The Ruckus

Quiero que mires por la ventana y me digas lo que veas,

gestos inconclusos, objetos ilusorios, formas fracasadas...

(I want you to look out the window and tell me what you see,

unfinished gestures, illusory objects, failed forms…)

Alejandra Pizarnik

“She’s certainly falling.”

“It’s only a dance.”

“Her face is gray and frightening. She is looking down at us from her great height. She is falling, but she will take us down with her.”

“She’s not falling. It’s called flamenco. That’s how people move.”

“I didn’t know arms could twist like that. Like snakes.”

“She’s holding her dress up with one hand to reveal the footwork. She’s leaning back at the same time, tapping her feet and twirling her arms. Asymmetry is important in flamenco. Asymmetry is important in painting.”

“There’s a cloud of red on her side. Look. She’s bleeding. Perhaps that is why she’s falling.”

“You’re looking too closely. That paint is unrelated.”

“Paint is not unrelated. The woman is dancing. On her black shawl, green specks flicker like dust. The shawl exists because it is flung uncontrollably by brushstrokes. It merges with the shadows because it is black. The shadows are paint. The dancing is paint. Light is paint, too.”

“The light comes from projectors we do not see. They are at the front of the stage. It is this light that illuminates her, projecting shadows onto the wall.”

“The light unites her cheek and neck. Below, her body is dark. She is being beheaded by light.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“The other figures retreat into darkness. They are stuck against a wall. There is an explosion of light on the dress where the dancer is holding it.”

“Yes. Her dress is the whitest element in this painting.”

“At the same time she leans dangerously toward the earth.”

“She’s not dancing on soil. It’s a hard surface.”

“I don’t know. When I look at this painting I feel close to the earth.”

“You’re not listening. It’s a stage. There is a timeline for this. Flamenco started as an improvisational art. Spanish gypsies danced in their homes. They sung, they clapped their hands, they beat sticks against the ground. They were marginalized and oppressed. It was when the Romantics emerged, and with them a fascination for the mysterious, that flamenco was brought into the public sphere. It was wild. It was erotic. It was unusual. Café cantantes opened. There was dancing, singing, drinking, excess. Sargent visited Spain in 1879. That was the golden age of flamenco. It was a period of professionalization and theatricality. Sargent understood this. Look at the woman’s dress. He made it up. It’s not a gypsy’s outfit. It’s artifice.”

“The dress is white and blown up like sails. It looks like she has stolen her mother’s bed sheets.”

“That is part of the dramatic effect. The woman seems clothed in marble. Sargent is merging the world of Antiquity and the world of raw passion. Look at the marks on the wall, to the left, almost hidden. The shape of a hand and some representation of a quadruped. This is the heritage of the first humans on earth. The impulse to touch. To decorate. To represent reality. She’s a nineteenth-century gypsy moving like a Grecian goddess.”

“What’s this called?”

“The coalescing of dualisms.”

“No, the painting.”

“It’s El Jaleo. Jaleo. Ruckus, uproar, racket. Mess, confusion. Disorder. Commotion. Cheering. Pandemonium, uproar, din. Etc. But this is not a ruckus. Nor is it jaleo de jerez, the dance with castanets. It is not mindless cheering. Jaleo describes fellow performers’ accompaniment of the dance. They scream olé! They snap their pitos. They clap their palmas.”

“Is this orientalizing?”

“Who knows what it is. All we know is we are shown a row of performers sitting behind the dancer. They seem detached from her because she takes up all the space, but they are tied to every one of her movements.”

“She is a terrifying chunk of an animal.”

“Yes. The painting ‘sins in the direction of ugliness.’ That’s Henry James. And notice direction. The performers in the background constitute a horizontal foundation. The dancer, oblique, cuts through it beyond the midpoint, leaving two thirds of canvas to the left, one third to the right. To the left, a row of men, seated, some playing guitar; to the right, a man and two women, clapping.”

“To the left, the men are wearing black circles plopped straight onto the canvas.”

“Those are hats. They have shadows.”

“There is a man behind the dancer. He sits against the wall with his mouth open, as a frog would. He is asleep. He is meditating. He is dreaming. He is in pain. There might be drool sliding down his cheeks. You could stick pencils in his nostrils and they would gush forth horizontal.”

“He’s not sleeping. That’s the cantaor, the singer. He’s singing cante jondo—“deep singing,” the most solemn and authentic form of flamenco.”

“His voice must be hoarse. He is singing with the earth. The earth is his song.”

“You’re obsessed with this earth imagery.”

“I’m trying to hear the music.”

“I think you’re being affected by duende.”

“What’s that? Crippling fear? Disease?”


“Love? Seasickness? Visual overstimulation?”

“It’s a mystery, a sensuous charm. The poet Federico García Lorca quotes Goethe to characterize it as ‘a mysterious power that everybody feels and that no philosopher can explain.’ There you go. “All we know,” Lorca writes, “is that it burns the blood like powdered glass; it exhausts; it rejects all the sweet, learned geometry.” Duende is tied specifically to flamenco, but it is a spirit that can also inhabit art, or writing, or anything tragic. It is the quality of death brought back into life.”

“There are certainly many mysteries. The woman is possessed. We do not know who she is. What does she want? What does she hear in that single ear of hers? Is she making the music?”

“You stopped in the middle of your breath.”

“Everything is so quiet.”

“This is a painting. Things are still.”

“We cannot hear the music.”

“We are the only ones making noise. We are raising a ruckus.”

“All these bodies are quiet. Look at the hands. The woman’s are lumps of flesh glued to wrists where dark rivers stream. The guitarists have ghost hands. They are caught in their own movement. They are only probabilities.”

“There is an orange on the chair. That is for sure.”

“You are not asking the right questions. That woman’s arms point outwards, but they indicate something inside herself. She is closing her eyes. She is dancing. What are we looking at? Where are we?”

“We are not clapping.”

“She is going to fall. She does not tell us why she is bleeding.”

“We know there are eight figures sitting in a row behind her. There is an empty chair.”

“She will not answer. She is raising her own shadows like one raises a glass. We do not know where she is going. Her eyes are slits. She stares into darkness, and she is going to take us down with her. She pretends not to care. She is exhausting. I would like to sit down.”

“There is an orange on the chair.”

“To the right a man claps. His face is illuminated. A skull. His hands rise like reflected flames on the wall. There is a lot of noise. The flames are the shapes of wolves. Their mouths are open. They rise on the wall.”

“That’s too much.”

“The wolves are howling straight from the man’s hands. After a while everything howls. Everything is dark but the dress is white. There is a moon somewhere.”

“You are inventing things. You are not describing the painting.”

“It is big. It is rectangular.”