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Flash Review 2, 2-18: Gypsy Ballads
Pradal & Co. Sing & Dance Lorca

"The gypsy girl is waiting on the roof for the smuggler, her lover, to come home over the hills from the sea. She leans over the rail, staring at the hills and the moon. The green weeds in the cistern throw back a green glow over everything. Her longing becomes an obsession embracing everything he stands for; the sea, the moist wind of the lush green world where there is no thirst and frustration. She is tired of waiting for a lover.

"But who will come, and from where?"

--Ballad of the Sleepwalker, from "Romancero Gitano" ("Gypsy Ballads"), Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by John Clare.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- There have certainly been ballets that have successfully mined the expressive power of flamenco, notably Jose Granero's "Medea," Felipe Sanchez's "Los Tarantos," and those of the master, Antonio Gades. In recent years, though, a spate of flamenco companies have floundered in trying to focus an essentially wild -- by which I mean earthy, not chaotic -- form on literal story, including those of Christina Hoyas, Maria Benitez, and Sara Baras. The power of their imaginations couldn't seem to match their physical and psychic prowess. But Vicente Pradal, whose "Romancero Gitano" (or "Gypsy Ballads") is enjoying its premiere through Saturday at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, has found another way: Rather than start with a (limited) dance vocabulary and use it to forge a story, Pradal has started with a text, Federico Garcia Lorca's 15-ballad tribute of the same name to the gitan, and, using musicians and two dancers, found the most effective way to tell that story, without being bound to either medium. The result is a suggestive, lyrical tribute not just to what Lorca (as Jean-Marc Adolphe reminds us in the program notes) called the "profundity" of the gitan, but that of flamenco as well.

An older man sits astride a rusted petrol can which he uses simultaneously as a homemade bistro table for his coffee -- or maybe it's something stronger he's sipping from that small earthenware cup -- and for beating responses to a younger man singing a tribute to his daughter. What the young sailor doesn't know and the girl's father does is that his sweetheart, the sonambulist of the ballad, tired of waiting for him to return from the sea has plunged herself into it. I figure this out later when I find a translation of the poem on the 'Net, but I should have known it from the demeanor of the father -- a contained and pained impatience in the face of the blithely singing suitor, marked by the restraint in his fist hitting the metal.

Later, a younger woman, shawled in black, descends to the lip of the stage and sets her lantern down, mourning "Soledad Montoya"; still later, the tale is told of a gitan who journeys to the town to look at a bull and is arrested and later killed by Franco's notorious civil guard, who would murder Lorca too at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Soledad's story is sung by Sabrina Romero, who, at just 23, reveals herself here as the rare Flamenco double-threat -- she sings and dances, investing her cante with character punctuated by a strong native lisp and her dance with clarity. For the dancing, Romero, a lustrous beauty, would benefit from more control; her footwork is a notch less precise than that of her "Romancero" partner, Manuel Guitierez (another long-haired buck of a flamenco who could use some lessons in Method acting). She also lacks the presence of the slightly older, throatier Maria Luna, whose concentration doesn't flag when she's not center stage. (Flamenco can seem melodramatic when it turns to narrative -- or even when it doesn't, come to think of it! -- and an attentive and focused cast is vital to casting the spell on the audience.) But with those caveats, what Romero delivers is rare: a confidence in her dancing that defies her age; the spine rippling from the sole and foot isolations I'm more used to seeing in older, usually male performers; and, most of all, a distinctive singing voice -- the pronounced lisp but also a lack of control which serves her here, adding an unpredictable, natural tremor that sends shivers into her head -- which, combined with her confident dancing, makes her the closest thing to a complete flamenco interpeter I've seen in a while.

By her twin gifts, Romero also emphasizes that one can't separate flamenco into "dance" and "song." Presenters need to do a better job of educating their audiences to this; the New York presenter the World Music Institute bears some responsibility, I think, for the inexcusably insulting early departure, recently, of some Flamenco Festival audience members from City Center while the legenary La Susi was in the middle of an impassioned Granaina, as noted by my DI colleague Anna Arias Rubio; the "Romancero Gitano" is not listed in the dance section of the Theatre de la Ville's program brochure; I only found out about it because I saw a kiosk poster. And yet the dance here is more eloquent than any flamenco (and many other types of dance!) I've recently seen, and as an unconditional flamenco fan, I appreciated the music, too, in a nouveau style that included not just guitar and five singers but accordion, base, and a variety of percussion instruments, the performance beginning with a solitary gourd.

"Romancero Gitano," based on Federico Garcia Lorca's ballad cycle of the same name, is directed by Vicente Pradal, who also wrote the music. The simple costumes and serviceable scenery -- large black blocks with red swirls, defining different levels -- were designed by Isidre Prunes. The work is performed by singers Maria Luna, Cristo Cortes, Luis de Almeria, and Vicente Pradal; dancer-singer Sabrina Romero and dancer Manuel Gutierrez; and Antonio Cortes (guitar), Laurent Paris (percussion), Jean-Luc Amestoy (accordeon), and Emmanuel Joussemet. Several theaters co-produced, including the Theatre national de Toulouse Midi-Pyrenees and the Theatre de la Ville. "Romancero Gitano" continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Abbesses through Saturday. For more information, please visit the theater's Web site. (Look in the music section.)

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