It is perhaps no surprise that the music for a theatrical program like Flamenco Vivo, fronted by an esteemed musician such as Paco Peña, should prove to be as grand as it was on Saturday’s performance. But the visual magic for the evening clearly belonged to the dancing and the presentation of FLAMENCO VIVO, which was powerful but artfully understated at the same time. Using a bare stage, evocative lighting effects, three dancers and an ensemble of six musicians, this current touring program under the direction of Mr. Peña was a model of economy, staging and design. It delivered flamenco to the big stage but also gave you much of the feeling of the intimate and interior environments where the real flamenco has always flourished. You could feel by the end of FLAMENCO VIVO ‘s two acts that you knew these people and what they were capable of as musicians and dancers.
The program follows a fairly predictable of alternation of ensemble pieces, duos, solos and interludes featuring the music without dancers. But the pacing, the subtle shifts of mood and especially Peña’s reserved presence at the helm of the music, also made something elegant and true from flamenco’s portable, integrated structure. This was not a program that leaned heavily on the improvisatory nature of either the dancing or the playing. The ensemble dancing was at times full of unison movement while the complex accompaniments and featured instrumentals gave the feeling of compositions well considered and fused to the movement with a clear sense of calculation. This was not exactly Lorca’s jerez-fueled bar packed with gypsies dancing and rapping on table tops, but still, something very real and as stage versions go, it delivered an intimate effect with measures of reserve and extroversion.
We got an early taste of Peña as the guitar soloist in his Grana’ina after the opening full company Fandango. He played beautifully with a light, intense tremolo and swinging sections that show him as a tasteful and even reserved soloist. For the remainder of the program it is mostly everyone else who is front and center. All of the instrumental sections were set up well down stage so we didn’t have to gaze over vast empty spaces to get at the music. The sound was present but avoided the temptation for over amplification. For the dancing the musicians were seated mid stage with the dancers well forward. It was all thoughtful staging. The lighting,initially in silhouette against and ever changing colored cyclorama, gradually introduced moody if sometimes overly darkened tableaus. Especially striking was the thick, blue and white lighting for the Act Two Zapateado in which the stage seem to float during the footwork duel between the two male dancers, Ángel Muñoz and Ramon Martinez.
The choreography for the ensemble sections was created by Fran Espinosa, a Cordoban, along with Peña,Muñoz and others in the company. His work emphasized unisons but also traveling patterns which skillfully positioned the dancers and moved them in patterns that were unusual for flamenco. This was particularly true of the section that concludes with the Farruca and the Act One Soleá, which finishes with Muñoz isolated in a shadowy down pool of light, kneeling, arms raised and head thrown back. The opening Fandango also cleverly alternated solos for the three dancers that were linked to each of the three guitarists. The Soleá finishes with the trio in an intertwining knot of arms and bodies as the lights fade. These are, of course, theatrical effects well outside the ken of traditional flamenco but Peña and Espinosa are also pointing the way to a modern understanding of flamenco for the stage, as well as referencing the juerga and the informal traditional contexts of authentic flamenco.
Each of the three dancers offers us something unique. Muñoz is a weighty dancer. He brings plenty of grounded action and virtuosity. His heel beats not only are fierce but vibrate upward through his body in a manner that takes you by surprise. The lone female, Charo Espino was forceful in the ensemble sections but was also stylish in the second act Alegria. She made the most of a backward-arching carriage and canting shoulders in the Alegria and in her brief solo before the men’s Farruca. She is also accomplished on the castañuelos and accompanied Peña with wit in their delightful conversational Zorongo in Act One. Martinez is a lighter dancer. His multiple turns and balanced endings were always convincing. He was excellent in his lengthy solo which moves from pose to pose under down pools of white light. It had a contemporary appeal both as dance and theater. Much of it took place in silence and showed that his ability was not limited to fast feet and standard gesture. They were, I think, an ideal trio.
The costuming tended in the direction of modernity. The men, attired throughout in dark suits or vests, played well against Espino’s striking dresses. Her stretchy burgundy dress in the finale for Act Two had a flamenco for downtown look. And the spectacular dress with tiers of hot colors and a cool blue border for the Alegria was imaginative and hip, making a clear connection between the joyous content and visual style.
The only distractions to the evening came in the sound engineering mishaps which failed to control singer Immaculada Rivero’s powerful, keening voice. Often her voice and palmas covered the percussive footwork. Tamer but more interesting was the singing of Jesús Corbacho, who did not have to wail and gesture frantically to get his point across. The taut but natural melismas in his vocal accompaniments were something distinctive. The remaining musicians were percussionist Diego Alvarez ( cajon and dumbek) who it prefers to play barefoot, and guitarists Paco Arriaga and Rafael Montilla.
The evening ended with the traditional,thronging processional off and resounding applause. With all members of the company stripped of their performance roles and the musicians unplugged, they engaged in a brief improvised and compact finale with the solid but agile Rivero taking a turn as dancer. It was the one moment not weighed down by theatrical formality; it took you back to the basics of flamenco’s instinctual social beginnings.