Theater archives

Heelbeats, Heartbeats


It would take more than a fog of cigarette smoke and a glass in my hand to make Theater 80 feel like a café in Seville. But I can manage without them. The place is funky enough, and Mark London’s lighting embeds the members of Noche Flamenca in darkness pierced by low-level beams. The costumes are plain. No polka-dot gowns with ruffled trains, no snugly fitting trousers and cummerbunds. We’re as close to the performers as we’d be in a club; dancers toss their heads and sprays of sweat land inches from the front row.

Martin Santangelo, artistic director of the company (now in its seventh season at Theater 80), isn’t into glitz. He wants us to hear how the flamenco guitarist’s notes well up like tears or make you imagine wind tangling in the strings, to hear how the cantaor‘s voice can sing out clearly and then, wrecked by emotion, become a quavering howl. He wants us to feel that the dancers are stamping on our hearts.

He builds the atmosphere of a gypsy gathering. When La Plaza begins, Eugenio Iglesias is communing with his guitar. The music gradually lures the others: guitarist Luis Miguel Manzano; singers Nieves Diaz, Emilio Florido, and Manuel Gago; dancers Soledad Barrio, Alejandro Granados, and Juan Ogalla. Their singing, clapping, and affectionate byplay brighten the dimly lit room. We’re in on it. When Diaz, suddenly belting passionately in midsong, wakes up our ears, we cheer her.

The dancers acquaint us with their styles, priming us for solos to come. Ogalla, tall, well built, and tough-faced, is a master of heelwork. Even when his textures are most complex, he can flick a foot into the air before driving it down again into the rhythmic flow. He stares at us a lot, knows the value of the taunting pause. Granados, beefier, with a big mournful visage, shows more rough edges and moody unravelings. He’ll prowl, then explode, raining a slew of bastinadoes on the floor. Small Barrio’s dancing is as deep and winding as the cante jondo that sings of love, despair, and death. Her feet draw a particularly rich resonance from the floor; her arms ripple; her wrists curl and twist in the air; when she turns, her upper body dips and spirals.

She and Granados begin his Tientos-Tangos as if their footwork were summoning up some old pain. He touches her lightly once, then sinks into a lunge; she, startlingly, falls against his stretched-out leg. Later, dancing side by side or facing each other, they both crack smiles, cleansed by the power of their rhythms.

Ogalla dances a dazzling Alegrias, virtuosic with his feet, teasing us with his quieter moments, with the sly way he undoes the last button of his jacket to warn us of fireworks to come. Granados in the darker-toned Solea wanders while Gago and Florido take turns goading him with song. He gestures, perhaps conjuring up old memories. In this solo, his footwork is less nuanced, more like rapid drumbeats. Sometimes he looks up as if hoping for assistance from above, but he attacks the final rhythms with confident power and exits with a little wiggle of his hips.

Barrio’s focus changes with her shiftings of thought in a Siguiriya that contains and ritualizes pain. She probes the floor with her purling heel-and-toe rhythms, drawing something up from below; her handclaps knock on a locked door inside her. She’s fierce. At one point, she goes very close to a singer and leans in as if to smell him.

In the final dance, each member of the company tosses a rose on the floor in memory of their longtime cherished singer Antonio Vizarraga, who died three months ago. The fragrance of their magnificent performing should reach wherever he’s singing now.