In 1911, the Hispanic Society of America commissioned from the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla a series of fourteen big-scale panels to decorate its library in New York. The resulting paintings portray the geographic and cultural diversity of Spain, with particular emphasis on the local costumes and traditions. The Ballet Nacional de España, under the artistic direction of Antonio Najarro, premiered in 2013 a ballet inspired by the collection, and is now reviving it for the stage of Madrid’s Teatro Real.

© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

With choreography by Najarro and three other choreographers (Arantxa Carmona, Miguel Fuente and Manuel Liñán), Sorolla is an ambitious production that aims at presenting a glimpse of the rich variety of Spanish folk dance. Aesthetically and choreographically, it is, however, distant not only from Sorolla’s stirring canvases, but also from the essence of the dances it intends to honour. Unlike the pictorial collection, which radiates authenticity and warmth, Sorolla produces an impression of artificiality and pomposity in all its elements.

The scenic design is the very antithesis of Sorolla’s luminous, unaffected style. It uses a colour palette that is too strident, gaudy in comparison to the pastel range preferred by the painter. The film projections are particularly kitsch. They present a set of images that intermingle mobile objects (such as picture frames and theatre curtains) with abstract designs and Sorolla’s scenes. Their dramatic function is uncertain. They recurrently evoke the source paintings, but since they dilute them into shapeless forms, a full (even if brief) appreciation of the original is always prevented. The costumes (by Nicolas Vaudelet) are a bit more successful in their approximation of Sorolla's world. They are magnificent, and possibly the best asset of the production, but still, the tonality of the fabrics is too bright to attain the painter’s warm radiance.

In this visual context, the music by Juan José Colomer sounds bombastic and excessive. The orchestral recreation of folk rhythms and tunes produces an atmosphere of fake vitality. Only the flamenco dances are danced to live flamenco music, and since these are the only musical passages that really enhance the dancing, one can’t help but wonder why a similar folk-rooted selection was not kept for the rest the production.

The choreography of Sorolla matches the disappointing sense of grandiosity of the aural and visual elements. It is pleasing on the surface, with much stress on the energy and vitality of the steps, but it has no soul. It is hard to tell whether it aims at reproducing faithfully the dances or to recreate them creatively, for there is a lack of a steering choreographic hand that leads the movement material into a clear direction. With a few exceptions in places, the overall impression is that of a hollow kinetic facade, tedious in its lack of depth, and monotonous in its failed attempt to portray a lively diversity.

There is little space for the performers to shine in this forgettable choreography, but, in this performance, Sergio Bernal and Esther Jurado managed to give evidence of their excellent skills in some of the numbers. Bernal danced the solo of the Basque country with elegance and precision in the footwork, and Jurado led the flamenco dances with a bright presence and charming drive, which were most welcome in this all too vain proposal.