Film Review: Impulso

An elongated look at the uniquely improvisatory work of experimental flamenco dancer Rocío Molina, this feature-length documentary might have been more effective as a short.
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The first, and perhaps only, thing one needs to understand in order to appreciate Emilio Belmonte’s affectionate documentary Impulso is the meaning of its title word. “Impulso” is the name the film’s subject—experimental flamenco dancer Rocío Molina—gives to her improvised dance performances, which bury traditional flamenco elements under the influence of contemporary dance and performance art. Molina is unique in her formidable need to improvise dance in front of an audience—a practice not common in flamenco. While performing her impulsos, accompanied by live flamenco musicians who are also improvising, Molina enters a trance-like state. She’s guided by intuition, and overtaken by exploratory impulses. Through these impulsos, she claims, that which is buried deep inside her is revealed. Her performances are driven more by her need for self-discovery than self-expression. And it’s not just about doing the physical movements and being enlightened by what they unveil, but doing so in front of an audience. That’s what generates the anxiety that fuels her process. She relishes—and absolutely requires—the feeling of being on a precipice.

Born in Málaga in 1984, Molina began dancing at age three, graduated from the Royal Dance Conservatory in Madrid, and at age 26 received an award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture for contributions to the “renewal of flamenco.” Yet her dancing doesn’t resemble the flamenco one is used to seeing. Molina exhibits the neutral upper-body alignment of a modern dancer—not the deeply-arched spine, ornamented by eloquent arm movements and castanets—and her sturdy body collapses, crawls, lunges, and struggles with weight and balance in unexpected fashion. Exuding a warrior-princess sort of toughness, she dances with intensity, but absent the angst often evoked in flamenco. Her technical strength lies in her phenomenal footwork, yet it’s so fast, light and rhythmically complex one is reminded more of the riffs of a tap dancer than the stomping heels of a flamenco artist.

The bulk of the documentary, in Spanish with English subtitles, focuses on Molina’s preparations for an upcoming show at the Chaillot National Theatre in Paris. We follow the dancer and her musicians as they rehearse, perform and discuss their work. It’s captivating to observe how, as rhythmic artists, when talking about musical ideas, they often communicate through sounds, drumming, claps and gestures rather than language. Yet we also hear the musicians talk about their problems performing with Molina in such an improvisatory manner. When one complained of feeling confused by the way she looked at them during a performance and not being able to interpret how she was feeling about what they were playing, Molina replied, “But it’s beautiful to feel anxious.”

Though enriched by Dorian Blanc and Thomas Bremond’s striking cinematography—its modernistic use of angles lending a Cubist-like quality to artistically composed shots—the film, Belmonte’s first attempt at a feature-length documentary, drags rather than accelerates to its conclusion and feels longer than its 87 minutes. That’s largely because of the limited content. Once we understand Molina’s artistic practice and get a chance to view different examples of her impulsos, we feel we’ve got it. The lengthy conversations among the musicians (who get as much, if not more, screen time than Molina), the personal commentary from her apprehensive mother, and an elongated scene between Molina and her former teacher feel like padding. While she is a fascinating contemporary performer—one who certainly merits introducing, as many dance aficionados don’t even know who she is—this extended cinematic look at Molina might have been more effective as a documentary short.