Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; March 1-14, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Sara Baras: La Pepa; March 1

Sara Baras in 'La Pepa'.  Photo © Santana de Yepes

Sara Baras in ‘La Pepa’.
Photo © Santana de Yepes

“How do you dance a constitution?” asks Sara Baras. How indeed. “La Pepa” does not even begin to solve this poser.

Flamenco does not have the rage of expression required to convey detailed narrative. It is an intimate art, derived for private gatherings and cafe culture. Whilst it can translate well into theatre it can easily subside into a hollow spectacle. The only time I have seen narrative flamenco work was with Lorca’s “House of Bernada Alba” where it was ideally suited to strongly drawn characters and a suffocating, claustrophobic setting.

“La Pepa” suffers from several flaws: it attempts to describe an episode of history that is little known outside of Spain (and possibly not that well known within it) and that, from the start, is littered by visual and stylistic clichés. A few bangs and flashes in no way convey a sense of the terrors of battle at the beginning and the aim seems to be more about the showiness of the choreography than in advancing the plot. The major problem however, is that this is really the Sara Baras show. That works well enough if that is all that is aimed for but it is simply not effective to try and tell a tale that is constantly interrupted by the diva fronting a line-up of devoted chorus members. Baras herself is all technique and ego and looks as incongruous in the setting at Kchessinskaya must have done dancing “Giselle” whilst wearing her diamonds.

The audience of fans screamed, shouted and whistled at the end of every phrase and there is no doubt that Baras is a master technician with thundering (heavily over-amplified) zapateado. This quickly palls though and provides an experience that is all bluster and no substance. It did not help that the curtain was 45 minutes late in going up which clearly wound some people up into a frenzy of excitement but left me feeling drained and empty.

Miguel Poveda in Concert; March 4

Miguel Poveda.  Photo © Maxi del Campo

Miguel Poveda.
Photo © Maxi del Campo

Miguel Poveda is one of the rising talents in the flamenco world with an impressive string of credits to his name and a youthful appearance that belies his experience. He has an easy command of the stage born of a solid grounding in peñas gained as soon as his voice matured, yet there is none of the ego of Baras. This is a collective effort with some terrific support from his musicians that ensconces the holy trinity of flamenco firmly in its hierarchy: first is the cante, second the music and third dance.

There were one or two numbers, mostly chico and a more effective bata de cola item evoking a waterfall danced by La Lupa. Some of her efforts were however rather vulgar and looked old fashioned rather than traditional. No matter, this was an evening for music.

As seems to be the case with all of the performances in this season, there was the usual entourage of roaring, whistling aficionados but even they quietened down faced with the quality and depth of the performance on the stage. Poveda has a medium tenor voice that is not the most powerful, but it does have a terrific colour palette and an impressive range of expression that encompasses chico and hondo apparently effortlessly. His solea was the highlight of the evening and in itself would have made the price of admission worthwhile. He has an assured command of breath and phrasing, but does not shy away from using snatched, shallow breaths as a form of expression upon occasion, evoking an almost visceral emotion. His stage presence creates an atmosphere of intimacy that is not easy to achieve on the Sadler’s Wells stage as he undertook a musical journey across Spain, evoking regional styles in his choice of song but never losing sight of the cante roots. The tiento at the end was an apt illustration that traditional need not be dated.

He was aided by simple, unfussy staging but yet again, the volume was not only too loud but made him sound at times as if his head were in a bucket whilst the hyped-up sound also reverberated against the metal cladding in the auditorium. He sensibly pulled away from his microphone as often as possible to mitigate the over-amplification but the guitarist was not so enabled. I long to hear these musicians in a peña with natural sound, in which case it would be a matchless evening indeed.

Ángel Múñoz: From White To Black; March 9

Ángel Múñoz in 'From White to Black'.  Photo © Daniel M Pantiga

Ángel Múñoz in ‘From White to Black’.
Photo © Daniel M Pantiga

Angel Múñoz is as lithe as an osier with an incredibly strong back that, coupled with an innate grace, gives him braceo to die for. Alas, we only had glimpses of this as the emphasis was on the staging and effects – and how odd they were.

It seemed as if Múñoz lacked confidence in flamenco to stand on its merits as an art form. The result was an uncomfortable attempt at fusion between electronic music and jazz with traditional flamenco. The snippets of weird, electronic music that opened and closed the programme could have come from a dystopian sci-fi film of the 1960s with a slow, pounding beat in the latter that made me feel as if I had bradycardia. Although jazz and flamenco could claim a shared background (music born of poverty, tragedy and alienation from the mainstream), the jazz, mostly from various woodwinds was simply horribly anachronistic. The clarinet sounded like a train smash of Klezmer and flamenco and the saxophone screeched. There was much use of flutter-tonguing on the flute to no great advantage and the harmonica was just plain weird in this context: even Larry Adler would have hesitated to venture into this territory. Cante was reduced to a basic roar, with little subtlety and the guitar was too loud.

