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Flamenco thrives in a café setting; close quarters inflame the dancers, singers, and guitarists, and glasses clink beneath the music’s wail and flutter. (In the U.S., cigarette smoke is no longer likely to curl up into the lights.) I saw the vivid nine-person Noche Flamenca at Jacob’s Pillow just before its New York season, with a different program, opened at Joe’s Pub on Astor Place.
At Joe’s, where the company is in residence through August 26, the audience can sense the magnetism between performers—feel, not just see, the sweat that flies when elegant Bruno Argenta whips off a turn, and hear the hairpins strike the floor if the magnificent Soledad Barrio becomes possessed by her solea. Proscenium stages have a dampening effect; few in the Ted Shawn Theater at the Pillow ventured an Olé!, although the audience’s excitement was palpable. Yet a stage reveals artistic director Martin Santangelo’s fine sense of space. In his new Quebrada, musicians and dancers—silent, unmoving—stand or sit on scattered chairs, while small, fierce-faced Alejandra Ramirez dances a few steps, snapping her fingers, sneaking up on the movement, pouncing. Ana Romero rises and embraces her. Jesus Torres starts to play his guitar, then falls silent. Ramirez moves to the other guitarist, Andres Heredia, and curls her hand close to his where it plucks the strings.
Santangelo builds a compelling atmosphere of emptiness, intermittently filled by bursts of movement and sound. People enter this place, speak from their souls, and leave—sometimes quite precipitously. The piece does escalate. Barrio and the other two women dance, while the black-suited men watch them. All the men—the guitarists, singers Antonio Vizarraga and Silverio Heredia, and Argenta—surround tall young Noe Barroso while he dances, almost hemming him in.
These are potent performers in any setting. In an alegrias, Argenta is, appropriately, less clipped, more joyful than usual. Having wrapped up a virtuoso display of whipped turns, twisting steps, and complex heelwork, he simply strolls nonchalantly away. In one section of a siguiyerias that he choreographed, he and Barroso wheel around each other, their stamping feet calling out challenges or melting into prideful synchrony: two matched fighting cocks. Barroso gets engagingly funky in the challenge dances of the finale. Romero prowls through a tientos tangos, rolling her hips, stamping wide-legged, staring at the musicians. Even dancing can’t relieve what’s devouring her.
Flamenco is a language of darkness. Spotlights pin a dancer like an angry rival’s torch in the night. Torres’s marvelous guitar solo summons up tolling bells. Vizarraga’s voice is a mixture of honey and rust. Barrio dances her somber Solea dressed in black, and for a minute—”Ay! Ay!”—both singers pin her between them with their voices. As she improvises her passion, her feet nail the music to the floor—building up a rhythm, reducing it to its quiet essence, walking away from it, and returning to attack. Whenever she stops, it’s as if death has tapped her on the shoulder.