build a dynamic, and the peak time is nothing. It’s the silence, when you stop.”