East never met West quite like this. For nearly two hours before a packed house at New York’s Lincoln Center recently, 46-year-old Yasuko Nagamine yowled, leaped, whirled and furiously pounded the wooden stage with her jackhammer-hard heels until her feet almost bled. A kind of Oriental Isadora Duncan whose personal artistic mission has been to blend the mystery of Japan’s Grand Kabuki with the fire of Spain’s flamenco, Nagamine had long been revered as a dancer in those lands. But the one-time-only Lincoln Center performance marked her U.S. debut, and Nagamine claims she spent $150,000 to import her special hollow dance floor and 36-member company from Toyko for the event.
Her gamble paid off. “Miss Nagamine is one of those obsessed spirits that arise every so often,” raved the New York Times, “and the world would be poorer without them.” José Miguel, one of Spain’s great flamenco dancers and Nagamine’s lover for the past 15 years, concurs. “Yasuko is strong like a man. She also has suffered. When those things combine, something very beautiful happens.”
Nagamine was 17 when she heard a recording of Carmen for the first time and headed for Madrid to study dance. “This was my destiny,” recalls Nagamine, who one year later won a national flamenco competition. Still, Spanish audiences were not ready for a Japanese gypsy. “No one would hire me,” she says. “I was crying every day.” It would take 10 more years before she broke through the race barrier to be recognized as one of Spain’s great dancers. She began working with Miguel in 1967, and they became the Fred and Ginger of flamenco.
Nagamine returned to Toyko to live four years ago, and though Miguel remained in Madrid, they plan to work together again. “Yasuko,” proclaims her gypsy beau, “is my spirit, my soul.”