Flamenco may have regional roots in southern Spain, but today its success is international. Japan, for example, boasts 175 schools that teach flamenco, with 112 in Tokyo alone. If you exclude Spain, that’s more than the rest of the world together. According to Miguel Marin, director of the Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival, flamenco also goes down differently in different countries. France, for example, has had much more exposure than the UK, and is more open to a variety of styles and interpretations. Britain, on the other hand, Britain, on the other hand, seems to prefer flamenco for cultural traditionalists – or for cultural tourists.
Marin’s festival programme is at least partly a response to this climate, providing a window on the diversity of current flamenco practice. But there’s one central question that faces all the practitioners for such a platform: how to make flamenco work on the theatre stage. Flamenco dance evolved into a highly articulate and mostly solo style with well-defined palos (the traditional numbers, such as the bulerías, the soleá and so on), and which stresses the individual performer as interpreter and exponent. It was interesting to see how the different companies dealt with adapting this style to the constraints and possibilities of the proscenium theatre.
The festival opener neatly illustrated the dilemma by falling between two stools
The festival opener, Four Elements, neatly illustrated the dilemma by falling between two stools. In essence, it is a series of solos, and indeed Marin’s initial idea was simply a gala showcase to highlight the individual qualities of its four dancers – veteran Carmen Cortés, the younger but well established Alejandro Granados and Carlos Rodríguez, and twenty-year-old newcomer Rocío Molina. But then the show was given a ‘concept’ (the four elements) for thematic unity, and self-conscious transitional numbers for dramatic continuity. Molina duly wears a sea-blue dress with white ruffles for surf, Rodríguez a sleek white suit for air; Granados is in russet red for earth while Cortés drips with flame-red tassles tipped in yellow. There are abstract, almost Rothkoesque projections, again in appopriate colours, and, more literally, there’s a seashell from which Molina pours water and a mound of grit which Granados sifts through his fingers. It all serves to over-egg the thematic pudding and distract from the fine solos. Molina is a sunnily sensual and curvaceous dancer, a contrast to Cortés whose haughty kick and killer gaze can spark fireworks. Granados is the rawest performer: even in his tailored shoes he seems rough-shod. Rodríguez is the lightest and smoothest. His fleet strides skim the floor, and he can spin as effortlessly as a skater. It’s a shame that the concept is simply a coathanger on which to hang their solos – and intrusive at that.
Like Four Elements Sara Baras’s Sueños is also a sequence of separate numbers, but here it hits a near perfect balance between an exhibition of traditional flamenco and a spectacle designed for the modern stage. Baras is a consummate and thoroughly professional dancer who has also been a poster girl and a catwalk model – and it shows. Her costumes are classy enough for cocktails, and she knows exactly how best to present her dancers with simple but dramatic lighting, clear compositions and a varied, well-paced programme of dance and music.
In the soleá, a phalanx of women glisten with funereal beauty as they stalk the stage in ruffled dresses as dark and glossy as ravens, unfurling their shawls like ominous black wings. Baras and José Serrano dance the jaleo: a slow, courtly circling that gives way to strident clapping and a rattlingly brilliant finale. The powerful centrepiece is the farruca, traditionally a male preserve. In a trouser suit and bolero jacket, Baras takes command of the stage in a tense solo of inexorable builds and sudden freezes. It’s not just her prodigious technical skill that make this a star turn – she also has tremendous presence, holding a pose for an age without it becoming lifeless, imbuing a simple lift of an arm with drama. Nothing else quite matches the farruca for sheer magnetism, and it casts a long shadow over the second half of the show, from which it only emerges towards the end as Baras, a phoenix in red and gold, grows playful with the musicians and the audience, both teasing her public and warming to them.
Baras, a phoenix in red and gold, grows playful with the musicians and the audience, both teasing her public and warming to them
Her dancers too are all technically disciplined and physically eloquent. The live music, incorporating elements of jazz and folk, is less traditional than the dance but is nevertheless perfectly orchestrated to the theatrical spectacle, pared down to simple voice or percussion when needed and with effective use of silence. Sueños is a thoroughly professional work that combines spirited intensity with theatrical class.
So too does Eva Yerbabuena’s 5 Women 5, but in an utterly different way. Of all the festival pieces, this goes furthest in creating a unified drama. Yerbabuena presents a portrait of a woman consumed by different emotions – loneliness, love, ambition and madness. As with Four Elements, the concept provides continuity to the different sections, but here it is absolutely intrinsic to the piece, albeit occasionally schematic in its realisation. And whereas Sueños is directed outwards towards the audience, 5 Women 5 aims to draw them into the interior world depicted on stage. It opens with Yerbabuena in an armchair, accompanied by a solo soprano singer, a figure who reappears between the sections like the manifestation of an inner voice. Four women in white appear and circle Yerbabuena; in canon they briefly flick one leg and extend a questioning arm towards her. In a sparse, elemental style that delineates the turn of a head, the twist of shoulders, the angle of an arm – she duets with each of them, like a slow dialogue of separation, confrontation and merging between different aspects of her self.
