The Patter of Feet

Flamenco gets updated, keeping its gypsy smolder and elemental force intact

At flamenco performances these days, don't expect men in high-waisted, tight-fitting pants or women in polka-dot dresses with long, ruffled trains. Groups like Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras (one of several featured in Flamenco Festival New York 2007) opt for a sleeker, more contemporary look. Baras's gowns are made of some lightweight, silky jersey; they can whirl and flare up around her. She performs her powerful Martinete in what appear to be fancy black-leather chaps over black pants. Her two male guest artists, Luis Ortega and José Serrano, wear suits with loose-cut jackets, and Ortega makes a thing out of pulling his coat open to reveal the fire of a red satin lining.

Baras's choreography for the five women and five men of her skilled ensemble is also sleek, whether they're dancing in impeccable unison or ranged at the back clapping a precise accompaniment to a solo. In any given number, the women are costumed alike, as are the men. The opening Sabores—when musicians and dancers congregate, chat, and try out steps—is one of the few moments that look informal. Baras occasionally breaks up the predominant face-front-and-dance image with such attractive devices as having the corps-de-ballet men in the Tanguillo weave through a line of women, although the occasional lift—two men grasp a woman under the armpits and hoist her in a T position—seems both startling and gratuitous.

The passion of flamenco endures—flourishes—within the tightly organized staging. You see that elemental force in the way the soloists attack, draw back, tease out their steps, and explode again. You hear it in the hoarse laments of singers Miguel de la Tolea and Saúl Quirós, in the plangent guitars, the wail of José Amador Goñi's violin, and the sharp, rhythmic strikes made by percussionist Antonio Suárez on the wooden box (cajón) set between his legs. Percussion figures heavily, and José María Bandera and Mario Montoya often abandon melody to strike the wood of their guitars.

Sara Baras with José Serrano and Luis Ortega
2007 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. All Rights Reserved.
Sara Baras with José Serrano and Luis Ortega

Ortega embellishes his Siguiriya with rapid-fire castanet playing. Fiercely handsome, he teases us—almost too often— with a common flamenco ploy, sauntering away from a burst of virtuosic activity, pausing, then plunging into dancing again. José Serrano builds nuances into the brilliant heelwork of his Alegrías, despite the over-miked floor. Like Ortega, he pauses to muster new force or adjust to a new rhythm, but he also conveys changing emotional textures in the way he pulls back from fierce, driving movements into more contained ones, and with his ability to swerve and reconsider without breaking the through-line of a phrase.

Longtime colleagues Ortega and Serrano danced in the Spanish National Ballet during the '80s and more recently have co-choreographed pieces. Both have performed in other Baras works. In this show, Sabores, she doesn't perform a duet with either man; she treats them like brothers, as well as partners equal in strength. At the end of the trio A fuego lento (choreographed by the two men and Lola Greco), she reaches an arm around each of them and pulls them together until their foreheads are touching.

Baras is tremendous in Martinete—explosive, introspective, sometimes riding her elaborately crackling footwork easily, at other times hammering her steps into the floor. Some flamenco dancers plant their feet slightly apart; Barras keeps hers close together. In the evening's final dances, she wears a cream-colored dress with a bodice that's all fringe, and at some point, maybe during the Bulerías that bears her mother's name, Concha, she ties the side panels of the skirt together in front of her and keeps dancing. Drawing herself up, she's as narrow as a candle flame, contained but volatile, ready to flare.

During the performance, cries of "Olé!" and "Guapo!" erupt from the audience, but seldom from the ensemble. I can't help missing that old-fashioned collegial heat.

 
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