Solera is a term that describes the blending process for ageing liquids such as wine: younger wines, stored at height, are gradually added to older casks in order to produce a consistently aged blend; the oak barrels at the bottom being the oldest mixtures. It also provides a subtle title for this new production by Paco Peña, since the performances of young flamenco dancers, singers and musicians are mixed with those of greater maturity and experience to create a fine blend of the art form.

It is unusual for flamenco shows to feature an interval but Paco Peña is far from the norm. He will turn 80 at the beginning of June and, although born in Córdoba, in the Andalusian heart of the flamenco world, he moved to London in the 1960s and much of his career has been based here and in the Netherlands where, in 1987, Peña became the world’s first Professor of Flamenco Guitar at the Rotterdam Conservatoire.

Solera is directed by Jude Kelly, the former artistic director of the Southbank Centre, who has been working with Peña for twenty years. This is their seventh collaboration and Kelly has once again brought a strong sense of theatre to balance the traditional flamenco concept of the tablao. The dramatic theatricality of their more recent collaborations – such as the interpretation of Lorca’s life and work in Patrias – has been pared down in Solera to focus on the pure flamenco platform.

The interval is a particularly important boundary in Solera. What came before mimicked the rehearsal process, beginning with the performers standing in line, mostly occupied on their mobile phones, as if in a bus queue, and continuing in the bare “studio”. Having witnessed these preparations for the show, a fascinating tablao then occupied the second act, as if transporting the audience from a cold bus stop in Rosebery Avenue to a steamy night in the Patio de los Naranjos (the Orange Tree Courtyard) of Córdoba. A special mention is due for Tom Wickens’ vivid and varied lighting designs. 

Despite knocking on the octogenarian door, Peña’s mastery of the guitar is undiminished and it was beautifully blended with the expressive playing of Dani de Morón in the reinterpretation of a haunting Farruca, composed by the legendary Romani guitarist, Sabica, which was a highlight of the rehearsal phase. The dazzling, rippling interplay between these two extraordinary instrumentalists was mesmerising and it was impossible to distinguish between their contributions although visually their playing stances could not be more different. Peña’s style is uniquely his own: back upright, guitar pointing upwards at 45 degrees from its resting position on his thigh; de Morón crouches over his guitar, which is held horizontally. They were joined by a third guitarist, Rafael Montilla, a regular with the Paco Peña Company since 2001, in a delightful performance of a famous work, Mantilla de Feria

The same mix of experience and youth was present in the singing. Iván Carpio was born in 1988, by which time Inmaculada Rivero was already performing. Her anguished soul-searching vocal twists possessed an arresting power, which Carpio – who hails from a distinguished dynasty of cantaores – picked up like a vocal relay baton. The ensemble was supported by percussionist, Julio Alcocer, another Peña regular (since 2012), who opened the second act with a coruscating solo.         

The three dancers also embodied the Solera concept. Ángel Muñoz is another native of Córdoba familiar to London audiences, having headlined the 2014 Flamenco Festival in this same theatre, in From White to Black, as well as in previous collaborations with Kelly and Peña. Now 47, Muñoz retains dazzling speed in his zapateado (the rhythmic drumming of his footwork) and the sinuousness of his upper body, all deliciously combined in an expressive soleá and lively alegrías. The essence of Solera was again illuminated in the dance reciprocity between Muñoz and the young Brazilian bailaor, Gabriel Matias, like an experienced warrior mentoring a young buck. 

The bailaora, Adriana Bilbao, complimented Matias and there was even a sense of romance between them in the rehearsal section, both resting on the floor, listening to the guitars, as she stroked his head, which lay in her lap. Her performance was softer and Fernando Romero’s choreography lacked opportunities for her to demonstrate similar virtuosity to the men although the first act ended with Bilbao demonstrating proficiency in manipulating a bata de cola (the traditional flamenco dress with a long train) through a sensual tangos. Dressed in white, the three dancers performed in pinpoint unison early in the second act.    

Through this mix of relative youth and reliable experience, Peña and Kelly have once again delivered a remarkable and sensual theatrical experience that has set London (and Sadler’s Wells) up very nicely for this year’s Flamenco Festival, which arrives in June. 

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