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Eva Yerbabuena Flamenco

All About Eva

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 28, 2004 -- Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

One of flamenco’s most popular stars, Eva Yerbabuena took the stage last week at Cal Performances with her company of four musicians, three cantaors, and five dancers, in a show that smouldered, if in a somewhat studied way.

As flamenco is enjoying a revival of interest in the mainstream appetite, the Andalusian Yerbabuena is reaching a new height of popularity. Last January in Seville, auditions for her company drew over 150 hopefuls -- numbers unheard of for a small traditional troupe that mainly showcases Yerbabuena herself.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, given that she is a bailaor of traditional sensibilities who is nevertheless still seeking out new paths for flamenco to tread. Yerbabuena does not espouse the showy cabaret style of flamenco, which is often as much about the pretty costumes and painted fans as it is about the dancing.  Instead, her style is more austere, though theatrical, and it rides the edge between tablao and performance art.

That severe theatricality was evident from the outset, as the eponymously titled "Eva" opened with the star draped in a chair beside a Victrola on a twilit stage.  As she began to move, she unveiled a dynamical contrast between the snaking arms and quick staccato changes which never looked forced.

At the conclusion of her introduction, cantaors Enrique Soto, Pepe de Pura, and Segundo Falcon emerged from the smoky darkness in a kind of ritualistic call, the curtain rose on a line of musicians in the back, and the rest of the company appeared one by one.

With the women dressed in black pants and tops and the men in dark pants and vests, the company had a clean, modern look, but -- in what emerged as the theme and the sticking point for me throughout the evening -- the very staged arrangement smacked of artificiality. There was no room for the wild spontaneity of a Carmen Amaya or Farruquito.  Near the end of the show the dancers would perform the Malacatin with such unnerving unison and uniformity of style that they seemed untouchable rather than earthy.

The impression may be enhanced by the fact that -- as is her due as the headliner -- Yerbabuena saves the most dramatic turns for herself.  In "Torre de la Vela," Yerbabuena dances a granaina in a white dress with a cathedral-length train of ruffles that she gives a life and mobility of its own with her deft, measured kicks.  Twists and ripples through her body resonated somehow through the skirt as if it were an extension of the arc of her limbs.   It was the sort of illusion that you knew took extreme effort in order to be subtle.

In fact, throughout the show, Jimena San Ramon's chic costumes lent an impeccable sleekness to the overall impression. In the seguirilla, the women wore black dresses with a blood red underskirt that added a sexy sway to their hips.

Like acolytes, the group disappeared seemingly at a glance from Eva, and she took the stage for her third solo, "Del Puente." The defining quality of Yerbabuena's dancing is her control, which is impressive, and yet also robs us of the sense that both she and her audience could be surprised by where the dance takes us. Even when her hair flies out of its neat chignon, you have the sense that it does so exactly when she wants it to.

Nevertheless, she is a refined performer, and her articulated footwork elucidates the complex rhythmic structures and the very act of dancing seemed to have charged her with energy.  The show ended, as it had begun, with Yerbabuena alone in the pool of light beside the record player, but even after spending an evening with her, I left not feeling I knew her any more than I did at the start.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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