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Flash Review 1, 2-1: Elementary
Flamenco Gala 2005: Special Effects Water Down the Potaje

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2005 Anna Arias Rubio

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NEW YORK -- I made my way up from Philadelphia to City Center Thursday night, anticipating the flamenco overload that the annual gala flamenco benefit concert for the World Music Institute usually is, but drove home unsatisfied. This fifth gala featured dancers Carmen Cortes, Alejandro Granados, Carlos Rodriguez and Rocio Molina portraying fire, earth, air and water with the music of Gerardo Nunez and Paco Cruz in "The Four Elements," directed by Jacqulyn Buglisi. The program credits the choreography of each solo piece to the dancer, but is unclear about who choreographed the opening section and the interaction of the elements that connected the solos. Representing the four essential elements using flamenco, which is so connected to nature, could have been done with the dance and music itself. These talented and experienced dancers would have been enough. Instead, the performance was made redundant by the overuse of insultingly obvious props and costumes.

The curtain rises on the four dancers dressed in black sitting on chairs in a circle, the musicians off to one side of the stage. It is immediately evident that the floor mikes are either not on or set way too low. From my seat in the mezzanine, I can barely hear the footwork. The dancers make rhythms on the floor and rise, creating shapes in the center of the circle.

Rocio Molina exits to return in a bata de cola (a dress with long train) made up of layers of crinkly fabric. The bata (train) spreads out on the floor like a wave of the ocean in water -- blues and white. 20-year-old Molina was a stand out surprise in last year's gala and water is the perfect way to describe her. She is all liquid curves and fluid lines. Paco Cruz plays a sweet guajira for her, and Jesus Mendez and David Lagos sing the traditional letras. Cruz often accompanies Noche Flamenca and it is a treat to hear him take the lead in this piece. It is also frustrating not being able to hear Molina's footwork. And then there are those props. Rocio Molina dancing guajira in her blue dress is enough to suggest water to the audience. The mound of sand topped by a conch shell upstage and the vaguely water-like pattern projected in the background are totally unnecessary.

As Molina finishes her solo she dances over to the sand and melts down into her bata like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. She picks up the shell and, to our surprise, actual water pours out onto her dress. This is accompanied by percussionist Nacho Arimani pouring water from bowl to bowl in front of the microphone. As Molina makes absolutely certain we are aware of what element she represents, Alejandro Granados enters and we notice the mound of earth on the other side of the stage. He stoops to lift and drop some of it -- again, just in case his earth-tone suit and earthy dancing isn't enough. Earth and water intertwine, Molina wrapping her bata around Granados and plopping her head onto his chest. "Water" flows off the stage, and Granados is left standing in front of his mound of dirt. Out of the blue, literally, and accompanied by a brown and green projection, we hear recorded Native American drumming and chanting. This fades away, and the live percussionist begins the rhythm of seguiriya on a large Native American drum. Just having him begin the rhythm with this drum would have been enough to evoke the reference. Throughout the evening, but especially in this moment it feels as if we are being pounded over the head to make sure we understand the intention of the piece. The only thing missing is large signs on the dancers' chests in Spanish and English.

I have been watching Alejandro Granados perform for more than 10 years and Granados is seguiriyas. This is his palo, but this is not his night. The irresistible intensity that draws you into his seguiriyas and makes your heart beat in the compelling, complicated 12-count rhythm are not there. I don't know if the lack of amplification of the floor mikes interfered with the ability of the musicians to read his communication or made him too tense to let loose, or if the deep, empty stage with the musicians off to one side and the abstract projection made the space too cold, but this is not the Alejandro Granados that inspires me every time I see him.

The saxophone introduces Carlos Rodriguez's element of air. The wail of the sax has a timbre very similar to the llanto of a flamenco singer, but the unbalanced sound system makes it distracting. Rodriquez enters in white; Molina is on the floor with her conch shell, and Granados is standing by his dirt. A light green snake-like projection slides onto the background. Of the intra-elemental interactions connecting the solos, the ensuing air-water duet is the only one that really works for me. Rodriguez even lifts Molina off the ground and spins her. A flamenco dancer being separated from the ground in a lift is something you never see and this excites me.

Rodriquez is then left to dance his fandango and this is where the excitement ends. He dances the first part of his solo in a Broadway jazz style, the only flamenco influence being that his weight remains connected to the floor. This makes it look as if he is ice-skating.

Flamenco is a living, evolving art form and the incorporation of techniques from other styles is ongoing and enriching. The quality that defines the dance as flamenco is the connection to the compas (rhythm) and to the cante (singing). I don't see these essential connections in this section of Rodriguez's fandangos until he switches to a more traditional style of flamenco and the guitar begins to be heard.

The second half opens with guitarist Gerardo Nunez and special guest oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen sharing the stage. The two masters play for each other and then together, in the palo of bulerias, before a percussionist joins them on the cajon. I was overjoyed to hear the sound system functioning. Finally, the exquisite music, which is the best part of this show, could be appreciated.

Carmen Cortes as fire is the only dancer who doesn't appear restrained by the big, empty, cold stage, but her costume of red and orange fringe is overkill on this definitely fiery dancer. She marches around and takes the stage for her solea. I don't usually care for Cortes's brusque style of dancing, but her strong flamenco attitude and traditional approach is refreshing after the self-conscious almost-fusion of Carlos Rodriguez.

The dancers close the evening with a fin de fiesta por bulerias. They drop the artifice and finally just dance. Alejandro Granados returns to his normal exciting self, dancing with Cortes, but then it is over.

A final plea to Miguel Marin, who co-produced this event with the World Music Institute: Please restore this vital annual showcase to the satisfying potaje, rich with remarkable flamenco artists, that you served up in the previous four flamenco festivals.

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