• The Star Staff

They’re sacred spaces for Spain’s flamenco scene. Many won’t survive Covid.

By Raphael Minder

They’re often in darkened, cavelike spaces, with a stage nestled among patrons’ tables and chairs. These small clubs, called tablaos, have acted as a springboard for generations of flamenco artists in Spain to launch professional careers, much in the way that many jazz musicians first came to the public’s attention in the clubs of cities like New Orleans.

But that intimate setup, designed to pack the audience close to the stage, has left most tablaos unable to reopen even after Spain lifted its most severe pandemic lockdown restrictions last summer. The situation has created an existential struggle for these cherished institutions at the heart of a national art form.

Juan Manuel del Rey, president of the national association of tablaos, said that if the government didn’t step in with more financial support, “We are now heading for extinction.”

“You cannot function economically when you have almost more employees and artists than spectators,” he said.

While many theaters in Spain have reopened since last summer with reduced audience capacity, social distancing and other rules, that approach has been financially unviable for tablaos. Since the pandemic began, 34 of the national association’s 93 tablaos have shut their doors for good, del Rey said.

Their disappearance comes just as flamenco was enjoying one of its brightest moments, partly thanks to a tourism boom in Spain in recent years. Before the pandemic, foreign visitors flocked to the tablaos to discover a Spanish tradition that UNESCO celebrates among the world’s intangible cultural heritage. After seven years of growth, the number of foreign visitors to Spain dropped to 19 million people last year, down from almost 84 million in 2019.

Spain’s government gave a group of tablaos 232,000 euros (about $275,000) last year as part of more than 2 million euros that it put toward supporting the flamenco sector during the pandemic — a move that the culture ministry described in an email as “an extraordinary effort.” But tablao managers say that the spate of recent closings shows that such support has been too little, too late.

In recent years, tablaos provided work for 95% of Spain’s flamenco artists, del Rey said. And many artists say that they value the creative benefits of working in the informal venues, where they can test new ideas in front of an audience while working toward a larger production.

Performing in a tablao “is something very unique, because it is a place that allows me to reconnect with my inner feelings and share the emotions directly with the public,” Jesús Carmona, 35, who last year won Spain’s prestigious national dance award, said in an interview.

“It also feels like coming home,” said Carmona, who first performed in a tablao at age 10 and has since brought flamenco to many of the world’s greatest stages. “I have somehow grown up performing in tablaos, and I believe that you should never turn your back on the people and the places that have helped you progress.”

This month, he danced in front of an audience of just 32 people in the Corral de la Morería, one of Madrid’s most famous flamenco clubs. The venue’s director is del Rey, the national association’s president, and the club was founded by his father in the 1950s, when tablaos started to flourish in Madrid and other parts of Spain.

Although he hosted that one-off show for Carmona, he has otherwise kept the establishment closed since March of last year. Del Rey limited the audience size for the performance to a quarter of the 120 people the tablao could fit in before the pandemic, when it also used to hold two performances per night.

At Las Tablas, another Madrid tablao, the venue’s two managers said they had been able to reopen their venue in February by taking on much of the work previously done by five furloughed employees.

“We have also now had to become cleaners and waitresses,” said Antonia Moya, one of the managers, who was once a flamenco dancer herself. “This situation is simply not sustainable, but I also cannot imagine my life without this tablao and flamenco.”

Some overseas visitors have managed to make their way to the struggling tablaos despite pandemic restrictions.

At Las Tablas, Sabina Reiter, a German student, attended her first flamenco performance last week alongside a British friend. “I love all kinds of music and dancing, and it feels miraculous not only to be able to enjoy an evening out with my friend in Madrid, but also to discover flamenco up close rather than just on television,” Reiter said.

It is that kind of response that make the small venues so vital for the performers’ art.

Jesús Fernández, a flamenco dancer who performed this month in a show that he also directed at the Centro Cultural Flamenco tablao in Madrid, said such venues were “the best place for a flamenco dancer to try out things and forge an identity, because you can improvise and see how the public reacts in a way that is simply impossible to do within the more rigid format of a theater show.”

Yet the reality of the pandemic has been inescapable for many tablaos across Spain, including the famous Palacio del Flamenco of Barcelona, which recently closed its doors permanently.

In Madrid, the century-old Villa Rosa — whose colorful tiled walls were featured in movies by Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors — last month held a farewell outdoor performance, coupled with a protest rally, after which attendees placed flowers and candles at its entrance.

Such losses mean that Spain risks losing “the university of our flamenco,” said Rosana de Aza, a producer of flamenco shows, who has run tablaos in Seville and Madrid. “The tablao is really where our artists have been able to put into practice all that they have learned and turn their passion into a profession.”

As the remaining tablaos struggle to continue paying rent on their shuttered venues, some managers believe that their survival rests on raising awareness of the importance of flamenco among locals, some of whom have steered clear of tablaos as tourism venues.

“Some people, particularly younger ones, were not appreciative of how important flamenco and the tablaos are for our collective identity, and not just for tourists,” said Mimo Agüero, the director of the Tablao de Carmen in Barcelona.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “we sometimes only realize the importance of what we can lose once we have actually lost it.”