Múñoz demonstrated some interesting choreographic ideas that never really had the chance to develop. He was not helped by the fact that the more delicate footwork was (you’ve guessed it) a victim of the over-amplification which is all about emphasising zapateado so often, all that could be heard was a loud scraping. There was an excellent farruca towards the end that really deserved to be in the traditional setting of a peña with natural sound and no odd musical intrusions.

This programme seemed to demonstrate the absolute limits of flamenco nuevo as the flamenco itself became subsumed in the seeming relentless drive for novelty. From being an art form that expressed the hardships and difficulty of the life of the gitanos, chiefly through song and then through music and dance, we are now subject to a programme that muses on the origins and meaning of the dancer’s name! Such navel-gazing can surely only lead to an artistic and creative dead end and abandon performers’ talent to a fruitless setting.

Flamenco Gala; March 11th

Mercedes Ruiz, Marco Flores, Laura Rozal and Olga Pericet. Photo © Javier Fergo

Mercedes Ruiz, Marco Flores, Laura Rozal and Olga Pericet.
Photo © Javier Fergo

This was a somewhat more introspective gala than in previous years, a self-consciously theatrical evening that had a vague theme of seasons. The setting was plain with a variety of lights flown in and out and a semi-circle of black chairs – nothing to get in the way of the dance or to distract from the music.

Taking a leaf out of the contemporary dance manual however, the evening opened with Laura Rozalén working in silence. She has exquisite filigrana and graceful braceo which was all the more absorbing for being executed without music. It quietened the audience down for once too. All too often the now clichéd silent opening leaves the audience squirming in discomfort with the added disadvantage that they are acutely audible too. Rozalén has sufficient stage presence to mesmerise and draw them deeper and deeper into engagement as her fingers circle and curl in an invocation of flamenco history and legacy.

Olga Pericet then made an entrance in a stunning blue dress to dance with Marco Flores. This was a less effective number that was reminiscent of Argentinian tango in the way that the relationship was depicted and that was superficially fiery without really igniting the passions.

Mercedes Ruiz was a little firecracker with an admirable bata de cola technique that kept one on the edge of the seat – I was sure that her tail was either going to spin round and kick her behind or throttle her when she gathered it up to display zapateado, but no.

The evening ended with a mini peña-style section that added needed pep and a little chico to a mostly contemplative gala.

There was a theme of dancers freezing (or in some cases wobbling) in a pose at the conclusion of their piece which milked applause, but was mannered and irritating. Maybe this added to the 20 minute over run that, in addition to a 10 minute delay at the start, led to the last 15 minutes being accompanied by banging seats and interrupted views as people left to catch transport. Perhaps performers think that the generally poor timekeeping that we have seen in this festival adds a dash of the mañana spirit. That may be appropriate were we all in sunny Spain on holiday with all the time in the world, but it is less charming when transport has been planned on the basis of the published running time.

Farruquito; March 14

Farruquito.  Photo © Sophie Mhlenburg

Farruquito.
Photo © Sophie Mhlenburg

If Juan Manuel Fernández Montoya (Farruquito) were eligible to compete at Crufts he would secure a Championship Certificate on his pedigree alone. Steeped in Flamenco puro since birth, he has been performing since childhood and has worked with many of the greats of el mundo flamenco. Like Angel Múñoz, he is a team player and this is very much a collective effort between him and his excellent musicians. He dominates the stage without being egotistical and hogging the limelight or milking the applause.

Talking of limelight, the lighting was particularly effective with some nifty follow spot work and interesting patches of orange or white light that caught Farruquito in surprising places. He moves like a startled crab between zapateado, popping up unexpectedly and always catching his light.

He has curiously delicate braceo that wafts like an afterthought to the powerful footwork, taking the eye line up and out like a puff of smoke dissipating in the atmosphere. Actually, smoke is often overused in lighting but here it evoked a peña, still surely one of the last bastions of indoor chain smoking. and assisted in creating an atmosphere of intimacy.

This was flamenco pura at its very best, each item segueing neatly in a meld that slid by in no time and far from the hysteria that has greeted some of the performers and which drives duende out of the door.

Final thoughts

The 2014 Flamenco Festival has showcased a range of internationally-renowned artists that are a world away from the standards seen at the previous incarnation of Sadler’s Wells a quarter of a century ago. “All spots and stamping” pretty much summed it up as flamenco swapped the peña and tourist café for the stage. Styles that had changed little in twenty years began to embrace nuevo and we seem to be coming out the other side as the pendulum swings slowly back to the traditional with the new generation of performers. In a week that saw the sudden and comparatively early death of Paco de Lucia, we can only be grateful that there is a rising tide of younger performers eager to embrace the genre and that they are so happy to tour. What the following months and years will bring in terms of style remains to be seen.