Noche Flamenca, one of Spain’s most successful touring companies, presented an evening of music and dance at the McCarter Theatre. The performance featured the acclaimed Soledad Barrio and guest artist Alejandro Granados.

Soledad Barrio, Noche Flamenca, © Steve Mayeda
Soledad Barrio, Noche Flamenca,
© Steve Mayeda

For many Americans, ‘flamenco’ means stereotypical Spanish dance. In reality, flamenco is a combination of poetry, music, and dance, with cross-cultural roots. Though Andalucía, Spain is the crucible in which this centuries-old style was forged, flamenco draws upon elements from many cultures and peoples who inhabited this region, including the Romani, Jews, and Moors.

The principal singers (or cantaores) performing Saturday were Manuel Gago and José Jiménez, though other company members joined their voices at particular moments. Their powerful instruments adorned the cante jondo (deep song) with sometimes as many as three or four dozen notes per syllable. This free, often improvised style is remarkably similar to both Sephardic Jewish and Arabic music. One audience member seated behind me even remarked at one moment, ‘He sounds like my cantor!’ Though originally, flamenco was most likely unaccompanied when the style first developed in the 15th century, today the voices are typically joined by one or more guitars, palmas (handclaps), and percussive footwork.

The first piece on the program, appropriately titled Amanecer (‘dawn’), began with the guitarists and dancers circling the cantaores at the back of the stage. This gave the work an intimacy approximating that found when flamenco is performed in its original contexts, at parties or in bars. Only in modern times has flamenco found a home in theatres and other larger venues.

In Amanecer, dancers Soledad Barrio, Sol La Argentina, and Juana La Chispa danced together while the singers roamed about the stage. By creating such a dynamic and fluid space, the work took on a distinctly dramatic feel. The works on the program were not merely dances accompanied by song, but true theatrical works, replete with dramatic lighting effects. The dancers wowed audiences with their rapid footwork, contrasted by their arms and hands, which curled smoothly and sensually like smoke. Their movement was accentuated by their costumes; close fitting at the top with several layers of ruched fabric at the bottom, playfully swishing and swaying.

In El Patuka, performed by guest artist Alejandro Granados, we saw a different style of flamenco dance. Male performers use their arms and upper bodies significantly less than their female counterparts. Many male dancers do not curl and twist their arms and hands, since to many this might appear more feminine. More often, they use their hands to slap torso and legs percussively. (Women also incorporate this type of ‘hamboning’ into their performances, though less then men.)

In the second half of the program, Grandos was joined by Sol la Argentinita (Sun the little Argentine) and Juana la Chispa (Juana the Spark) during La Plaza. Each performer had an extended solo, in which they were isolated downstage under a spot light. Of the three, Sol la Argentinita gave the most impressive performance. Juana la Chispa created some beautiful shapes with her body as she spun rapidly, with her hair flying wildly behind her. However, this young ‘spark’ needs a few more years until her feet begin to flame like some of her colleagues’.

The most beautiful dancing all evening was - no surprise – by headliner Soledad Barrio. This internationally-acclaimed artist is married to Martín Santangelo, who choreographed each dance on the program that evening. Her extended solo work at the end of the program, titled Soledad, garnered a standing ovation.

Overall the program was entertaining, though lacked some of the excitement of experiencing flamenco in smaller venues. Flamenco thrives in crowded spaces, where you can literally feel the heat emanating from the dancers. Often, if you’re sitting close enough, you are sprayed with sweat flying off their bodies in centripetal motion. Yet, the only one who even broke into a visible sweat that evening was Alejandro Granados, whose perspiration may have been the result of his age, rather than his athleticism. Smaller venues also encourage more audience participation, through dancing, clapping, hoots, and hollers. Often performers and audience members alike shout ‘Brava!’, ‘Guapa!’, ‘Olé!’, to show their appreciation and encouragement. Seeing flamenco in the theatre, out of its original context, is in some ways like trying to cook Andalusian food without the proper ingredients.

Still, Noche Flamenca provided welcome variety to the programming this season at the McCarter. Audiences unfamiliar with the unique, time-honored tradition of flamenco will enjoy performances by this creative ensemble.