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Flash Review Journal, 11-18: Latina Active
Bolerinas from Cuba; Barrio from the Earth

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2003 Anna Arias Rubio

NEW YORK -- The 16 dancers and seven musicians of Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, performing at the New Victory Theater through November 30, present eleven pieces by Ms. Alfonso, seamlessly woven into one colorful, exciting statement of their own uniquely Cuban style of dance.

Seen this past Thursday, the first suite of four pieces included the "Malaguena," "Andalucia," "Guadalquivir" and "Gitaneria," to music of the same names by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona based on Spanish folk rhythms. The style of dance is very much rooted in "baile Espanol" (Spanish classical dance), which is basically a technique of ballet developed in Spain using a posture similar to flamenco, danced (often but not always) in flamenco shoes and employing the castanets, and with a strong influence of Escuela Bolera (the bolero school), the court dances of the 18th century. The all-female dancers wear black ruffled flamenco skirts with equally ruffled white underskirts, their tops changing for each section of the suite: from red to pink to blue with fleur-de-lis type details, very typical of Escuela Bolera, to fringed tops made of Spanish shawls to the red and white lunares (polka dots) typical of flamenco.

These beautiful young women are extremely well trained and rehearsed. Their technique is impeccable, every willowy arm and hand exactly where it should be. To execute the sharp turns and low to the ground leaps which are emblematic of "Baile Espanol" while wearing flamenco shoes is no easy task, but these young women made it look effortless. Playing the castanets is also not an easy thing. Each castanet is made of two pieces of wood or (more recently) fiberglass, held together by a string which is tightly looped on the thumb. The castanets are not played by merely clicking the two halves together as many people think, but by individually tapping the four fingers of the right hand in very fast sequence, pinky to pointer, to make a rolling sound, then answering with the left castanet, so each "roll" is made up of five sounds. These rolls are combined with other clicks and hitting the castanets together or on various body parts to make rhythms appropriate to the music. All while dancing! These young women played the castanets as one, delicately accenting and complimenting the live on-stage music.

The company continued from this suite into a more flamenco-influenced set, starting with "Tango del Tiempo," danced in the red and white polka dot tops and continuing into "Fuerza y Compas," described in the program as a "complicated yet simple encounter between the guitar and the heel." The dancers wore white Cuban-style men's blouses and black flamenco-style pants in this standout piece. The music sweetly blended flamenco guitar with a Cuban swing while the women combined archetypical masculine flamenco poses with crisp, light footwork full of precise syncopations. Though the rhythm wasn't farrucca, the postures and the costumes made this piece feel like a Cuban homage to the legendary flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya.

Up to this point in the show, the different cultural influences that make this work Cuban were more evident in the music than the dance. In the piece for one dancer (either Tais Hernandez or Denise Roman in the performance I saw; it wasn't clear), "Elogio," danced in a simple sleeveless ruffled blue dress, the fusion inherent in Ms. Alfonso's choreography becomes more evident. The piece clearly contains elements of ballet, Spanish classical dance, flamenco and Afro-Cuban. I have seen many attempts at fusion in dance that have seemed choppy or where the dancers are only truly proficient in one of the techniques involved, but this fusion is so well developed and the dancers of Dance Cuba are so well trained, as demonstrated here and in later sections, that none of the techniques combined are ever compromised.

"Ire a Santiago" presents three women as prim Colonial-era Spanish ladies with ruffles and hair combs interacting with three Cuban women in white guajira-type dresses and the slip-on sandals worn in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The Cuban women wear the sandals on the balls of their feet in a constant releve and slap the shoes on the ground, sensuously marking the rhythm with their hips, while the Spanish ladies strike Escuela Bolera type poses. Though this piece was entertaining, the stereotypes portrayed made me feel slightly uncomfortable.

For me, "De Novo" and "De Tierra y Aire" really stood out. In "De Novo," singer Jose Onell Carbonell sang a flamenco rhythm using the sweet tones of a Cuban son, the words describing the beauty of the Cuban mixture of Spanish and African. The dancers wore simple flowered sleeveless dresses and really got the chance to let loose their flamenco technique. The musicians' masterful introduction of the Cuban clave into the 12-beat measure of the flamenco bulerias rhythm gave it an even more thrilling pulse.

"De Tierra y Aire," danced in bright red dresses, continues in this same style, adding even more flavor with a Latin jazz piano montuno for a flashy finale. Ironically, the combination of Afro-Cuban and flamenco is actually a big thing in Spain right now, with many Cuban artists such as Bebo Valdes recording and working with flamenco artists. Let's hope the dialog continues!

Speaking of flamenco, my editor, in his devotion to fairness and impartiality in the Dance Insider, has told me that it is better if I do not write about flamenco companies that contain members who are friends, but I must force him to read these words and leave it to him to decide whether it would be ethical to print them. I must speak out with my opinion of Noche Flamenca, performing Tuesdays through Sundays through November 30 at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Under the artistic direction of Martin Santangelo, Noche Flamenca has been returning to New York from its home in Madrid almost every year since 1993. In this incarnation it features three guitarists, Jesus Torres, Paco Cruz and Miguel Perez Garcia, three singers, Silverio Heredia, Emilio Florido, and Manuel Gago, and three dancers, Soledad Barrio (Santangelo's wife), Isabel Bayon and New York's own, Nelida Tirado.

Flamenco is meant to be a personal, intimate expression of self, and the sparse, cable and microphone-free Lortel stage places nothing between public and performer. The dramatic lighting highlighting every line of the dancers' bodies and the mottled dark wall behind the performers evokes John Singer Sargent's famous painting "Jaleo," itself an evocation of a 19th century Madrid tablao.

Flamenco began with the singing; all flamencos will tell you that this is the most important part of Flamenco. The "letra"(lyrics) are what inspires the dancer, and the tones of the Flamenco voice are what determine the tones played on the guitar for each "palo"(Flamenco rhythm). These singers are exceptional, not only in voice but also in their choice of letras. The depth of emotion in their voices fills you.

The artists of the cast each have a unique individual style complimenting each other perfectly. Isabel Bayon is a petite, delicate woman, whose coquettish and playful demeanor in the palo of "Jaleos" belies the ferocious virtuosity of her dancing. The complexity of her use of compas (rhythm) is hidden by her relaxed sensual manner. She smiles and raises a slender shoulder and then executes an amazing "displante"(outburst) of complicated counter-rhythms.

A similar description can be made of Bayon's husband Jesus Torres's guitar playing. His virtuosity and speed seem like an afterthought to his hauntingly beautiful compositions. Her dancing is made for his music.

Guitarist Paco Cruz played a solo of "bulerias," teasing the compas in a modern, exciting way. Miguel Perez rounded out the trio with a more traditional style.

Tirado is a voluptuous earthy dancer. She doesn't have any large solos in this show, but even with the short time she is on stage one can see why she is the only American flamenco dancer good enough to dance with major Flamenco companies from Spain. I hope we see more of her soon.

Which brings us to Soledad Barrio. In this show she gives us two solos, her "Solea" and "Siguiriya." Many people have said good Flamenco is about exposing yourself -- that the depth of expression is more important than technique. In Barrio you see both. Her technique is flawless, her feet faster than any woman, her turns and arms and arched back, perfection. Every time she walks out on the stage she gives 100 percent of herself. She seems to channel the struggle of all women through her tiny perfectly chiseled body and allows us to watch as she exorcises the pain and suffering. No tricks, no artifice, no faking, this is Flamenco.

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