Natalie Reis: flamenco flame

Mark Meredith talks to a Trinidadian who found her feet in Australia — teaching flamenco

  • Natalie Reis
  • Natalie Reis performing
  • Dancer Natalie Reis

Natalie Reis always knew she had rhythm. A Trinidadian of Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Scottish, African, Carib, and Dominican descent, she reckoned she had the pedigree. Soca or samba, she could strut and sway with the best of them. So when she came across flamenco dancing and found its rhythm unobtainable, it irritated her. It began to bug her. Eventually it obsessed her. Today Natalie Reis is a Trinidadian living in Australia and making a living by teaching and choreographing the traditional Spanish dance.

“I think flamenco found me,” she says. “I don’t have that feeling about anything else.”

It shows. Natalie in performance bears little resemblance to the pretty, easy-going young woman I met in slacks and T-shirt enthusing about her art form. On stage an intensity burns behind the big dark unblinking eyes; her swept-back hair bunched in red ribbon, the swirling black dress flowing in her wake, twirling arms and expressive hands are held up in dramatic gestures, hard-hitting heels banging the floor to guitars, handclaps, drums and anguished vocals. It’s a world within a world: a passion erupting, yet kept in check; a frenzy below the waist, becalmed above.

The natural rhythm which flows through the veins of every West Indian should make flamenco a perfect partner; they should go together like Rodgers and Astaire — or so you would think.

But for Natalie, what seemed simple was anything but. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever had to understand in my life. I consider myself a rhythmic person, especially when I see Australians dance, but I just couldn’t work out the rhythm of flamenco. If I can’t work it out, I thought, it doesn’t exist. It became an obsession over the next three years, to master this elusive, yet beautiful and haunting art form.”

Natalie made two valuable trips to Spain where she was given the chance to perform with Spanish dancers. Returning to Australia, she went to lessons and practised relentlessly. “I was a bit of a beast,” she admits, “ but I had to work this thing out.” It paid off and the rhythm came. In 1993 she began teaching and performing at festivals, and at corporate and government functions in Melbourne.

“It’s an interesting thing, you see, because you can make up as many steps as you want in flamenco. There are a couple of basics, but you can do more or less what you want . . . heel tapping is merely using different parts of the foot to make different sounds; it becomes a percussive instrument within the music. If you couldn’t see the feet you would wonder where the rhythm is coming from — the head is still, upward looking. Like a swan going crazy under the water, but sailing along serenely on top.”

 

Returning to Trinidad for the first time in 10 years, to “rediscover her family”, 33-year-old Natalie was surprised how few people in Trinidad knew about flamenco. “I thought that with Trinidad being so close to South America, the misconceptions about flamenco would be few. But they’re not. People generally seem confused about the differences between Latin dancing, like salsa and Argentine tango, and flamenco. They put them together in one basket and label them all Spanish.”

So where does the difference lie? “Flamenco isn’t just a dance form, or a music form. It’s an expression of a whole culture. And I suppose that’s the same with soca. The culture flamenco is expressing is of an exiled people — the Gypsies. They were originally from Rajastan in India and over the generations migrated north and fanned out into Europe. Some settled in Andalusia in southern Spain along with Moroccans, Jews and other exiles. Flamenco developed from these cultures; it has a bit of Spanish, and a bit of Indian. There’s a strong Arab influence too. It’s sung in Spanish — a gypsy Spanish. Songs about love and life — happy and sad. Extremely tense and emotional.

“I think what’s drawn me to flamenco is the culture and expression of a nomadic people. Being born in Trinidad, growing up in St Lucia, then Barbados, Trinidad again, and then Australia, I have been left with a strong nomadic feeling.”

Think of flamenco and think castanets, polka dots and dizzingly quick heel-tapping. “You’re in the right ball-park. Yes, those are part of flamenco, but that was typical 30 years ago. Flamenco has moved way past that now. The genuine art of flamenco, the real Gypsy flamenco, has been infiltrated by contemporary dance and by ballet. In Spain, there are two schools of thought. The Gypsies wish to hold on to their culture, who don’t accept flamencos which have taken contemporary aspects. And there are artists who have musical knowledge in general — body kinetics — and who have used it to expand flamenco; brought it to the big stage. This is the area I am interested in. I want to keep flamenco as genuine as possible, but I do want to drag it into the next century, to put it on the big stage.

“The market? Anyone who went to see Riverdance [an Irish dance show that toured the US], I guess. Who loves dance.”

 

“I would love to bring a show to the Caribbean, to Trinidad,” Natalie says. “I think flamenco has huge potential here, especially for Carnival. Trinis are artistic, and they’re very good at blending things.”

And she’s seen the way a West Indian audience responds to flamenco. “At a time when I had accepted a new identity as a pseudo-Spaniard, I met the Melbourne Masqueraders, a small, tight-knit community of Trinidadian and other West Indians playing mas’ at Melbourne’s Moomba Festival. Thousands of miles from home, I donned costume and glitter and chipped down Swanston Street to soca-reggae music. And, guess what . . . we won! Best costume of the year, of course! That was March 1998. At the celebration fête, I allowed myself to be coerced into performing my flamenco solo with my musicians backing me. I’ve been moved ever since by the interest and pride with which the Trinis greeted the show. The response was overwhelming, and it prompted this trip home. I just know the potential flamenco has here.”

Band leaders, are you listening?