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Flash Review Journal, 12-31: Sketches of Spain
Baras Behind Bars

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Sara Baras has high aims. For "Mariana Pineda," currently on view at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and coming to New York next month, Baras has attempted to construct a real Flamenco story ballet on a Lorca tragedy. Theoretically, this is not impossible. Several choreographers, most notably working on the National Ballet of Spain, have created works in which the thunder and eloquence of virtuoso Flamenco feet are used essentially to create a dialogue, the dancers 'speaking' through their feet. The rapport can be electric. More often, however, the story has muted and muffled the innate raw energy of the dance, and the die-hard Flamenco fan wants to say, "Couldn't you just have recreated a tablao?" In "Mariana Pineda," her latest creation for Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras, the choreographer delivers one powerful and memorable duet, but sabotages her overall intent by casting a talent-less pretty boy in the romantic lead and casting herself as Pineda.

Baras is a fine dancer, compact and clear in her expression, with a refreshing absence of melodrama. But she falls just short of the charisma required to depict (and explain) the 19th century heroine who, as dramatized by Federico Garcia Lorca, went to prison and her death rather than betray the revolution and the lover who in essence betrayed her. (I have not read the play.) A certain degree of zeal would seem to be called for. Or at least, a charismatic performing presence. Except for one duet, Baras does not have that. But this is the lesser of my concerns with her casting herself.

More important, the choreography is erratic, and I can't help but think this a result of Baras's divided attentions. There is little choreography at all for Jose Serrano as Pineda's lover Don Pedro, who appears to think all he needs to do is show up in chaps and we and she will swoon. We don't, and there's little chemistry between the two onstage.

Not so Baras's duet with Luis Ortega's Pedrosa. According to descriptions of the play, Pedrosa is some sort of predator, trying to seduce the secrets out of Mariana. Onstage, pantherine as his body is, he submits. And so does she. The result is magic, as what we see unfolding is an organic moment, or series of moments, in which anything can happen. He wants her but is submitting to her will. She more or less refuses him, but engages every step of the way.

To get this across dance-wise, Ortega doesn't rely just on his feet. Displaying one of the most active and fluid torsos I've ever seen in Flamenco, when he prowls, he doesn't lurch as he advances on her but leans back, as if fording a hamsin. And when he takes that position, she neither flinches nor attacks, but takes the frills of her dress in her hands, raises it to her waist, -- simultaneously revealing her weapons and her charms -- curls her back, and stamps her response, as they advance on each other. This happens again and again with the result that, even though your mind tells you the characters are supposed to be opposed, you feel the electricity of their partnership, the currents passing between them. When he departs, retreating through the prison doors up and center stage, then stopping to drape his arms around her from behind, she dislodges him, but ever so gently and with just a touch of reluctance and regret, shutting the doors of her cell.

Mariana Pineda's jailers are nuns. As they are essential to Lorca's story, there's no way around their presence, but, costume-wise, designer Renata Schusseim has got to find a better way to solve this. As it is, she either impedes the flow of the dancing --- their robes trailing all the way to the floor -- or casts doubt on the credibility of the drama, the lifted robes revealing modern slacks and stilettos.

As far as I could tell through these impediments, the female corps is spiffy. The male corps also dances and acts with ferocity, particularly the young man portraying one of the soldiers. The program doesn't identify him, but as there are only two men in the corps, he's either Raul Fernandez or Raul Prieto. My unsolicited advice to Baras: Drop pretty boy, replace him with Raul, revisit your pas de deux with Don Pedro, have those nun costumes re-worked, and you'll have a solid, tight, and eloquent Flamenco ballet.

Unlike the costumes (what's with those chaps, anyway?), Manolo Sanlucar's music, for 12 musicians including two singers, is serviceable as directed by Jose Maria Bandera, and I mean that as a compliment -- it serves the story. My Flamenco friends tell me to look for back and forth between the musicians and dancers, but I don't know that it needs to be so obvious in a story ballet, where there's not the latitude for improvisation of a tablao. My personal taste would have been for more guitar (by Bandera and Mario Montoya) and less nouveau flamenco, but that's me. Placing the singers, Miguel de la Tolea and Saul Quiros, on the stage and even in costume occasionally was a nice way of integrating them into the spectacle, particularly as the rest of the ensemble was elevated above the stage and behind the dancers. One more thing: (Choreographers who work with theatrical sources take note) Baras hired a scenarist and director, Lluis Pasqual, who resisted the temptation to overwhelm the drama with operatic elements and instead just created the best possible space for the dance to tell the story. Mirrors were used, but not abused.

Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras continues at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees through Sunday, with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 and 8 p.m. For more information, please visit the Theatre des Champs-Elysees web site. On January 31 and February 1 at New York City Center, the World Music Institute and Miguel Marin Productions present the U.S. premiere of "Mariana Pineda."

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