He was to make a considerable mark on the history of modern Spanish dance, yet Vicente Escudero Urive was probably the most controversial flamenco dancers ever: His refusal to conform to tradition and his disregard of the compás made him the subject of much criticism.
It is a fact that if you do not possess compás, then you will not perform good flamenco, but Vicente Escudero had compás, only he refused to be restricted by rules and regulations.
Born in Valladolid in 1887, Vicente danced what he termed his ‘dances of life’, which, as he claimed, was to dance to the sound of the wind or to the rhythm of machinery: One of his specialities as a young lad was the ‘Train dance’.
He frequently toured with young bullfighters and this dance was inspired by the many times he travelled as a stowaway listening to the rhythm created by the varying speed of the wheels on the track.
It was said that the young Escudero had little knowledge of the flamenco rhythms and this caused problems for him because he could not perform the palmas in correct time. Many guitarists refused to work with this lad, because although he had determination, he lacked respect and often showed it.
Vicente fought constantly with guitarists in these early years, often obnoxiously declaring that he did not need the guitar because he could perform better without them.
A superstitious man who believed that a hat placed on the bed would bring imminent death, Vicente was also in constant rebellion against dancers who performed to a routine sequence. “He who dances knowing in advance what they will do is more dead than alive”, he would say.
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 contemporaries as “Mechanical bailaores”.
It was this arrogant attitude that made him unpopular with other artistes, but in the minds of the general public Vicente was a prodigy.
Regardless of the opinion of numerous dancers of that time who scorned what he did, 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 pioneer in every sense of the word.
Although he himself was not gypsy, he spent much of his early childhood in their company and this 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 too effeminate.
He drew up his own set of rules that related to the posture and gesture of the male dancer and these rules became known as the ‘Ten Commandments of flamenco’
He toured around the country performing his unconventional style of dance in cinemas but, although he worked rigorously, he was still yet to be taken seriously in Spain.
Vicente left Spain and went to Portugal in order to evade military service and after this he went to Paris, where he appeared at the Olympia theatre.
He was an admirer of Antonio de Bilbao, but it was an introduction to the dancer La Argentina that would set him on the route to national stardom. La Argentina 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 leading dancer, with whom he would be attached, on and off stage, for the next forty years.
He began to frequent the cafes of the Montparnasse district of Paris and he soon became submerged in the surrealism that dominated the artistic world of Paris and he quickly began to live the life as the authentic local bohemian.
It was at this time that Vicente got the inspiration to paint and draw pictures that reflected many of the aspects of his dance.
He lived in the ‘atmosphere of pure art’ for three years and he was strongly influenced by the work of Picasso, a man he regarded as his friend and “the most interesting painter of modern times”.
It was during this period that Vicente rented a small theatre from the French courtesan and cabaret dancer, Emilianne d’Alencon, which he called the Curve theatre, but the venture was short lived. Although he had gained a cult following from the artistic circle of Paris, he said that he felt as though he was dancing for his own benefit because the seats would rarely be filled.
In 1925 he was called upon by La Argentina to dance in her production of Manuel de Falla`s El Amor Brujo and over the next decade he became one of the most important male dancers of his time.
In 1930 he returned to Spain where he tried to establish himself in the hearts of the Spanish public.
He had spent the majority of his career outside of Spain, because like many artistes of this period, his art was little understood in his native land.
In 1934 he went to America with La Argentina and her sister Pastora Imperio, where he conquered the American public with his genius.
The Americans considered him the greatest dancer in the world and it seemed that from this point forward Vicente could do no wrong.
In 1940 he created some controversy by becoming the first person to ever dance a siguiriya; the deep song of the gypsies considered, at that time, 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 understanding.
Vicente’s dance was influenced by the environment in which he moved and when he danced his body became almost feline.
During the farruca his long fingers and nails would ferociously snap at the rhythm, his long arms would be held high above his gnarled face as he glided across the stage with the subtlety of a cloud.
When dancing alegrias his arms would rise up like the minaret of a mosque, his hands moving gracefully; his feet precisely accenting the rhythm.
However, Vicente’s life was divided between dance and his love of art and he used painting and drawing as a way of creating his dance: “I paint it and then I dance it” was how he once described his work.
In 1947 he wrote the first of two books on the subject of flamenco dance: Mi Baile is an account of his life that tells of the struggles and triumphs of one of flamencos most controversial figures.
In 1950 he produced his second book, Pintura que Baile and he also tried his hand at acting, appearing in several films both in Spain and Hollywood.
He performed in the film With the east wind, along with Antonio Gades and Imperio Argentina, although he believed that on film a dancer could not express himself spontaneously.
Antonio Gades was one of many who followed Vicente’s style of dance and the two became personal friends and worked together on numerous occasions.
After the death of Carmita Garcia in 1963 Vicente started to wane because Carmita had been his constant companion and she was one of few that stood by Vicente throughout his career.
Vicente gave his last public performance in Madrid in 1969. He retired to Barcelona; a city that he found artistically inspiring and a place where he continued to paint until his death in 1980 - at the age of ninety-three.
He was said to have valued only three female dancers of his era - Carmen Amaya, Regla Ortega and Pastora Imperio, and only one male - himself!
Vicente was also a competent singer of flamenco and, as with his dance; his cante represented his own personality. He recorded at least one long-play disc and several 7inch singles; although today these are extremely hard to come by.
Vicente Escudero will be remembered as the boy who could not clap in time that went on to become one of the most legendary figures of modern Spanish dance.
He 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.