Tale of Spanish evacuees told through flamenco

AN emotional tale of families torn apart by the Spanish Civil War gets an appropriately impassioned re-telling through the medium of flamenco, writes Kelly Apter
Kerieva McCormack in The Typist. Picture: ContributedKerieva McCormack in The Typist. Picture: Contributed
Kerieva McCormack in The Typist. Picture: Contributed

On 21 May 1937, 4,000 children boarded the ship Habana in Bilbao, bound for Southampton. Known as “Los Niños de la Guerra”, the evacuees were seeking a safe haven from the Spanish Civil War. But as they waved a sad goodbye to their parents, the children – some as young as four – could scarcely have imagined how long it would be before they would see them again.

“They were told they were only going for three months, but most of them didn’t get to see their families again for 20 years,” says Kerieva McCormick, whose new show The Typist was inspired by the Niños’ story. “Franco was in power, most of their fathers were imprisoned or killed, and their mothers were in exile in France. So contact with their families was quite difficult.”

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A multi-instrumentalist, and former vocalist with London electronica band Asian Dub Foundation, McCormick also trained as a dancer, and recently co-founded Kam-Ri Dance Theatre.

A blend of flamenco dance, music and song, with archive images, The Typist was born out of McCormick’s long-held interest in the Spanish Civil War. During a period of research, she discovered that hundreds of the Niños had been left to reside in the UK permanently.

“It transpired that some of them were still alive and living in London,” says McCormick. “So I went to their houses, got to know them and interviewed them. It was a very beautiful and delicate process, and I was extremely conscious of getting the details of the historical content right.”

McCormick used an amalgamation of their testimonies to inform her character, Esperanza, a 26-year-old typist who works for a shipping company in 1950s Liverpool. Her dance partner, flamenco artist Raúl Prieto, meanwhile, plays a specific hero from back in the day.

“Raúl’s character is based on a man who had gone to art school before the war,” explains McCormick, “and ended up using his talent to create false documentation for people to cross back into Spain to see their families. It was a highly dangerous job, but although he created hundreds of documents, nobody was ever caught.”

Stories such as this thread their way through the choreography, with delicate hand movements signifying the care and attention the forger put into his work.

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McCormick’s relationship with flamenco began as a child, when she spent part of her time living in Grenada. When her focus shifted to contemporary dance and ballet, flamenco was temporarily set aside. But unlike most dance forms (Indian dance being the other exception) flamenco dancers improve dramatically with age – and McCormick knew she’d return to it one day.

Now based in Glasgow, McCormick divides her time between Scotland and Spain, where she works to improve her already strong flamenco technique.

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“I knew there would be another point in my life when I would immerse myself in it – but it had to be the right time,” she says. “I think I had to mature more as a person, and as a woman, to understand flamenco and give it what it needed.

“It’s not just a case of putting a rose in your hair and jumping about. It’s about having a very deep understanding of the music, and summoning something up out of the floor that’s even beyond yourself. It’s quite a magical process.”

As well as performing in and co-directing the piece, McCormick also wrote and recorded much of the score, which will be augmented by a voiceover by none other than Liverpool-born comedian Alexei Sayle.

“I had just started writing the show in 2012 when I met him at a comedy event in London,” recalls McCormick. “We got chatting and he asked me for the synopsis. He read it and has stayed totally supportive of the project ever since. And the thing with Alexei is, what you see is what you get – he’s very funny, generous and warm hearted.”

Through his narration, Sayle plays Esparanza’s politically active foster father. It’s a role which has special resonance for the comedian, whose own father was a member of the International Brigade, a group of volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War.

“The Niños were totally reliant on charitable offerings from people,” explains McCormick, “including a lot of political organisations. People were showing newsreels at political meetings about what was happening in Spain, so those organisers opened their doors to the children – and Alexei represents the male figures in a lot of those families.”

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Sayle wasn’t the only one with memories of the Spanish Civil War to share. During rehearsals, McCormick found that the conflict had touched the lives of many of the people involved.

“Everyone in the cast had their own stories about that time,” she says, “whether it was hearing it from their grandparents or great uncles and aunts, so that’s been part of the process.”

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Set in Liverpool, London and Spain, The Typist follows Esparanza’s journey as she re-discovers her culture, meeting up with other Niños after 20 years and re-learning her mother tongue. For although McCormick’s character is happy, and has assimilated into British life, the silent call of her homeland becomes increasingly hard to ignore.

“And then she gets news from home that changes everything,” says McCormick, leaving that hanging teasingly in the air.

When we speak on the phone, McCormick is in Madrid, working with choreographer, Javier Latorre – a man she felt was perfect for the job.

“I wanted to hand the choreography over to someone who was steeped in flamenco, and who would immediately connect with the emotions of this story,” she says. “And Javier was the obvious choice. He’s a former principal with the National Ballet of Spain, and the way people train there it’s essential for them to dance classical ballet and flamenco to the highest standard. So he brings quite a lyrical ballet sensibility to the flamenco.”

With McCormick handling the dance side of things, it falls to the company’s co-director, Ben Harrison to take care of the theatrical elements.

“Obviously narrative can be rather challenging in dance, so we’re trying to use all the other languages of theatre to help tell the story,” he says. “We have a lot of very powerful archive footage of the Niños leaving Spain on the Habana, and how welcoming the people in Britain were – because it’s important to have that context.”

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Also artistic director of award-winning Scottish theatre company Grid Iron, Harrison is well-versed in creating multi-media art works. Ordinarily, his time would be spent finding a fine balance between artforms, but when it came to The Typist, he recognised that while the music, singing and visuals play a crucial role, these aren’t the things that drive the show.

“Flamenco is an incredible engine, and it’s really the motor for the whole piece,” says Harrison. “So although normally I’d say don’t let any one element dominate, you can’t quieten down flamenco – 
it’s the rocket fuel for the whole thing.”

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The Typist is at The Arches, Glasgow, 12-14 February, then on tour throughout Scotland, for details see www.kam-ri.com