Out of Africa
Ramón Baeza speaks perfectly good English for conversational purposes - and certainly much better than my non-existent Spanish - but he perhaps lacks the vocabulary to fully capture his obvious enthusiasm and passion for his latest dance project. Along with dancer Montse Sánchez, Ramón is the driving force behind Increpación Danza, the company which combines the classic conventions of that most Spanish of dance forms, Flamenco, with the freedom of movement expressed through contemporary dance. But with his new piece, Ramon adds a new element to an already exciting mix as he takes on board influences from a third and strikingly different culture.
For the past two years he has been working on Sarab, the piece which will have its UK premiere at Sheffield's Lyceum on October 31 as part of the fantastic Danceworks programme.
In this new work, Ramón set out to discover how near or far culturally, artistically and emotionally North Africa - and in particular Morocco - is from Spain. Many centuries ago, of course, Spain found itself at war with the invading forces of North Africa and there are many Moorish influences still to be found across the country. But as Ramón went on his own journey of discovery into the heart of a neighbour which is at the same time both so close and yet very far away, he found things were not what he expected.
He kept a fascinating diary of an adventure that took him from his home in Barcelona to Casablanca, Marrakech and beyond, a frequently alien world of intense sights, smells and sensations that formed the core of a very different culture.
A couple of years later, sitting in a bar in Sheffield city centre, its clear that even if he can't always find the right word to sum up what he found on that journey, it was a time he will never forget and is keen to return to. 'My little experience is that in some things we are more similar than strangers,' he says of the two cultures which are separated only by a narrow strip of the Mediterranean.
'Many Spanish words come from Arabic and seven centuries of relationship has to lead to something. I really felt at home there, even because of the way I look, which I had never thought about before.'
'The thing that touched me more than anything, I think, was the obvious difference between men and women in the Arabic culture, that whole thing about Muslim culture that is so different to ours.'
'I don't try to judge, just to say, maybe in a very obvious way, that the separation does exist. For me, one of the most shocking things in the other way was the relationships between men and the way they touched each other, which is very normal to them and maybe is that way because they cannot touch women which means perhaps they show their more sensitive sensibility between each other.'
'You see men holding hands in the street, which is very touching, or you see a man washing his father in the Hamman, the public bathhouse, something you would never see in Europe.'
'But in the home women are the queens and family life is all about the mother.'
These were the sort of themes that Ramón wanted to explore in Sarab, which was developed in conjunction with Juan Carlos Lerida and Moroccan musician Saïd Ait El Moumen. Musically, however, Ramón quickly discovered that Flamenco, the sound that provides the force and passion of the Increpación Danza repertoire, shares little in common with the music of Morocco. 'The Flamenco link isn't so obvious,' he agrees.
'I set out thinking Moroccan music and flamenco music must work because we have such a close relationship - but it wasn't so easy.'
'I wanted it to work and I wanted to take it seriously and I was afraid to be disrespectful because I wanted to mix Flamenco and Moroccan music but it sounded artificial.'
'In fact, Flamenco's origin is more Indian, it has more to do with Indian dance than any other culture I think.'
In the event, he found it took him several months to take what he had discovered in Morocco and introduce it into the Increpación Danza style of dancing, something which he did when he concentrated on the contemporary rather than the classic.
'The only way was through modern dance, which was more free,' he says. 'But how to use Flamenco rhythms and Flamenco techniques and instruments in that music?'
He admits that it wasn't easy at first to listen to Moroccan themes after working so much with Flamenco but that, as with so many other elements of North African life, he found himself increasingly seduced by something he had no real previous experience of.
'We are just 24 kilometres from them but there are so many barriers and we have no information about that life at all in Spain,' he points out. 'I didn't know about their culture and I really didn't know about the black African culture of Morocco - for me that was really new'.
'Maybe French people they know, because of their links with North Africa, but I really discovered so many things. We are really close and it's really sad that we Spanish don't know.'