Eight p.m., and it's still 90 degrees outside of Theatre 80. Air conditioning cools the interiorthat is, until the red velvet curtain opens, and Noche Flamenca makes the stage smolder. This summer, the vibrant ensemble celebrates its 10th season in the little downtown venue ("I guess we're close enough," says one avid patron to his wifethey could sprint from their fifth-row seats to the stage in about six steps).
The intimate atmosphere suits the style that artistic director Martin Santangelo and his wife, the incandescent artist Soledad Barrio, have maintained. The five dancers, two singers, and two guitarists may stare at us, even taunt us, but they never "sell" what they do. Their new show, Aldaba (choreographed by Santangelo "with a lot of help from the company"), creates as much as possible the atmosphere of a cuadro flamencoa group of musicians and dancers who've come together in a café to challenge one another and stir feelings of gaiety and grief in all who watch. The rapport between the performers fuels the informal ambience. In the opening El Camino, they egg each other onthe women in ruffled skirts and fringed shawls, the men in dark street clothes. They rarely dance in unison, and then only if it's justified. In the brief finale, Alejandro Granados and Alfonso Losa, who've been flinging moves at each other like a couple of competing turkey cocks, suddenly advance with identical steps, side by side, arms linkedcomrades. Quebrada ends with Barrio, Vanesa Coloma and Elena Martín united in a cluster, smacking their thighs as the lights dim.
The company digs deep into flamenco's dark soul. Singers Manuel Gago and José Anillo salute the dancers with the husky, caressing tones and harsh calls of cante jondo. The fingers of guitarists "Chuscales" and Miguel Perez make the strings of their instruments tremble intricately, but also resound like drums in a funeral procession. The dancers trample with their rhythmically stamping feet the flames they continue to ignite. Stephen Petrilli's lighting creates dim rooms and nighttime streets as well as slanting sunlight.
In his Soleá por Bulerías, Losa, new to the company, wrenches himself from stillness into bursts of motion, pauses to draw himself up, and explodes again. Twisting, tilting, spinning; he dances as if the floor is oily and the air around him an adversary, snapping his fingers in dazzling counterpoint to his rapid heelwork. Granados broods more. He enters slowly for his siguiriya, feinting at the surrounding darkness with a cane, looking up as if expecting a storm or a message. The siguiriya in its many manifestations expresses the grief, anger, and jealousy that plagues the Gypsy soul. Granados addresses his magnificent dancing to his shadow on the floor, to the singers who confront him. Sometimes he seems to be searching for the complex steps that he purls out quietly or nails into the floor.
Barrio is the company's undisputed star, although she works beautifully within the group, as in the haunting, enigmatic Quebrada. Here the performers sit on chairs or stand isolated in thought. Perhaps some rupture has occurred in the community. Barrio rouses herself to embrace the proud Martín, who has been traveling around the stage, her fluid arms curling around her, her feet stamping out the only sound. The tougher Coloma rushes in later and confronts Barrio. Gradually life resumes.
Barrio's great solea climaxes the evening. By turns tender, pensive, and brutal, she builds in speed and emotion. Whatever internal demons she's confronting, we feel their presence. Sometimes, as she circles the floor with pattering steps, she turns her head to one side, as if sensing something powerful and dangerous just behind her. Wearing a black dress and almost no makeup, barely aware of the audience, Barrio creates a lifetime in one mesmerizing dance.
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