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Flamenco Festival USA: Farruquito and Juana Amaya

'Por Derecho'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 15, 2003 – Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

It would be hard to convey the enormity of the excitement and exhilaration generated by last weekend’s performance of Andalucian flamenco puro exponents Farruquito and Juana Amaya at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. To say that it was larger than life is certainly an understatement, as would be to say that the audience nearly exploded with fanatical fervor not only at the end, but at every turn.

The flamenco term “duende” refers to the transportation that one experiences in the presence of performers who have released themselves completely to the music and the dance. If anyone attending this show had never experienced duende before, this was it.

The 20-year old Farruquito has risen to prominence in an era that loves youthful stars, especially brooding, dark young men with pop star good looks and a slightly forbidding manner. With all the hype that has surrounded this tour -- which features him, along with the flamenco legend, Juana Amaya, as well as Farruquito’s 14-year old brother, Farruco -- I went into the show with just a tinge of fear that perhaps we were in for a sort of stripped-down, artsy American Idol.

From the first moments, however, as promised, there was nothing but pure, passionate flamenco of the highest order. Although a certain amount of self-conscious showmanship inevitably entered into their performances, these three dancers, joined later by Pepe Torres, strove to dance the most essential and raw version of flamenco possible for such a large venue.

The curtain rose on the standard setting for a tablao, chairs for the musicians (guitars, cajón and most importantly, singers, or cantaors) a few mikes and monitors, and that was all. It was a clean unvarnished look, at once establishing the necessary intimacy for a very large space and throwing the performers into high relief.

One by one, each dancer entered accompanied by a singer, and each appeared driven into the dance by their own personal voice. Farruco, who looks as mature as any dancer twice his age, had a young man’s attack and swagger, while his brother appeared perhaps a bit more tenebrous, as if the shadow of his father’s death two years ago still hangs over him. Standing almost between them, or perhaps over them, was the great Juana Amaya, whose seething fierceness was barely contained behind her considerable pride and strength.

When the three stood together onstage, there was an enormous temptation to look immediately for a story, but in the purest flamenco, there is no need to tell a tale in order to express something. The martinete that brought them onstage may have been evocative, but we needed to know no more information than this to understand that a lifetime of experience -- whether fourteen or forty years – shaped their dance.

Martha Graham once said, “The body says what words cannot.” It is a sentiment which undoubtedly Amaya understood. With one sharp glance at the audience, she gave notice to us that she had more than a few things to say. A stride upstage while pushing her hair out of her eyes was punctuated by taconeo that hit us like a rap on the knuckles, “Are you listening to me? And another thing…!” The high carriage of her body and dangerously sinuous arms, along with the manner in which she devoured space and demanded our undivided attention made her far more than compelling.

Each salida had the same barely arrogant feel to the exit, “That’s all we have to say. Do as you want!” As if they gave a snap of the fingers and then disappeared into the wings.

In the face of this trio, Pepe Torres came across as a genial guy who had wandered into the wrong camp. His technique is no less impressive however, and his way of cutting across the stage in wide swaths in the bulería added a lightness to the proceedings.

A fiery “young-man-on-the-prowl” rondeña for Amaya and Farruquito was perhaps the closest they got to telling a story. The rondeña often has overtones of romanticism, and Farruquito grandly consummated the interlude by tearing off his suit jacket and wrapping it both tenderly and triumphantly around Amaya’s shoulders.

But no true flamenco experience concentrates on the dancers to the exclusion of the musicians. In an intermezzo, Manuel Soler entered the stage alone with his cajón and marked out a contemplative solo rhythmically and spatially with understated style. For their part, guitarists Raúl El Perla, Paco Fernández and Román Vicente remained in the shadows mostly, but left a huge impression for their skill and sensitivity.

Of the singers, possibly the most affecting is Enrique El Extremeño, whose voice evoked complex emotions and seemed to speak most directly to the dancers. Nevertheless, although José Valencia has not the earthy afillá of El Extremeño, his singing for Farruquito’s soléa sent chills down the spine. And singing to Amaya in her soléa Valencia seemed almost to goad her into deeply thrilling outbursts. Her hair flew about her face with every hard-bitten response to his calls and her inhumanly fast footwork, those terribly refined rolls of the wrist, and a flick as she tossed aside her red scarf in her salida, left the stamp of indescribable hauteur.

By the finale, the whole troupe had worked themselves and the audience into a frenzy that was not easily calmed. To the delight of onlookers, Farruco passed the microphones that had been carefully taped down on the stage to dance on the wooden apron that covered the orchestra pit. And during his exuberant solo, Farruquito became so excited he nearly danced himself into the musicians. Guitarists scattered as he balanced on the precipice, and recovered, showing that none of them were afraid to dance to the edge, that they had absolutely no fear of falling.

Pity the people who scurried up the aisle in an effort to beat the crowds to the parking lot as the applause began: they missed the best part. The official program may have been completed, but the dancers and musicians were not done.

A juerga, a kind of jam session, ensued with the company sitting on the wooden apron again, messing around with each other with teasing familiarity and camaraderie. Apparently no one wanted it to end.

They got up in a group and danced up the aisle to the enthusiastic rhythm of the audience clapping, and then reappeared in the boxes, crossed the stage and at last disappeared.

If we could have, we would have kept them there all night.

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