It is certainly fortunate that this year London Flamenco Festival, which is proudly celebrating its tenth anniversary, has a small section in the programme entitled Beyond Flamenco. Comprising productions and events that offer a less orthodox look at this style of Spanish gypsy-rooted dancing, it complements the all-star programme in the Sadler’s Wells main auditorium. It is within this context that the smaller and more intimate stage of the Lilian Baylis Studio has hosted a work full of inventiveness and experimentation, Romances.

Romances © Flamenco Festival London
Romances
© Flamenco Festival London

Directed by Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola from Sasha Waltz’s company, this little gem of the festival is an excellent, innovative and welcome production of flamenco dancing. It demonstrates that an art that is too frequently presented through a set of trite clichés can evolve and is apt to produce a recognizably Spanish piece, proudly rooted in the past but unquestionably belonging to the 21st century. Despite its significant impact (and largely responsible for it), the size of Romances is modestly small. It relies entirely on the talents of three brilliant artists. Singer Sandra Carrasco provides an attractive and sensitive voice, while dancers Rafael Estévez and Valeriano Paños add their very personal dancing style, the former’s more expressive, the latter’s more physical. The way their movements interweave with the notes from their female companion is one of the key elements of the choreography, which wittily explores the wide range of possibilities in the relationship between music and dance.

The beautiful score is composed of a series of Spanish romances, a type of poetic narrative composition similar to the epic ballads. They all come from the 16th century and possess Jewish, Arab and Castilian resonances, reflecting the mixed social stratum of the country at that time. Their lyrics cover a wide range of stories, from an intimate lullaby to a lament for the loss of a kingdom. Kruz uses the moods and themes explored in these ballads as the inspiration for the production. The leading role of the music is beautifully stressed by the presentation of the songs a cappella, with the only accompaniment of the percussive sound from the dancers’ feet and hands. Carrasco’s lyric interpretation, in low volume and with sincere intensity, evokes the distant stories so vividly that the audience immediately plunges in the feelings and emotions embedded in the songs.

Within this collage of tragedy and tenderness, of great feats and human passions, Kruz builds a disjointed, elusive and disconcerting choreography that constantly challenges the audience’s expectations. Sometimes, it strikes for its bluntly literal visualization of the story. On other occasions, it amazes with its rich and clever symbolism. More importantly, it is always a powerful combination of theatrical elements, with flamenco dancing as the main language and dramatic expression as the chief aim. Though meaning is at times obscure, there is no single passage without an attached charged emotion. This poignant force is made increasingly evident, as the show progresses towards tragedy. Two of the three final numbers are so brutal, yet restrained, that Romances has, ultimately, a powerful cathartic effect. The death of the characters on stage after an honest exploration of man’s darkest side is presented with an air of inevitability that hints the idea that renewal is only possible after a drastic purge. Does this tragic end also stand for the choreographer’s yearning for renovation in flamenco?

****1