Born in Elda, Alicante in 1936, Antonio Gades became one of the most revolutionary Spanish dancers of the twentieth century and one of the most revered figures in the history of the flamenco dance.
He helped shape the structure of the modern flamenco dance as we know it today and he was awarded more honours than any other Spanish dancer to date: However, his personal life was to play an equal role in shaping the young Antonio Etseve Ródenas into one of the greatest dancers the world has known.
Antonio was born in a cave-house on 14th November 1936; just a few months after the Civil war had begun.
His parents, who both fought in the war, were communists and both were active in the struggle to protect Madrid from the advancing Nationalist troops at the start of the conflict.
Antonio’s mother died in active duty but his father, a bricklayer by trade, survived the war and eventually moved his family to the capital.
Antonio did not have ambitions of becoming a professional dancer and although he would dance in the streets and taverns of Elda; he was fifteen before he took his first dance instruction.
His early years were hard and he undertook numerous jobs including messenger boy for the ABC newspaper and a stint in a photographic laboratory. He also trained as an apprentice bullfighter but none of these jobs were entered into with any passion; they were simply a means of helping provide food to feed the family during the ‘years of hunger’.
Although Antonio lived most of his adult life in the capital, he was primarily a country boy who had affection for the sea: A keen sailor and owner of a fine yacht, Antonio would often take to the waves when he needed an escape from the stresses of his life.
His dance was a mixture of modernism and the ancient tradition of flamenco and he performed on the most famous stages of the world, yet Antonio declared that he had received little help or recognition in Spain.This was the case for numerous Spanish artists, writers and musicians who fled Spain because of the political climate that existed during the Civil war. For most of these artistes, a return to Spain during this time would have resulted in imprisonment or even death. (A death sentence, signed by five members of the Franco government, was issued on Antonio Gades in 1975)
Antonio’s entry into the Madrid Dance School was to be the start of his long and spectacular career, because it was here that he was noticed by the woman who would change his life forever.
Pilar Lopez christened Antonio with the name of Gades, because he reminded her of the bailarinas gaditanas, and it was with her company that Antonio would first see the world.
Antonio would eventually become lead dancer in Pilar’s company, a position he held for nine-years, and during this time he learnt the rudiments of classical and popular dance.
He also took advantage of the lengthy world tours that he undertook with her; studying different forms of dance in Russia, Paris, and Italy.
In 1964 he represented Spain at the New York Exhibition, where he was declared an idol of flamenco, however the following year his adaption of Don Juan was a failure; leaving Antonio penny-less because he had financed the production with his own capital.
Nineteen sixty-four was also the year that Antonio married the actress, Marujita Diaz, but their union was to last just twenty months and it would be four years before he married again.
In 1969 he presented his rendition of El amor Brujo, and, with his own company – el Ballet de Antonio Gades - he took this show to France, Italy, North Africa, America and Japan.
By 1971 he had separated from his second wife Pilar San Clemente (mother of his two sons) and two years later he wed wife number three; child actress Marisol.
In 1974 Antonio Gades announced his retirement to the world and after dissolving his ballet company, he fulfilled his ambition to travel around the world.This was the period when he began to attract attention in Spain, although this interest was directed at his political connections, and so Antonio decided to slip into the background until the dust settled - in 1975 after the death Franco.
In 1978 he was appointed director of the Spanish National Ballet and so back into the world of the dance; however, due to his political views he was relieved of this position in 1980.
Antonio became militant in the Communist party of the people of Spain and he remained active in this committee - which also linked him to the Communist Party of Cuba- for the duration of his life. His circle of friends included people as diverse as Fidel Castro, Pablao Picasso and Rudolf Nuréyev, and Antonio’s staunch communist views would cause problems throughout his life.Antonio Gades was a communist and he was a defender of the revolution in Cuba, a country in which he had strong political and personal commitments; Fidel Castro acted as the best man for Antonio when he married Marisol. Five-times married; Antonio was extremely good looking as a young man and won the hearts of millions of fans on stage and screen worldwide. His passion for the dance is said to have been equalled by his love of the cinema and it was his dream to be able to indulge in both; although his mastery with the dance was far superior to his ability as an actor.
His screen debut cast him alongside Carmen Amaya in the 1964 film – Los Tarantos; and it was this film that catapulted Antonio Gades to international stardom. During the 1980s Antonio starred in the trilogy of flamenco themed films by the Spanish director, Carlos Saura. These films were based on Fedrerico Garcia Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre, Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo and Mérimée’s classic – Carmen.
It was the works of the Andalucían poet, Garcia Lorca that was to inspire Antonio Gade’s dance and ignite a glowing passion in his heart for flamenco.
His partner in all three of these films was Christina Hoyo, one of today’s leading Spanish dancers, and they became the new Antonio y Rosario of the flamenco dance scene of the eighties.
Cristina’s artistic break came when she was noticed by Antonio and she soon joined his flamenco dance company and went on to become his leading dancer; a position that she held for twenty years. During her time with him she also captured the hearts of the South Americans, especially in Cuba, where she was honored with the Grand Theatre of Havana Award for her spectacular performances with Antonio and his company.
Antonio was presented with the Carmen Amaya Award for his adaptation of El Amor Brujo and he also received the National Dance Prize in 1988: This was awarded for his efforts in “building a bridge between the flamenco tradition and the modern airs of Spanish dance”.
In the same year he married Daniela Frey, but this would only last five years: Eugenia Eiriz became the fifth Mrs Gades and she was the woman who would be at his side throughout his illness and until he died.
In 1994 he toured the world again, with his stage show, Fuenteovejuna, which was based on a play by Lope de Vega and this was to be Antonio’s last production as choreographer. His last performance in Britain was in Carmen at the Sadlers Wells theatre in 1996.
The last three years of Antonio Gades life became a battle against cancer and he died in a Hospital in Madrid on July 20th 2004; his ashes were interred in the National Pantheon of Heroes of the Revolution, in Havana.
Just weeks before his death, Antonio had received the Order of José Marti, which was presented to him by his old friend Fidel Castro in a ceremony in Havana.
The Cuban Council of State said they had awarded Antonio Gades with this honour because of his “Refreshing art, his recognised exceptional talent as a dancer and choreographer, his love for those who struggle, and his proven friendship and loyalty to the revolution”.
© Tony Bryant 2011
Antonio Gades; one of the greatest and most
reverred dancers of the twentieth century.