Hurrahs and oles all round!
Sadler's Wells Flamenco Season
by Charlotte Kasner
February 11, 14 and 17, 2012-- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK
Flamenco Gala: flamenco for the purists, not the tourists
We may have been kept waiting for an unexplained fifteen minutes for the opening of Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Gala but the wait was well worth it.
Three of the most powerful women in flamenco, Carmen Cortes, Rafaela Carrasco and Olga Pericet have joined forces to showcase their choreography and musicians. This was largely flamenco pura with few concessions to theatre, save for the fact that the dance was to the fore. Lighting effects were minimal and costumes thankfully subdued enabling the audience to concentrate on the performance. Indeed, the audience have matured in this, the ninth flamenco festival for the Wells, and manage to create a sort of giant pena with jaleos and the odd bit of palmas. This can be quite amusing in itself, the woman next to me confusing “olé” with “hola”: the performers must have wondered why someone kept shouting “hello” at them (this seemed to be the only words that she knew, but she certainly peppered the air with them).
Technically, the performances were uniformly outstanding; zapateado, palmas and brace all stunning without being flashy. There was no mugging to the audience or even an attempt to “play outwards”; all as it should be. One brief excursion away from the traditional led to some terrific castanet playing, the percussiveness becoming downright expressive in combination with such accomplished choreography.
There was a nod to nuevo with the addition of a piano and cello which did not really sit well with the general air of the evening. Yes, the pianist and singer referred to flamenco’s golden age in cafés, but somehow the sounds jarred with traditional guitarists and singers. The same was all the more true for the cello, although the choreography worked extremely well and there is definitely something to be said for shiny flamenco boots!
As is unfortunately so often the case, it is the over-amplified sound that set the one bad note of the evening. The odd scrape of shoe nails on the floor and the slides of the guitarists became tortured fingernails down a blackboard at the volume projected into the auditorium. The piano and ‘cello may as well have been recorded as the natural sound was so distorted by the volume which often reached the pain threshold. There are electronic devices which would allow sound engineers to check this from various parts of the auditorium (please note the origins of the term) without requiring subjectivity.
Although this was a one-off, I am sure that this gala was an indication of more treats to come in the remainder of the festival. It definitely raised the bar from the "spots and stamping" of only a few years back.
Although this year’s flamenco festival is dedicated to Lorca, this evening presented the late, great Antonio Gades’ work based on Lope de Vega’s classic “Fuenteovejuna”.
Flamenco has a much smaller vocabulary than many other forms of dance and a narrative tradition of only a couple of decades and can struggle to present stories effectively. However, from the outset, this was obviously a masterpiece.
“Fuenteovejuna” opens with a work song and peasant tilling the fields. Gradually, the love between Frondoso and Laurencia is revealed, culminating in their marriage. Work and celebrations are interrupted by the local tyrant Gomez, the villagers not shy of showing their disdain behind his back in spite of their obeisance in front of it. Eventually, Gomez appears and seizes the lovers from their wedding celebrations, raping Laurencia in from of Frondoso who is tied and beaten.
The villagers take their revenge, using their field implements to murder Gomez. In the original work, the villagers’ actions are vindicated by the judge as they take collective responsibility for their actions. This is omitted in Gades’ version as the peasants return to their work in the fields and the rhythm of life continues.
The designs come via a muted, warm, autumnal palette with browns, pinks and greys, similar to a Rembrandt painting. Agriculture and laundry provide plenty opportunities for traditional flamenco as does Laurencia’s father’s assessment and ultimate approval of Frondoso. Gades melds his choreography seamlessly with the narrative needs in a true ensemble piece. Zapateado was subtle and precise and palmas exemplary. The cante was terrific and seemed totally natural in the setting, supporting the close-knit performances form the company dancers and musicians. This could have filled the theatre for a week on its own and is worthy of a wide audience.
The music, a mixture of recordings from various periods and styles and live flamenco was less successful. As at the gala, it was often over-amplified and too loud, which was particularly jarring when recorded sound was introduced. The use of familiar works didn’t quite work and made Gomez somewhat ridiculous rather than threatening.
Many people were introduced to flamenco with Gades’ “Carmen”, and “Fuenteovejuna” continued the integrity of his approach. The dance form should be safe in the hands of the foundation that he created shortly before his death so we should be able to hope for many more splendid evenings such as this.
‘A Poet in New York’
This, the penultimate offering in this year’s flamenco festival was unashamedly an in your face, fourth- wall breaking performance that centred around the dancing (and ego) of Rafael Amargo. Dancers milked the audience for applause (successfully), not least Amargo, leaving little room for introspection or duende.
The narrative was based on Lorca’s visit to New York in the fateful year of 1929, so backdrops of skyscrapers and images of his poetry being read abounded. Not having an intimate knowledge of Lorca or fluent Spanish was definitely a hindrance and, at 1 hour 45 minutes with no interval, the work was overly long. Flamenco’s technical limitations in demonstrating narrative perhaps come into play too.
The flamenco was mainly fast and furious, with plenty of chico moments to lighten the atmosphere. The concentration was on the zapateado at the expense of braceo with supportive, rather than, demonstrative palmas. There was an odd section with a dancer writhing in a tutu in shadow inside a cage of rubber strips and overtones of contemporary dance in places, but none of this detracted from the good, largely traditional, flamenco in between. It is an interesting period to illustrate, but of course impossible to ignore the benefits of hindsight given what happened in America and to Lorca.
One of the later sections comprised tientos with an excellent backdrop of writhing cigarette smoke (nota bene future designers of “Carmen”!). The multi-media effects integrated well with the work overall, although, as of earlier in the week, sound was over-amplified and singers were not always projected evenly. Two guitarists and one percussionist sounded like a full orchestra, so robust was the playing throughout. However, the musical star of the evening was undoubtedly Juan Fernandez, the flautist. Terrific jazz flute, in fact no exaggeration to say virtuoso, with a breathy, gutsy tone and fleet fingering. It was a good move to provide him with a centre stage opportunity and also apposite for setting the atmosphere for New York, whether this type of music was being played n 1929 or not.
This year’s festival has had the highest standard of dancing ever, with a mix of the best that is available and that deserves fully the excellent houses and responses. How lucky we are to have such a choice of world-class flamenco in our midst once a year; long may it reign!
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