Few performers, in any style of dance, can light up the stage with anything approaching the imperious charisma of Sara Baras. She works the stage as if she owns it – and every other stage in the world – and when Baras pushes her clenched fist into her chest to symbolically wrench out her heart and fling it into the audience, a gesture she repeats twice in the closing minutes of her extended curtain calls, it is indeed as if she means it. Baras is the people’s empress in the extended world of global flamenco.

Sara Baras © Sofia Wittert
Sara Baras
© Sofia Wittert

Born in the heart of her art, in the ancient province of Cádiz, Baras began her studies at her mother’s flamenco school, aged eight, and in the 40 years since that beginning, she has honed her technical skills to levels of expertise that seem well beyond the natural limits of human potential. It is 20 years since I first witnessed this phenomenon and, while her solo dances may now be briefer, well-managed gems enveloped within the support of an excellent ensemble of dancers and musicians, her unique capability still hypnotises through enchantment.

Baras’ command of the rhythmic discipline in both the bulería (my favourite of all the flamenco forms) and alegría – both of which come late in this programme – is elegantly authoritative, and her mesmerising capacity to control the intricate, fast footwork of the dramatic farruca remains undiminished. This extraordinary artistry creates a myriad of rhythmic patterns, sometimes through the rapid locomotion of tiny forward steps but also by slowing beats down with perfect timing and symmetry, albeit with percussive foot and heel movements that are imperceptible to the naked eye and with no discernible effort. The farruca is generally associated with male dancers but Baras’ skill seems unparalleled. While this magic is in the musicality of her feet, she is an elegant and seductive dancer, creating attractive shapes with her arms, often statuesquely utilising the fabric of her dresses and shawls (the colourful mantóns, traditional to flamenco) to finish dances with the flourish of a memorable tableau.

<i>Sombras</i> © Santana de Yepes
Sombras
© Santana de Yepes

The only potential downside to any Sara Baras show, in terms of flamenco traditionalists, is that the staging is slick enough to grace Las Vegas and Sombras is far removed from the tablao, although a semblance of that traditional structure – with supporting musicians and dancers arranged on chairs across the stage – graced the concluding numbers. Musically, Baras had brief dance conversations with an unusually eclectic range of instruments, including (separately) flute, harmonica and soprano saxophone (each played by Diego Villegas) in addition to the traditional guitars and percussion. I swear that I also heard an uncredited trombone somewhere in the mix!

Baras changes costume regularly, wearing an array of gorgeous outfits (designed by Luis F, Dos Santos) with her trademark volcano red well in evidence, starting with the elegant frock-coat of the opening number. Sombras means shadows and diverse lighting effects are integral to the show’s stylish textures with the star’s first solo – a conversation with the superb guitar-playing of Keko Baldomero – morphing into a group dance with six of her own giant shadows. The lighting designs by Óscar Gómez de los Reyes are fundamental to the theatrical drama, creating a range of floor designs – from rustic to psychedelic – and enhancing the costumes by having dancers swathed in cellular patterns and circles of light. Painted panels (by Andrés Mérida) decorate several scenes, including stylised human forms (one running man with an evil eye is the stuff of which nightmares are made).

<i>Sombras</i> © Santana de Yepes
Sombras
© Santana de Yepes

The very best inevitably draw other exceptional talents to them, and the supporting dancers (two men and four women) were exceptionally well-integrated, although their dance with walking sticks seemed just a tad too Las Vegas. Similarly, the musicians – led by Baldomero with fellow guitarist, Andrés Martinez – and two outstanding male singers, Rubio de Pruna and Israel Fernández, his face, although thankfully not his voice, mostly obscured by a luscious mane of long hair, were also good enough to have sustained a gala flamenca all of their own.

However, this highly sentimental show was really just about one person. Whenever Baras left the stage, her return was eagerly anticipated, and when not thrilling us with her dancing, she was reciting the florid poetry (by Santana de Yepes) that inspired her choreography for Sombras; her voiceover (in Spanish, of course) coming at three key junctures of the show, speaking of shadows, light and La Farruca.

Baras is a legendary performer with similar indefinable greatness as Judy Garland and Margot Fonteyn. This audience didn’t want to let her go; the show continuing through several curtain calls for many more minutes beyond its scheduled conclusion. Leaving the theatre, all I could hope was to be lucky enough to see her perform again.

****1