La Argentina (dancer)
Antonia Mercé y Luque (September 4, 1890 – July 18, 1936), stage name La Argentina, was a dancer known for her creation of the neoclassical style of Spanish dance as a theatrical art. She was one of the major influences on Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno.
It is given to few artists to incarnate in their art, at a given epoch, the distinct characteristics of their race and its conception of the beautiful, and this, in a manner so in complete and significant that their names get identified with a peculiar way of living and the story of their life becomes a page of history. It is to one such artist representative of her art, of her country, of her age that this short study is consecrated. The recent unexpected renaissance of Spanish dancing, an art whose creative power seemed to have been exhausted, is due primarily to the singular genius of one dancer, La Argentina. Alone she has epitomized and regenerated a form long cheapened and falsified by the music-hall gypsies turned out wholesale in Seville. And her indescribable success has loosened a new onslaught of Spanish dancing, the oldest and noblest of European exotics."
She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A talented young dancer, her career was greatly influenced by her parents Manuel Mercé (an Andalusian), and Josefina Luque (a Castilian), themselves professional Spanish dancers. It was due to them that La Argentina's entire life was mainly focused on dance, where her parents greatly wanted her to excel. She studied ballet with her parents in her youth. She trained mainly with her father, who taught her to dance at the age of four. When she was nine years old, she debuted at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain. At the age of 11, she was a star dancer at the Madrid Opera.
Shortly after the death of her father, La Argentina retired from ballet. After this life-transforming event, at the age of 14, La Argentina started studying native Spanish dances with her mother.
For several years to come, her style of dancing was not highly admired in her society; therefore she could not perform in theatres or in concerts (in which she was used to dancing). She danced wherever she could, which meant performing in café cantantés and music halls.
Prior to World War I, La Argentina was extremely admired in Paris, where she accepted invitations to dance at the Moulin Rouge, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and other important locations. Years later, she took interest in a gypsy-style dance and made it her own.
She died on July 18, 1936, in Bayonne, France. La Argentina was 46 years old when she died.
Contribution to formal dance
Her contributions to formal dance are expressed in her style, her choice of music, her use of castanets, and her structuring of performances.
« For the past year I have had a passion for Argentina. The rigour of her classical formation, her knowledge and her taste bring dignity and nobleness to Spanish folklore, and fills me with respect. I feel like I am entering the Escurial when I am with her. » (Edwige Feuillère )
« While there had always been a great flowering of folkloric dances in Spain, the history of formal dance itself began only in 1920 with Argentina and Escudero. Diaghilev admired them a lot. » (Serge Lifar)
« From what it was, a colourful facet of popular culture, Spanish formalized dance turns, thanks to her genius and infinite patience, into a choreographic style destined to universal acceptance. »(Jean Dorcy)
La Argentina created her own style. Spain has 49 provinces with very different traditions, where the levels of artistic interpretation go from the crudest popular taste to the most austere sobriety. Certain dances were shapeless, deformed, and forgotten as society changed. La Argentina revived the folklore, catalogued it, sought traditional steps wherever she could fnd them in village squares and in humble dance schools ; she used diplomacy and even subterfuge to be shown a particular step or dance by the elders, such as occurred near Salamanca, where she was able to reconstitute the genuine charrada. She felt strongly that what was presented under that name on stage was not authentic. In denying its popular ancestral roots, Spanish dance in the theatre had become insipid. Italian and French influences had deprived it of its originality. The spirit of genuine Spanish dance had deserted it. La Argentina rekindled that spirit.  
Parallel with this search for authenticity, she systematically made the dances she found conform to her own aesthetic. She married the purity of classical style with the ardour and character of popular art. No element, musical or plastic, escaped her labour of re-creation. She devoted more than eight hours a day to it, submitting each pattem of steps to her sense of rhythm and music. She refined and pruned, keeping only what was essential, she stylized and transformed the lead of regional dances into the finest gold. Thanks to her, Spanish formal dance went into a new phase, and rose to a hitherto unattained level of sublimation.
