A frail old woman sits alone on a chair on a darkened stage. There are flowers in her hair. She closes her eyes and the small, wrinkled hands begin to clap. The rhythm seems simple at first but her feet take up the beat, deconstructing it, multiplying it, embroidering it into fresh miracles of speed and precision. The packed house holds its breath until the rattling feet gradually dwindle to the gentlest percussive purr then stamp to a halt.
A fresh explosion of sound — from the other side of the footlights this time — as Sadler’s Wells rises to its feet to welcome back La Chana (‘the wise one’), queen of flamenco, after an absence of 30 years.
The smiling woman I meet the next morning is neither as old (a mere 71) nor as grand as her stage persona suggests. She arrives with her modest entourage — assistant, manager, second husband — and accepts my posy of camellias with a fragrant hug. She will wear them in her hair on stage tonight, she says, taking a seat at the head of the table and we begin a conversation that is part interview, part masterclass.
Antonia Santiago Amador never had a dancing lesson, but one day at a family wedding in Barcelona her maternal uncle, the guitarist ‘El Chano’, began playing seguidillas and she took to the floor, astonishing him with her technique.
‘Who taught you that?’
Young Antonia would hear a flamenco rhythm (compas) on the family wireless then sneak away to practise, hammering out steps on a tiny makeshift dance floor of old roof tiles. Her strict Gypsy father initially refused to let her perform in public — ‘dancers were bad women’ — but her uncle promised to keep a close eye on her and at 14 she made her professional debut.
By the mid-1960s she was performing at Barcelona’s Los Tarantos nightspot. Salvador Dali never missed a show (usually accompanied by his diamond-collared ocelots) and a smitten Peter Sellers hired her to feature in his 1967 matador comedy The Bobo. The Bobo flopped but La Chana’s performance, filmed intensively over eight eight-hour days, was magnificent. The furious young bailaora storms around the tiny stage in an agony of invention, her rapid-fire zapateado punctuated by gurgling cries of pain.
In 1976 the now 30-year-old star appeared on Spanish TV’s Esta noche... fiesta. There was an international line-up but it was La Chana who closed the show with a solo that overran so long that the nightly news was delayed until those thundering feet fell silent.
‘I performed the show of my life,’ she says simply.
Her career went into overdrive with tours to Japan, Australia, Buenos Aires and Santiago where she danced for an audience of 8,000.
The ovations kept coming but she was dancing with two broken ribs, thanks to her increasingly violent and controlling husband who had swept her off her feet when she was 17 (‘he was very insistent’).
‘In a Gypsy community the man is the one who is in charge,’ she explains. ‘He was my master, my owner and I was his servant. On stage was the only place I felt free.’
In 1978 he suddenly insisted that she retire from the stage. When I ask about the ‘lost years’ it’s clear that La Chana’s fury and sadness are still painfully close to the surface.
‘Los anos perdidos!’ she wails. ‘The best years of my life! I was at the top of my career but if I danced he would take my daughter away. He was full of envy and anger and he nullified me.’
La Chana bursts into tears. I hastily change the subject. Flamenco. Does she have any views on contemporary flamenco?
The storm has passed. She smiles widely. ‘I prefer talking about that. This is a very good question. A very important question.’
Not that she has any plans to answer it. Instead she talks about her own unique approach to performance.
‘When I am on stage I am travelling to another place, another dimension. Every rhythm is there. There!’ The gnarled hands point heavenward, diamond rings glittering. ‘Where the cup is full. Then…’ the hands fall back to her heart ‘This is the moment when I dance. I close my eyes and I’m in that magic place where I can do anything I want.
‘I’m not looking at myself in the mirror to see if I look nice or not. No pretence, no make-up. Flamenco isn’t pantomime! Flamenco isn’t pretty! Rat-tat-tat-tat!’ Her fingertips beat out a satirical little taconeo, lampooning the tidy toes of lesser beings.
‘I would like to come to Sadler’s Wells and give a speech to tell students what improvisation really is. Before I leave…’
She is in tears once again. Her assistant is sobbing openly. Her husband is wiping his eyes.
La Chana’s first husband finally left in 1984 after 18 years of abuse, taking the money, the jewels and the BMW. ‘I sat on the sofa and stared at the floor.’ But by the mid-1980s she had joined Paco Sanchez’s Cumbre Flamenca (literally ‘the summit of flamenco’) giving performances of raw power and artistry that I never expect to see equalled. ‘Prodigious’ decreed the FT. ‘A sorceress’ said the New York Times.
She was back at the top — but in 1990 she left the stage once again after finding true love. The phone rang one day: ‘It’s Felix,’ said a voice. ‘From the fishmonger’s.’ Would she like to go out for dinner?
‘I said si-si-si-si-si!’ laughs La Chana. ‘I must have said “yes” 20 times. I think God must have put him in my path.’
She tells this story in Lucija Stojevic’s 2016 documentary La Chana, which gives a remarkably intimate portrait of the flamenco goddess padding around her home in a Hello Kitty bathrobe. ‘I am a person of no importance,’ she insists. ‘I make tortillas, I wash dishes….’
And yet after decades of living happily ever after in a Catalan village those clever feet still had plenty to say. When flamenco director Angel Rojas approached her about making a little comeback at the Teatro Nacional in Barcelona in 2013, La Chana said ‘yes’ again.
She was not in peak condition. She was suffering from crippling arthritis and had recently undergone abdominal surgery — she pulls down her skirt to show me the scar.
‘Two days after surgery I must dance. I kneel,’ she rises from her chair and drops carefully to her swollen knees. ‘I ask God to give me strength. My knee hurts but…’ she shrugs, ‘I can take a pill.’
Her 2013 comeback, flanked by young stars paying homage to the seated diva, was a big success and every now and then she agrees to repeat the experiment — hence last week’s appearances at Sadler’s Wells’s annual flamenco festival.
‘Sadler’s Wells is my soul,’ she declares, remembering those 1988 ovations. ‘My first love. God has brought me back.’
She squeezes my hand again and sniffs at her camellias. ‘I am feeling that God is here with us’ — she smiles up at the ceiling — ‘One day I will dance for you in heaven, Senor.’
But please, not yet.