Spain’s Flamenco scene may not survive COVID-19

Dancer Isabel Rodriguez performs at Las Tablas, a tablao in Madrid, April 3, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
They’re often in darkened, cavelike spaces, with a stage nestled among patrons’ tables and chairs. These small clubs, called tablaos, have acted as a springboard for generations of flamenco artists in Spain to launch professional careers, much in the way that many jazz musicians first came to the public’s attention in the clubs of cities like New Orleans.اضافة اعلان

But that intimate setup, designed to pack the audience close to the stage, has left most tablaos unable to reopen even after Spain lifted its most severe pandemic lockdown restrictions last summer. The situation has created an existential struggle for these cherished institutions at the heart of a national art form.

Juan Manuel del Rey, president of the national association of tablaos, said that if the government didn’t step in with more financial support, “We are now heading for extinction.”

“You cannot function economically when you have almost more employees and artists than spectators,” he said.

While many theaters in Spain have reopened since last summer with reduced audience capacity, social distancing and other rules, that approach has been financially unviable for tablaos. Since the pandemic began, 34 of the national association’s 93 tablaos have shut their doors for good, del Rey said.

Their disappearance comes just as flamenco was enjoying one of its brightest moments, partly thanks to a tourism boom in Spain in recent years. Before the pandemic, foreign visitors flocked to the tablaos to discover a Spanish tradition that UNESCO celebrates among the world’s intangible cultural heritage. After seven years of growth, the number of foreign visitors to Spain dropped to 19 million people last year, down from almost 84 million in 2019.

Spain’s government gave a group of tablaos 232,000 euros ($275,000) last year as part of more than 2 million euros that it put toward supporting the flamenco sector during the pandemic — a move that the culture ministry described in an email as “an extraordinary effort.” But tablao managers say that the spate of recent closings shows that such support has been too little, too late.

In recent years, tablaos provided work for 95% of Spain’s flamenco artists, del Rey said. And many artists say that they value the creative benefits of working in the informal venues, where they can test new ideas in front of an audience while working toward a larger production.

Performing in a tablao “is something very unique, because it is a place that allows me to reconnect with my inner feelings and share the emotions directly with the public,” Jesús Carmona, 35, who last year won Spain’s prestigious national dance award, said in an interview.

“It also feels like coming home,” said Carmona, who first performed in a tablao at age 10 and has since brought flamenco to many of the world’s greatest stages. “I have somehow grown up performing in tablaos, and I believe that you should never turn your back on the people and the places that have helped you progress.”

This month, he danced in front of an audience of just 32 people in the Corral de la Morería, one of Madrid’s most famous flamenco clubs. The venue’s director is del Rey, the national association’s president, and the club was founded by his father in the 1950s, when tablaos started to flourish in Madrid and other parts of Spain.