What do we mean by stylizing or adapting for the stage ? Stylised dance must retain the nature and flavour of folklore while respecting the demands of the stage. What are these ?
- To create space
- To accentuate movement
- The different parts must fit into the whole
- The body becomes moving architecture.
The Spanish dancer has the advantage on this last point. Classical dance extends the form and inflects only during moments of transition, in linear continuity. Essentially it offers surfaces, the Spanish body volumes. Classical dance offers surfaces because it is a product of the stage. On stage we are best seen from the front and in three quarters profile; seen from the side the body loses its radiance. and from the back it loses it entirely. Traditionally the Spanish dancer is seen from all angles. He constantly offers volumes to the eye. A thousand fluid body positions give vigour, ardour and celerity. Classical dance paints, Spanish dance sculpts. Classical form elongates itself, shimmers, rises on tip-toe ; it glides, it loses substance, becomes idealised. Spanish form is earthy, it strikes, presses, accentuates downward, stays close to the ground. Made of broken lines, of sinuous and constantly inflected form. It is ready to leap not in the air as in classical dance. but like a wild animal. In adapting itself to the stage, Spanish dance must retain its specific shapes. If it conforms only to stage demands, it would undoubtedly turn into classical dance. It has no right to do so, because of its roots: it is born in the street, in the bars. It represents a region. It reflects the life of the people. its games and bullfighting, the enticing fan of a young girl, African eroticism, oriental gypsy mystery. The court dancer did not possess the triple benefit of their historical, ethnographical and psychological background. That is why he could care only about linear beauty. ()
La Argentina was the first to use music for Spanish dance of the great contemporary composers such as Isaac Albéniz, de Falla, Granados and Turina. The musical monuments of these four composers demanded broad choral movements that folklore did not possess. Taking as their base the guitar's melodic micro-universe, and influenced by foreign (especially Russian and French) composition styles, they considerably widened their musical palette. She also elicited scores from the young composers of her country such as Halffter, Espla, Duran.
Great artists accompanied her on the piano. In 1926 Joaquin Nin, pianist and composer arranged many popular songs and Amparo Navaro, née Iturbi, sister of José Iturbi. Carmencita Perez played in 1926 and 1929–30; Miguel Berdion in late 1929 and 1930, and in 1931 in New York. Luis Galve was her accompanist from 27 March 1931 until the end.
La Argentina used any music that suited her temperament. The interaction between music and dance, the parallels she found between melodic line and body profile, intermingled. Her inner vigour seemed to produce both music and dance, so much that any gesture became music for the eye.
Of using castanets she
As a little girl ( I was three or four perhaps), I used to hear the insistent, percussive sound of the big castanets when my parents gave lessons. The unmusical noise irritated me so much that I would go and hide in the furthest part of the apartment so as not to hear its reverberation. There I would practice my tiny hands on a pair of castanets my father had given me, and more or less unconsciously - one hardly uses reason at that age - I sought to draw sounds from my instrument that did not hurt my ears. Such were my beginnings and I can only say that my liking for castanets came from the disgust that other’s castanets inspired in me".
Even as a simple accompanist to regional dances, Argentina became an astonishing soloist and the castanets a genuine concert instrument, even going so far as to modifying their design to obtain more satisfying tones. "The public not only liked Argentina's dancing, and her slim, gently curving arms, it also enjoyed her castanet performance. It was a virtuoso display. "The perfection of her interpretation and the faultless manner of expressing the smallest musical nuance drew comparison with the great Toscanini. « Her performance contained such subtleties » André Levinson said, « such a variety of tones that they were almost like a voice, and such an intensity of expression impatience, challenge and triumph - that they not only amounted to a voice but to a language! « As the famous Spanish-Cuban composer, Joaquin Nin, who styled himself as teacher of perfect Bach and whom I used to see for this reason once said, I always refused to be shackled, even if the chain was the customary pearl necklace offered young women after marriage. But I adored the thread of pearls provided by Argentina's castanets, when she would come as my lessons with him were finishing to rehearse the wonderful dances of her first recitals at number 27, rue Henri-Heine. » Nothing henceforward would be as before. She was imitated. Some tried to equal her. All the great artists of Spain adopted her musical notation for castanets. She gave Spanish dance her own special imprint, which nowadays it would be inconceivable to do without; she showed the way to future castanet performers, and facilitated the instrument's admittance to the orchestra.
