At Flamenco Festival, Finding the Force Beneath the Glitz
Everyone wants to think of flamenco as bubbling over with spontaneity, urgency and authenticity. Yet most of the flamenco that gets exported to us from Spain arrives intensely packaged with elaborate lighting, fancy costume changes and star personalities. Is Andalusia being evoked — or Las Vegas? Any evidence of the tradition’s raw vitality seems to have reached us through a net.
And flamenco dancing has so strong an element of narcissism that, even with the finest exponents, it often borders on the ridiculous. There are always extended bouts of glamorous preening: The dance luminary, body arched like a bullfighter or a bow stretched for archery, keeps one or both arms raised to show his or her thorax to best advantage. Forty years ago, many used to laugh at the way the ballet star Rudolf Nureyev use to pose, glare and manipulate his ovations. But many of today’s flamenco stars go beyond Nureyev in their magnificently mannered stage comportment. Then, when a dance phrase comes — like lightning from a blue sky — it sometimes lasts less than 10 seconds, but even so its bravura invites a wave of applause.
At New York’s Flamenco Festival, you may be sure that applause comes on cue. Even New York City Center, where I attended two flamenco performances last weekend, quickly becomes like a flamenco club. Members of the public cry out “Olé!” and more (invariably in Spanish) to the performers.
Nureyev came to mind on Sunday when Jesús Carmona danced. Those prolonged and statuesque pauses, those coolly regal waits before acknowledging applause! As the show progressed, however, Mr. Carmona started to emerge as a quite different character. He started to grin, and to show signs — rare in this genre — of dancing for fun. He led a small company (five musicians, five dancers): Once he began to have a good time, so did they.
Flamenco takes off when it seems spontaneous. On Friday, Eva Yerbabuena’s show, “Carne y Hueso,” or “Flesh and Bone” — “a stripped down and honest revelation of the vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of flamenco” — featured a hierarchy of singers, musicians and dancers, some of them very fine. But with Ms. Yerbabuena as queen bee, community feeling was never on display. The production included a coyly doleful sub-Chaplin clown figure who put on a red nose now and then, but that was about as vulnerable as the show got. And the complicated, rapidly changing grid patterns created by Fernando Martín’s overhead lighting took flamenco as far from its Gypsy origins as possible.
The audience loved everything — and loved Ms. Yerbabuena most. The production’s choreographer and the only woman onstage, she used five supporting male dancers who often appeared bare-chested. She, at her most gracious and skillful, did a great deal with shawls. But you could believe that, as the program says, she first formed an independent flamenco company in 1998. For her, everything seemed to be happening for the thousandth time.
Mr. Carmona’s show, “Ímpetus,” suffered from the same overproduction. Some sections featured a scrim, with Mr. Carmona in front and his colleagues behind; others presented Mr. Carmona as just one of the troupe. Lighting, by David Pérez, often gave absurd emphasis to the slightest change of personnel onstage, as when one woman left the stage (sudden darkness on that side before her exit) and then, a few seconds later, returned with castanets (whereupon the stage light was transformed).
But whereas Ms. Yerbabuena’s production values express the often synthetic nature of her presentation, Mr. Carmona’s merely distract from the force of his dance theater. In his early 30s, he contains a number of contradictions. His troupe is called Ballet Flamenco Jesús Carmona, and it’s not hard to identify several ballet-derived ingredients — as in the partnering, arm positions and lightness of one male-female pas de deux. Nonetheless, Mr. Carmona’s general emphasis is brilliantly percussive, his rhythms often develop an exciting irregularity, and, though he uses the upper body well (both in his own dancing and his colleagues’), he usually avoids any balletic refinement. He’s fond of series of rapid single pirouettes, but one of his fortes is the way he does these with his torso thrillingly angled way off the vertical.
A detail that increasingly entranced me was the simplicity of Mr. Carmona’s hands. Often, keeping wrists, thumbs and palms still, he would just move the four fingers softly to the beat: a wonderfully gentle effect from a dancer who at first seemed so flamboyant. Too many flamenco dancers keep proclaiming themselves, but Mr. Carmona mainly dances as if driven by a larger — and sometimes sweet — force. His dancing contains both thunder and fire; yet he and his colleagues can also be blithe, like a breeze on a sunny spring day.