Remarkably, Eva Yerbabuena is nearing her sixth decade. Born in 1970, in flamenco’s heartland of Granada, she has led her own dance company for the past 20 years. Yerbabuena – her stage name, which literally translates as “good herb” - has won Spain’s National Dance Award and a previous show at the Flamenco Festival London (in 2013) secured a nomination for the Best Female Dancer in the UK equivalent. Her current show premiered almost exactly a year ago, opening the 20th Festival de Jerez on 19 February 2016.  She is on record as having said that Apariencias represents the closing of one chapter and the opening of another.

© Festival de Grenada | José Albomoz 2016
© Festival de Grenada | José Albomoz 2016

It’s an enlightening statement since in many ways this is two shows in one. It opens with impressive theatrically as flamenco accents flicker - particularly in a well-crafted and intense petenera - within innovative dance theatre that has a very contemporary feel. Exquisite, cinematic lighting designs by Fernando Martín accentuate the strength of impact, including the pinpoint precision of a surreal collection of black and white projections beamed onto the skirt worn by a male dancer (although it was a shame that these random images of cash and refugees were preceded by the unintended brand placement of the projector’s manufacturer)!

There are four cavaliers for Yerbabuena, often appearing in these Japanese-style hakama skirts, with bare and waxed upper torsos. Yerbabuena’s female dancing support – Maise Pérez - continues the hairless theme with a mask simulating the appearance of her bald head. Yerbabuena also appears, briefly, with her hair hidden under a similar bald wig.   “Appearances” – for that is the English translation of this title – were often misleading and masks played a crucial role in those deceptions. These early sections were chockfull of morbid symbolism, including that bald-headed nod towards Nosferatu; a skull; a skeleton; and a crucifixion. Death appears to come for the star dancer as a man in a white mask approaches her from behind in a contemplative reminder of mortality. Religious imagery appears to provide an ongoing leit motif although the dramatic worthiness is often clouded in unclear intentions.

© Festival de Granada | José Albomoz 2016
© Festival de Granada | José Albomoz 2016
    

Having begun in this avant garde world, Yerbabuena’s journey took the audience full square back to flamenco puro, firstly with her intricate manipulation of a long-fringed shawl (mantón) in a solo that was perhaps a tad over-long; and concluding the show in her own personal heartland of the soleá.  This absorbing lament, entitled Too much loneliness, was danced by the star, as if in a tablao, her mesmerising, locomotive feet articulating a fine clarity of rhythms, whilst surrounded by outstanding musicians, including two vocalists, José Valencia and Alfredo Tejada. Valencia’s voice soared in the penultimate musical number, a Latin-infused pregón (essentially a street-vendor’s cry), enigmatically entitled Shall we argue?There is also a first-ever London performance by soul and gospel singer Alana Sinkëy, born in Guinea and based in Madrid, who provides a brief but memorable musical contribution. Yerbabuena’s musical director, Paco Jarana, is also her excellent guitarist with Antonio Coronel as the sole percussionist. For much of the early part of Apariencias, the musicians are indistinctly placed in half-light upstage.

If Apariencias suffers from an unclear purpose, it presents an absorbing spectacle and Yerbabuena’s peerless dancing of the melancholic soleá closes the show on an almighty high; leaving her legion of fans rightly wanting more.