The following episodes give voice to these different aspects. Yerbabuena reaches out and then retreats to the corners of the stage, then takes the spotlight in a pithy footwork solo. She tugs one limp arm in the direction of her step, as if alienated from her own body. In each scene the overwhelming sense is of isolation: the men and women duet with each other, or form forbidding, impersonal groupings through which Yerbabuena wanders, excluded. It is her jacket that symbolises her most intimate human contact – the crumpled and squeezed to her chest like a lost lover or cradled like a baby. In the final scene, she wraps herself into a a black jacket studded with silver, like a layer of soft armour.
With its hauntingly moody music by Paco Jarana, 5 Women 5 is a sombre, introspective work with none of the flash more commonly associated with flamenco spectacles. But as with most flamenco shows, the group compositions are overly reliant on unisons and canons patterned in strictly geometrical figures, and the chorus itself is underused – though Yerbabuena herself is a stunningly charismatic performer who nevertheless eschews displays of brilliance for their own sake. The audience, unused to this, kept trying to applaud, but the work is not composed of numbers: the choreography serves the dramatic concept.
The reverse is true for Miguel Ángel Berna’s Mudéjar, a straightforward sequence of numbers which alternates solos for Berna with ensemble pieces for his five-woman chorus, and a central duet for Berna and Maite Bajo. Mudéjar is the name given to the Moors who remained in Spain after the fifteenth-century Reconquista by the Catholic Kings, and also designates a style – principally architectural – which mixed Islamic and Christian influences. Berna’s show is, appropriately, a mixture of styles, predominantly from Spanish folk dance, but also with influences from ballet, jazz and flamenco (all hybrid styles themselves). It makes extensive use of castanets – drilled unison for the ensemble pieces, clickety conversation for the duet. Berna himself is a debonair dancer, with long lunges and neat heel-and-toe footwork, and he comes into his own during a solo towards the end of the show. Mostly though, the show can’t quite decide whether to go for a Joaquin Cortés or a Michael Flatley effect. And though it is gratifying to be able to see (and hear) that there is much more to Spanish dance than just flamenco, the folk style doesn’t have the dramatic force to fill the stage, and the choreography for the women’s dances is merely pleasant filler, more style than substance. Mudéjar is too often simply easy on the eye, relying on dramatic lighting, the ubiquitous gusts of dry ice, and flattering costumes – the women swivelling in clingy low-slung gowns, Berna strutting in tightly tailored pants and vest.
The most traditional and, on its own terms, arguably the most successful of the pieces was Flamenco de Cámara, which headlined singer Mayte Martín and dancer Belén Maya. This is a chamber work which gives ample space to the soloists as interpreters and exponents: singer, dancer, guitarists and violinist all take turns in the spotlight. Martín, dressed in a man’s suit, has a sure, charismatc voice that plays sinuously and bewitchingly about the words, stretching them into arabesque vocal cadenzas. Maya imparts a different mood to each of her solos – desolate, resolute, joyous – and in each she articulates clearly how she phrases the dance to the music, and composes those phrases in the dance. It’s a pleasure to watch the composition unfold, just as it is to see the staccato zigzag of her shoulders, the spinning kicks she gives to the train of her dress, the poised twists and sinuous curves of her torso. Cámara means chamber, and this is indeed a chamber piece – the shame is only that it would have been more intimate in a small studio than in a large auditorium, in which it had to amplify the sound.
One thing encapsulates the various shows' attitudes towards the theatre stage: the encores.
One thing encapsulates the various shows’ attitudes towards the theatre stage: the encores. Four Elements had an upbeat, crowd-rousing display by all the dancers, Mudéjar a flashy solo by Berna (the women don’t get a look-in). In Sueños, the women rushed off for a profligate costume change five minutes before the end, reappearing in swishy rainbow gowns and adding a splash of carnival colour to the encore, in which the musicians strutted their stuff, egged on happily by both dancers and audience. Flamenco de Cámara had a similar encore – no less rousing for the audience but much more subdued in performance style – which allowed all the performers (musicians included) a little solo number. Yerbabuena’s curtain-call was the most powerful and certainly produced the most divided response. Surrounded by four musicians clapping out the rhythm, she hammered out some jittery footwork before edging slowly off stage, chest and arms lifted as if letting herself be filled with some divine spirit. There were no flamenco fireworks, and she didn’t play to her audience – but her sparse, brooding gestures gathered an aura of elemental force about her, like thunderclouds.
This flamenco festival certainly included something for everyone, and the series amply demonstrates the artists’ struggles and successes in mounting their shows for the stage. Purists may decry some of the results, but it’s worth remembering that flamenco itself is an impure art, evolving and adapting over the centuries to different cultural influences and performance contexts. And besides, for a tradition to allow diversity and experiment – even (perhaps especially) dissent – is surely a sign of its own vigour. In the UK, similar debates between classicists and innovators have raged over South Asian dance and its outgrowths. But they have, I think, recognised to some degree (just as the ballet and contemporary dance camps have) that the argument is a false one: it’s not only possible for them to co-exist, but can be positively beneficial for them to cross-fertilise. Still, I’ve yet to see flamenco produce anything as radically individual as, for example, Akram Khan or Shobana Jeyasingh. Traditionalists may say that flamenco, in adapting to the modern stage, has strayed too far from its roots. On the evidence of this festival, I’d say there’s plenty of scope for wandering – and would encourage it to go a lot further.