Argentina was also the first to inaugurate the recital format, performing her own choreography for concerts in which she was alone on stage, accompanied simply by a pianist, occasionally by a guitarist, especially for the flamenco dances. Her guitarist throughout was Salvador Ballesteros, a family friend. She did not succeed all at once. Like everything else in her career (which began very modestly in Madrid, to end up at the Paris Opera), it happened progressively. She first performed dances in variety programmes, then in pieces with orchestral music; later on in dances where less importance was accorded the orchestra. Her first shows in 1925 during a European tour and in the South of France were shared with Joaquin Nin the composer and soloist, the singer Alicita Felici, with Mme Ginesty-Brisson at the piano, or with the opera singer Dolores de Silvera. The same programme took place at the Salle Gaveau, in Paris, on January 10, 1926. It was in Berlin, on October 15, 1926, that she gave her first solo recital with Carmencita Perez as accompanist. At the end of October of the same year, she gave the same performance in Stockholm, then at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. From then on, she retained the same format:
- 1927: Salle Gaveau, Théâtre Femina
- 1928: Salle Pleyel
- 1929: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
- 1933: On December 3, first recital at the Paris Opera
- 1934: Gala at the Opera, and recital at the Opéra-Comique
- 1936: Springtime saw her in Cannes where the kings of Sweden and Denmark applauded her; in May she retumed to Paris and, except for her own ballets, always performed alone on stage with ever-increasing triumph around the world. Argentina was also the first artist of such fame to give recitals at inexpensive prices that were within everybody's range, at the old Trocadero which held more than fve thousand seats. The success of these popular shows was sheer madness. She was obliged to renew the experience several times a season as it had become a tradition expected by all Parisians, who jammed the box-offices, the thousands of seats available being sold out in a single day.
1. Concert dances
1912 El Garrotin, based on a popular air. La Corrida, music by Valverde (taken from choreographies created in 1910 for the opérette l’Amour en Espagne Tango Andalou, music by Ballesteros.
1916 Danse des Yeux verts, music specially composed by Granados.
Between 1916 and 1921 :Habanera, music by Pablo de Sarasate. Cordoba, music by Albeniz. Danza V, music by Granados.
1921 Sevilla, music by Albeniz. Serenata, music by Malats. Sérénade Andalouse, music by C. Ruecker.
1925 Danse du Feu, music by Manuel de Falla. Andalouse Sentimentale, music by Turina. Boléro Classique, music by Iradier. Bohémiene, based on a popular air. Seguidilla (without music).
1926 Mexicaine, based on a popular air. Ciel de Cuba, based on a popular air.
1927 Valencia, music by C. Ruecker. Chaconne, music by Albeniz.
1928 Serenata Andaluza, music by Manuel de Falla. Jota Valenciana, music by Granados. Danse Gitane, music by Infante. Lagerterana, music by Guerrero.
1929 la vie brève, music by de Falla. Carinosa, popular music from the Philippines. Jota Aragonesa, music by de Falla.
1930 Goyescas, music by Granados. Danse Ibérienne, music specially composed by Joaquin Nin. Danse de la Meunière, music by de Falla.
1932 Almeria, music by Albeniz. La Romeria de los Cornudos, music by Pittaluga (The Shawl Dance - a dance from Granada). Puerta de Tierra, music by Albeniz. Danse du Meunier, music by de Falla. Légende, music by Albeniz. Charrada, popular music from Salamanca. Malaguena, music by Albeniz. Castilla, music by Albeniz, « Matid 1 800 ». Cuba, music by Albeniz. Alegrias, music by Ballesteros.
