Whether flamenco, the dance and music of Andalucian gypsies, is rooted in traditions that nomadic tribes bore across Europe to Spain or in ones that crossed the seas from the Middle East and India, it was bred on hard ground. Ground that has to be pounded and dug into by stamping feet and tickled into fertile life by toes and heels that mimic swift rivers. Add to that the hardness of the life that gypsies, Jews, and Arabs endured in Christian Spain.
These days, you can see “new” flamenco, with show-off smolder and moves borrowed from other forms. But the gritty, no-nonsense performances by Noche Flamenca—the Madrid-based company whose regular seasons have enthralled New Yorkers since 1993—get to the dark heart of flamenco and inflame it with their artistry. For nearly six weeks, the intimate Cherry Lane’s brick-walled stage is alive with shadows, ululating voices, the rhythmic ripple of guitars, and dancing that flashes like knives.
In artistic director Martin Santangelo’s pared-down, skillfully shaped show, the only performers are guitarists Salva de María and Eugenio Iglesias, singers Emilio Florido and Miguel Rosendo, and dancers Juan Ogalla, Antonio Jiménez, and Soledad Barrio (Santangelo’s wife and the company’s undisputed star). The ambience is that of a gathering of friends and colleagues we’ve joined for the evening. Iglesias plays a brilliantly brooding guitar solo for us. In an interlude called Mediodía, de María and the two singers gather on chairs and engage one another in musical banter; lighting designer S. Benjamin Farrar has placed a lamp in an opening in a side wall, so it looks as if they’re seated around a fireplace. As usual, the singers clap counter-rhythms, urge on the dancers, articulate their desires, and call out their names (“Olé, Sole!).
Both Jiménez and Ogalla perform new solos. The contrast between the two men is fascinating, even though, in the opening group number, Amanecer, and the closing Esta Noche No Es Mi Día, they at times perform Santangelo’s choreography in perfect unison with each other and Barrio. Jiménez begins his Solea por Bulerías as if he’s trying to sneak up on it. He’s a skinny man, and in this number he holds his arms close to his sides much of the time that his feet are building intricate rhythms, and he hunches slightly, the way you do in rain. When he does use his arms, he makes you aware of elbows; when he reaches out with the curling wrist movements typical of flamenco, he seems to cuff the air. “A ver!” says Rosendo (“Show us!” or maybe “Look at that!”). Once, Jiménez cuts loose, stands erect, and tears around the space like a rooster kicking up dirt. Then pain narrows him again.
Ogalla attacks his Farruca with bigger, bolder steps; he strikes out into a deep lunge, holds it, suddenly switches it 180 degrees; perhaps an invisible adversary has tapped his shoulder. You’re drawn in by the elaborate chatter of his heelwork, but sometimes he quiets his feet to sweeping, dragging movements. With his erect bearing and craggy face, he rides the dancing as if it’s something he has tamed, but with difficulty. In his solo, as in Ogalla’s, the interplay between music and silence, between fusillades of footwork and long, intense pauses, shapes the choreography into a conversation between the performer and himself and a series of questions posed to us.
Everything that the marvelous Barrio does probes deeply into the musical nuances of the cante jondo and the ache that Florido’s voice labors to expel. In Alégrias, a duet she choreographed for herself and Ogalla, she yearns within its happy tempo, flirts, and queries her partner’s more obdurate stances. When you experience her devastating Siguiriya, a dance form with links to mourning, that almost untranslatable word duende comes to mind; something dark and wild possesses her. She walks onstage, wearing a dull-purple skirt and a simple black silk blouse with a simulated shawl as its collar. The singers, clapping, hem her in; she spreads her arms in one terse gesture, and they fall silent. For a few charged moments, she directs her dancing at a rectangle of light, then embarks on a voyage through seas of feeling—now brooding over something unnamable dredged from the music, now exploding in flurries of motion.
Barrio makes you aware that, above its moodily virtuosic, down-driving feet, flamenco is an art of curves. Her arms and fluent hands sculpt arcs and circles around her. Her torso forms spirals as she turns. When she draws herself up, pauses, and sinks into a plié—both an exhalation and a gathering of force—the simple action becomes momentous. Like all great artists, she is without pretense. Her body is her soul’s instrument, ensnared by the music, and we’re fortunate to be in the same space with her.