Vicente Escudero was probably the most controversial flamenco dancer ever. His refusal to conform to tradition and his disregard of the “compas”
(rhythm) made him the victim of much criticism.
It is a fact that if you do not possess “compas”, then you will not perform good flamenco, but Vicente Escudero had flamenco “compas”, only he refused to be confined by rules and regulations, which caused many to question his ability as a genuine “bailaor de flamenco” (flamenco dancer).
Born in Valladolid in 1887, Vicente began his dancing career in the streets dancing what he described as his dances of life, claiming that he liked to dance to the sound of the wind. He would perform to the rhythm of machinery or anything that he could find a rhythm in. One of his specialities as a young lad was his “train dance” with which he would imitate a train leaving a station, building up speed with his feet producing the rhythm of a train rattling along the track.
It was said that a young Escudero had little knowledge of the flamenco rhythm and this caused problems for him because he could not perform the “palmas” (hand clapping) in the correct time. Many guitarists refused to work with this lad who had determination but little respect for tradition.
He believed that to copy was simply stealing and he criticized many dancers for not having personality or the ability to improvise in their dance, referring to most of his contemporary artistes as “Mechanical bailaores”. It was this arrogance and “don’t give a damn” attitude that made him very unpopular with other artistes, but the general public loved what he did. The average audience had no idea about “compas” then, as they still don’t today, and as long as he could dance, this was enough to satisfy them.
But Vicente Escudero was one of the most natural dancers to ever grace the art of flamenco; his stubborn, non-conformist attitude to the dance made him the very substance of true flamenco. He was a creator in every sense of the word.
Although he himself was not a gypsy he spent much of his early childhood in the company of them, which gave him a similar attitude towards the dance. This was to dance how you feel at that particular moment with little or no respect for polished academic rules. He was a strong believer that men should dance as men, as he felt that the male dance had become to effeminate.
He was an avid admirer of Antonio de Bilbao, the first male dancer of the feet, who Vicente Escudero met and studied under while in the north of Spain.
He spent many years touring the cinemas of Spain performing his own personal style of dance and although he was beginning to make a name for himself he was still yet to be taken seriously. He then went to Portugal, to evade military service, and after that, on to Paris where in 1920 he won an international dance competition at the Théâtre de la Comédie.
But it was his introduction to the dancer La Argentina that was to be his starting point on the route to national stardom as she was the one who channelled his drive and trained him as an artiste. In 1924 he presented his Spanish ballet company in Paris along with Carmita García, his lead dancer and someone he would have a personal relationship with for the next forty years. He loved the Avant-Garde scene that dominated the artistic life in Paris and this was a time when he started to paint and draw sketches that reflected many of the aspects of his dance. Many of these sketches can be viewed at the permanent exhibition that is now housed in the Museo del Baile Flamenco in Seville.
In 1925 he performed with La Argentina in a production of Manuel de Falla`s El Amor Brujo and over the next decade he was to become one of the most important dancers around, although his popularity was much greater outside of Spain. In 1930 he was back in his homeland and he soon established himself as a serious flamenco dancer in the hearts of the Spanish public, especially with his show Bailes de Vangaurdia and by 1934 he was in America with La Argentina and her sister Pastora Imperio, where he conquered the American public with his genius.
In 1940 he again created a storm by becoming the first person to ever dance a “siguiriya”, a deep-rooted gypsy song style considered too sacred to be danced. Vicente Escudero believed that all styles of flamenco could be danced so long as they were performed with feeling and knowledge.
Throughout the forties and fifties he travelled everywhere taking his dance to all corners of the globe. He was a dancer that had spent the majority of his career outside of Spain, and like many flamenco artistes of this period, his art was little understood in his native land.
In 1947 he wrote the first of two books on the subject of flamenco dance.
Mi Baile was an account of his life as a “bailaor” and covers the struggles and triumphs of his life as one of flamencos most controversial figures.
In 1950 he produced his second book, Pintura que Baile, and also tried his hand at acting, appearing in several films both in Spain and Hollywood.
After the death of his wife in 1963 Vicente started to wane and he gave his last public performance in 1969 in Madrid.
After this he went to live in Barcelona, a city that he found artistically inspiring, and the place he was to enjoy his retirement until 1980 when he died at the age of ninety-three.
Vicente Escudero was responsible for developing a high level of sophisticated dance, a dance that did not always conform to the tradition of flamenco and a style that was, for best part of his artistic life, hugely criticized, but he was a person that dedicated his life to promoting Spanish dance to the highest degree.