1933 Zapataedo, music by Granados. Tientos, music by Infante.
1934 Sacra-Monte, music by Turina. Esquisse Gitane, music by Infante. La Fregona, music by Vives. Suite Argentine, based on a popular air (Condicion-Bailecito - Zamba). Suite Andalouse, based on popular airs (Sevillanas-Peteneras - Bulerias).
1936 1935 Fandango, music by Turina. Polo Gitano, music by Breton. La Firmeza, based on Argentinian popular music, becoming the last dance in the Suite Argentine.
1925 L’Amour Sorcier, music by Manuel de Falla.
1927 El Fandango de Candi, music by Duran. Argentina successively expressed feminine shrewdness, thwarted love, tenderness, wearing a pink costume with cubist flounces cut into scallops.
1927 Au coeur de Seville, cuadro flamenco based on a popular air.
1928 Sonatine, music by Ernesto Halffter. This ballet, a mixture of Old France and Castilla, made Spanish courtly dancing come to life again. With delightful touch, Argentina introduces a shepherdess on stage, gliding and pirouetting imperceptibly.
1928 Le Contrebandier, music by Óscar Esplá, where the future Empress Eugénie meets Prosper Mérimée and where the countess of Teba saves a smuggler who is pursued by two opérette gendarmes.
1928 Juerga, music by Julien Bautista. Scenes of popular life in Madrid around 1 885 : returning from a popular festival, young people from good families in search of pleasure mingle with common folk, and give themselves to unrestrained jollity : turmoil, dancing, and colourful to-ing and fro-ing.
1929 Triana, music by Albeniz. Lovers' tiffs during the Corpus Christi in Sevilla.
- "La Argentina", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed May 17, 2010.
- "Kazuo Ohno" Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio, accessed May 17, 2010.
- André Levinson, "La Argentina" Paris 1928, (Edition des Chroniques du Jour)
- Edwige Feuillère. Les feux de la mémoire. Albin Michel. Paris. 1977
- Serge Lifar, Ma vie. Editions René Julliard, Paris. 1965
- Jean Dorcy, Deux visages de la danse espagnole. Les Cahiers de Danse et Culture, Paris, 1955
- Jean Dorcy. Deux visages de la danse espagnole. Les Cahiers de Danse et Culture, Paris. 1955
- La Argentina, Mes premiers essais. Editions Gilberte Coumand. Paris, 1956.
- Femand Divoire, Pour la Danse. Saxe Editeur. Paris. 1935
- Maria Pia de Saxe-Cobourg,Memoire d’une Infante vivante. Editions Mondiales, Paris,1957
- Suzanne F. Cordelier: La vie brève de la Argentina. Paris 1936
- Monique Paravicini (ed.): Argentina. Gilberte Cournand, Paris 1956
- Argentina. Bienal de Arte Flamenco (V el Baile). Sevilla 1988
- Ministerio de Cultura (ed.): Homenaje en su Centenario 1890-1990 Antonia Mercé 'La Argentina'. Madrid 1990
- Suzanne de Soye: Toi qui dansais, (you danced and danced) Argentina. Paris 1993
- Carlos Manso: La Argentina, fue Antonia Mercé. Buenos Aires 1993
- Ria Schneider (ed.): Argentina. Antonia Mercé. Kastagnettenstücke, entstanden 1912-1936. IGkK, Köln 1993
- Brygida M. Ochaim, Claudia Balk: Varieté-Tänzerinnen um 1900. Vom Sinnenrausch zur Tanzmoderne, Ausstellung des Deutschen Theatermuseums München 23.10.1998–17.1.1999., Stroemfeld, Frankfurt/M. 1998, ISBN 3-87877-745-0
- La Argentina's biography
- Short Biography
- Tarot & Dance: The Dancing Queens, Antonia Merce, La Argentina, Queen of Coins(c) Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2003] at TarotCanada.tripod.com La Argentina
- Legado de Antonia Mercé La Argentina en la Fundación Juan March(Spanish).
- Archive of Antonia Mercé La Argentina, Fundación Juan March-Madrid(English).